TV Picks: ‘My Little Pony,’ Sondheim, Improv comics, ‘Doc Martin’


“My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” (The Hub, Saturdays; Shout Factory home video). I had neglected this candy-colored gem of a show, whose fourth season began in November, until the latest DVD, “A Pony For Every Season,” fell through the mail slot recently and captured my mind. Developed by Lauren Faust, lately collaborating with husband Craig McCracken on Disney Channel’s “Wander Over Yonder,” it’s the latest iteration of a franchise that began as a collection of pony dolls with brushable manes and tails, back in the early 1980s -- like the Hub, it is a product of Hasbro, the toy company -- and smarter and sassier and more aesthetically sophisticated than anything I have said so far might lead you to think. The last regular cartoon series based on the toy (there was the odd video adventure in between), “My Little Pony Tales” in 1992, was essentially a tween sitcom in which the ponies went to school, hung out in a soda shop, roller-skated, wore leg warmers, crushed on pony boys and more or less behaved like human girls of that day and age.

The current crop -- Princess Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Fluttershy and Spike, some of them Pegasus ponies, some of them unicorns -- live in the village of Ponyville in the magical land of Equestria, and have adventures of a more fantastic, knockabout, cartoonlike variety. Like the Powerpuff or Spice Girls, or the cast of “Sex in the City,” each has her quickly recognizable distinct qualities, her weakness and her strengths. (There are a few male ponies around, but they are largely beside the point.) They get into trouble; working together often gets them out.

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While remaining appropriate for small children, if you think they should be watching television in the first place, it has attitude; these ponies do go postal. At 22 minutes each, the stories have time to meander a little, to gather force, to linger on a shot -- it’s a very good-looking show. The color design does sophisticated things with pinks and limes and peaches and pale blues and violets that at once say girliness, plastic toys and early ‘80s. That it is, on one level, a thing made to help sell toys sets it apart NOT AT ALL from most every other successful cartoon or magical adventure series; I won’t even try to pry that “Doctor Who” action figure from your hands. It is safe for adults, not in the way that some kids’ shows pitch jokes to parents in order to win their favor -- there is nothing here a child couldn’t understand -- but that it is smart and sprightly and well-staged, and never horribly cute. That is, when it’s cute it isn’t horrible -- it critiques its own cuteness, in a way to raise its viewers right.

“Doc Martin,” Season 6 (Acorn Media). Released this week on home video, the sixth season of this popular series (seen locally on KCET, though these new episodes have yet to air here) stars Martin Clunes as a Dr. Martin Ellingham, as capable in his work as he is hopeless with people. (The series also streams online via Acorn’s subscription service.) Martin has gotten over the suddenly acquired fear of blood that originally sent him from a successful career as a London surgeon to working as a GP in the Cornwall fishing village where he had spent presumably happy summers as a boy. (It is difficult to tell with him.) But he is still there, having fallen in love not with the town but with what Western movies called the schoolmarm; they have had their ups and downs, or perhaps more accurately, their downs and ups, but in the fifth season they became parents and at the dawn of the new one are on the verge of a wedding. For all his lack of normal sociability, he’s extremely capable, and sometimes heroic -- he has saved more lives than any small-town doctor has a right to -- a kind of an extreme version of a Gary Cooper sheriff. And in a village chockablock with eccentrics, she is a spot of sweet reason.

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We have been often to this place, under other names -- the fish out of water in a Town called Quirky, the impossible couple you pray to come together. And Martin, who seems always to be about to undo whatever good life brings him, can be frustrating to the point of despair. But it is brilliantly handled, and by now it just feels like home. The great Eileen Atkins (“Cold Comfort Farm”) is still on board as Martin’s psychiatrist aunt, as emotionally constricted as her nephew, but with perspective and tact.

“Six by Six by Sondheim” (HBO, Monday); “The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall” (Epix, Friday). Two arts documentaries, the first largely a single voice, artfully orchestrated; the second a group portrait loosely constructed around a place and time.

Directed by his sometime collaborator James Lapine (“Sunday in the Park With George,” “Into the Woods,” “Passion”) “Sondheim” looks at the preeminent Broadway composer of the last half of the 20th century. Lapine strings his film across six songs, “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story,” for which a 27-year-old Stephen Sondheim, in his first show, wrote lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music; “I’m Still Here,” from “Follies”; “Being Alive,” from “Company”; and “Sunday,” from “Sunday in the Park With George”; and “Send in the Clowns,” his one bona-fide hit song, as represented by a medley of covers, taken off YouTube. (Three are specially staged for the film, with Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker an unlikely but interesting choice for “Being Alive,” written for Yvonne De Carlo and inspired by Joan Crawford; Sondheim himself appears, alongside America Ferrera, Jeremy Jordan and Darren Criss, ironically taking the part of a producer insistent on the “hummability” Sondheim’s songs have often been said to lack.

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Although there is an occasional comment from a colleague -- and songs, of course -- the narrative is mostly Sonhdeim speaking, young and old, clean-shaven and bearded, dark and gray, made by cutting into a single person. (Lapine is more than usually sensitive to the visual music of his montages.) Sondheim is a person who knows why he does what he does, and a lot about how he does it, and also about the ways he fails to do it; it’s easy to think he’s gone from success to success, though such has not been the case. (Cole Porter had his bad days too.) Whether or not you know his music well -- I could certainly know it better -- if you’re interested at all in creative people and the creative process, this is worth your while.

No director at all is listed for “The Improv,” only producers, but the subjects -- including Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Sarah Silverman, Jimmy Fallon, Kathy Griffin, the Four Wayans, Larry David, Richard Lewis and Judd Apatow -- have provided so much good material that whatever the film lacks in art it makes up in their energy. (Old clips and photos help tell the tale.) Set around what the film claims, and I have no reason to doubt that claim, was the first comedy club -- Budd Friedman’s Improvisation in its Manhattan and (eventually) West Hollywood twin poles -- it is a sweet story of comics in their svelte, bushy-haired, struggling youth. (Did Jay Leno really sleep in the alley behind the L.A. Improv?) Some of the matter has to do with the club itself, a club in more than one sense, where acts and friendships were forged. But it rambles all through the art and business and comedy; it’s about love and belonging, sex and softball, and being fanatically devoted to a thing that hasn’t quite happened yet -- the comedy revolution in whose fallout we are still living -- and about what happened after it did. Comedians -- not surprisingly, given the compulsively analytical nature of their work -- tend to be erudite about what they do, and (sometimes) funny on top of it, and “The Improv” pretty much kills from first to last.