When I’m asked about the best TV shows “evah!” I have two go-to shows, depending on who’s asking. The Wire doesn’t need me to sing its praises, but it feels like the other has had far less impact on the world: Avatar: the Last Airbender. It’s a show which navigates between the various kinds, formula, sources and consequences of drama very well. I mean, it’s got everything – a complex interwoven plot, dramatic protagonists, villains you can empathize with, action, magic, romance. It manages to do all of this in a format that is intelligible to an audience of children but complex to hold the attention of an adult. Without wanting to unnecessarily cast myself in too severe a light, I’m not the least critical audience out there and I can find very little to dislike in the show.
So, that was Avatar: The Last Airbender, but this post is titled The Legend of Korra, the sequel show. Sequels to brilliant art are always a bigger gamble than if they stood by themselves. Would we all hate the Star Wars prequels quite so much if we didn’t have the originals? There are several major potential pitfalls – the sequel can either try and repeat the same trick, which I think was the problem with the Matrix sequels but worked for Die Harder, or it can try too hard to be its own thing and so sacrifice what we liked about the original, a la Army of Darkness, or it can simply misunderstand its original, as Underworld:Evolution undoubtedly did. (I loved Army of Darkness but there’s clearly a major problem of continuity.) And whatever it does, the original will always be there, watching. For every X-Men 2 that explodes the original and fulfils its latent promise, there’s an X-Men 3: The Last Stand that virtually annihilates the memory of the original. There needs to be a balance between expectation and innovation.
Well, The Legend of Korra gets off to a good start by putting itself at a distance from the original show. It changes up almost all of the details of the show, while retaining the mythology and extrapolating from events in the first show. So we have a change-up in age, gender, story structure, many of the motifs, and so on. Yet, it is recognizably connected to the previous show in its use of the world structures and its references to familiar events and characters.
The show centres around the new avatar, Korra. She is older and far more aggressive than Ang, whose first strategy was always talk and play. Like Ang, she is not yet fully trained at the show’s beginning. Structurally this is because the power difference between her and her companions would potentially be unbridgeable if she were, and probably aesthetically because of the target demographic. It also pushes Korra into the role of the Dramatic Hero, in Robin Laws’ terms. She needs to grow, to master her powers, in order to resolve the crisis.
For me, Ang’s eventual assumption of the full role of Avatar was almost an after-thought, because his victory was so comprehensive on all the other fronts. I still haven’t watched the last episode, the final show-down between him and the Firelord because it seems inevitable that it’s a simple formality, not dramatically interesting. Korra’s story canvas is far smaller, far more predictable, far less comprehensive.
The original show was a great ensemble piece, where each character had their own intriguing and interesting story, their own perspectives, opinions and relationships. We were just as interested in Zuko’s troubled relationship with his family as we were in Ang’s courtship of Katara, or Sokka searching for a role as the mortal in a group of superheroes. The new show is far more focused around Korra, and her enemy is literally a faceless and motiveless evildoer. Aman, the anti-bender, is a great villain, and is expertly established and portrayed, with a very good master plan. He’s just less interesting than the ambivalent Zuko.
The characters are older in The Legend of Korra, but because of the show’s shorter duration and greater focus on Korra herself they are less developed. The shorter duration of the show, 12 episodes compared to 22 per season, means that while the story isn’t as fleshed, it covers a lot of ground. The action advances at a cracking pace that means it is unwise to lose your concentration on the show for very long. The story they cover is huge in scale with a large number of plot movements. I think there’s probably as much plot in these 12 episodes of approximately 20 minutes as there is in the first three seasons of Breaking Bad.
When I sat down to write this, my intention was to be positive and laud this show as being a worthy successor and a very entertaining show in its own right. There is an awful lot to like about this show, from the strength of the female characters, to the dark and complex storyline, to the stunning visuals and wonderfully imagined world. It is very very well made, and if it were not a sequel to something incandescently brilliant, I am sure I would be falling over myself to point out its virtues. It’s main fault is definitely simply falling short of its predecessor.
I wish that “grown up” television were as well made as this. In particular, this show manages to tell a lot of story over a short time. It is not afraid of proposing story outcomes and following through with them, and exploring the concepts. There is not a pause button, or a reset button, in sight. When I think about how “grown up” shows like Breaking Bad, or the Walking Dead, tread and retread the same story concepts over and over again before finally deciding the horse is dead, it makes me wish all shows were pseudo-Anime kids shows like The Legend of Korra.