Last Friday, I wrote a short post about how I was disappointed with the first season of The Legend of Korra. I kept it pretty short and sweet, but enough people seemed interested in the subject that I thought I'd expand on why I felt the show's first season fell short.
As I mentioned last week, I'm a big fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It's one of my favorite TV shows of all time, right up there with The Wire and Friday Night Lights. (I'll never get sick of the disbelieving looks I get when I say that to people who haven't watched the series.)
Avatar: The Last Airbender (which you can watch in its entirety on Netflix or for free on Nickelodeon's website) was a richly rewarding show that practiced economical world-building with a level of assuredness that rivaled even the greatest fantasy fiction. By the stunning climax of its third season, the show had become so thoroughly satisfying that I still can't quite believe they pulled it all off.
I wasn't expecting the same kind of experience from Korra—if anything, I was hoping it'd be different. We'd already watched Avatar, and if anything, that show has gotten better with age. It was time for something different. I got an X-Men kinda vibe off of the pre-release stuff, and could easily imagine enjoying a 12-part miniseries about a teenaged Avatar coming into her own in a more modern and morally complex setting.
I understand that showrunners DiMartino and Knoietzko had some things change on them in the midst of production, and don't doubt that some of the shortcomings of the show were due to those outside factors. All the same, I gotta critique the show that I watched, and despite the fact that I liked it fine overall, I felt The Legend of Korra had some significant problems.
Here we go. Five ways The Legend of Korra went wrong. (Spoilers follow.)
The fundamental conflict of The Legend of Korra was a strong one: If benders are so powerful, what's to stop them from oppressing non-benders? What happens if non-benders rise up? It's the same conflict at heart of the X-Men comics, and it can lead to all manner of complicated, interesting moral dilemmas.
At the start of the series, it looked like Korra was going to explore the conflict in an interesting, honest way—Brash Korra had a few scenes in which she pushed around non-benders, and Big Bad Amon spent his first few scenes talking actual sense about the merits of the equalist movement.
Unfortunately, almost immediately after he was introduced, Amon hopped the bus to crazytown. He stopped sounding like a believable rabble rouser and became a straight-up evil cult leader. Worse, the eventual reveal—that he was a powerful waterbender who via retconned bloodbending could take away others' bending—only served to remove the whole thing even farther from the realm of non-benders. It became just another jedi-vs-jedi wank, without much of a thought for regular folk.
This was further exacerbated by the way the show chose to portray bending: more as a magical power than as a spiritual martial art. In that way, it felt similar to the Star Wars prequels, which eschewed the meditative, spiritual aspects of The Force in favor of making it into a magical superpower.
I would have loved to see the tribulations of non-benders presented more interestingly than they were, and for The Legend of Korra to have explored bending and the conflict between benders and non-benders with more honesty and nuance.
The original Avatar also sometimes had this problem—it was a kid's show, but it was also a story full of loss, heartache, danger and drama. The two things certainly aren't mutually exclusive, but it can be hard to make both work. The first season of Avatar leaned a bit too hard on the easy jokes (Sokka's hungry! Aang is a goofball! Katara's a grump!) but later seasons hit an often sublime balance. By the time "The Ember Island Players" rolled around, the writers had were on an unstoppable roll, crafting a recap episode that hit a perfect balance of humor, drama, wistfulness and anticipation.
Korra failed to hit that balance, mostly because the show had simply evolved beyond children's programming. The adult aspects of the show were more weighty by design—the main characters aren't kids, they're teenagers, and the conflicts they're dealing with are even more complex than the conflicts in The Last Airbender. (Though the conflicts in Avatar were also plenty complex, even if they didn't seem it at first.)
I found that as I watched, I was in a much more focused, adult space—as much as I loved the scene where the kids fought back against the chi-blockers (the fart-bending in particular), it felt out-of-place on this new show. It could also be that the gags on Korra just weren't as funny as the gags on Avatar, but even if they had been, the show has grown up significantly, and so the writing, particularly the humor, needed to adjust to compensate for that. It didn't quite manage to.
This was partly due to the time constraints, but there were several times when I felt as though the show was developing the wrong characters. We got to know a lot about Asami and her relationship with her father, and we got to know a lot about Tarrlok, his brother, his father, and their sordid past.
But we never really learned all that much about Bolin and Mako, or Tenzin and Beifong, or hell, even Korra. One of the things The Last Airbender did so well was never overshare—it didn't tell us things until we needed to know them, at which point it would casually fill us in. With discipline, it would have been possible to do that again in 12 episodes, but I was surprised they chose to emphasize the characters they did.
And hey, speaking of 12 episodes...
The issue wasn't really that the show only had 12 episodes. Plenty of network dramas fit a ton of great storytelling into 12 or 13 episodes these days. In fact, most of those shows manage to have two primary plot-threads: one that runs for the first half of the season, the other that runs during the second half, unified by an overarching story.
However, those shows all have hour-long episodes, and Korra was stuck with half-hour episodes. Considering that, it was an overextension to have the story revolve around both the pro bending arc and the equalist movement arc. Sure, the two overlapped, but a couple of early episodes focused almost entirely on pro bending with very little time spent on the Equalists or on Korra's training.
Pro bending wound up feeling a bit like Quidditch in Harry Potter—an enjoyable diversion at first, eventually set aside as the story ran out of room for it. If the show had focused more directly on the Equalists, it would have had just enough time to do a thorough exploration of the whole benders/non-benders issue without shoehorning in a bunch of fun but inconsequential sports digressions.
If the Mass Effect ending got panned for being too unresolved and unsatisfying, The Legend of Korra gets a ding from me for resolving everything far too tidily.
I understand that they wanted to give us some resolution, but did we really need to:
- Have Korra finally get in touch with Aang and her other past lives
- Have Korra finally master the Avatar state
- Get Korra and Mako together in the most conflict-free way possible
- Give Beifong and everyone else their bending back
- Get rid of Amon once and for all
Sheesh, that is a heck of a lot of resolution for a few minutes of television! I would have been cool with maybe one of those resolutions… couldn't the others have waited a bit? I thought having Korra give everyone their bending back, Jesus-healing-the-sick-style, felt particularly excessive, as it undid Beifong's sacrifice at the end of the stellar Turning The Tides.
It would have been much more interesting if Beifong and the other benders had needed to learn how to live without bending. Not only would that have made the ending more interesting and less perfectly resolved, it would have opened the second season up to another exploration of the bender/non-bender conflict I mentioned earlier.
Instead, we got an ending that resolved every possible bit of tension, often in the most uninteresting way possible. Korra's finale felt like more than a missed opportunity—it felt like five missed opportunities.
I certainly didn't dislike The Legend of Korra—I'll take any excuse to hang out in the Avatar universe a little bit longer. All the same, I wish that the show had carved more of an identity for itself while avoiding the pitfalls listed above.
I'm glad there will be a second season, and hope that with all of the meet-the-cast kinks worked out, the showrunners can relax a bit and focus on one solid, interesting story. (And give us a bit more Naga, am I right?) I'm not sure if they'll be able to make the Korra that we were all hoping for, but I do think they can show us a really good time.
In the end, the first season of The Legend of Korra felt at odds with itself: An awkward adolescent hunched uncomfortably at the kids' table, listening intently as the adults discuss more interesting things. It's time for our girl to grow up.
(Bottom image by Immrx /DeviantART)