Sometimes you remember the first meeting. The details of time and place—the day, the hour, where you were, what you were thinking, what you were wearing—come back with striking vividness when you recollect. I remember the first time I met certain people, heard particular songs, read specific books. Other times, the first encounter becomes lost to the sieve of memory, lumped in with so much other minutiae it’s impossible to sift it out. The first time I saw Avatar: The Last Airbender falls into the latter category, sadly. I mentioned the series previously, back when anime also-rans were in vogue. Having seen nothing more than a few minutes here and there, I couldn’t comment on the show’s quality, but it was obvious the show owed its aesthetic to Japanese animation. But it didn’t have just the look; it also had the feel.
Like virtually all other anime series, Avatar followed an overarching story throughout its individual episodes. Continuity has since become much more prominent in American television, but that wasn’t the case a few years ago. Though there have long been exceptions to the episodic format of most TV and anime has been dealing in sustained story-arcs for years, I think Avatar was among the vanguard to introduce U.S. audiences to such a grand design. And rather than follow the example of anime series puffed up by filler, Avatar opted for a streamlined approach. While some episodes were more important than others, each one served to advance the plot and reveal more about the cast.
Not only that but the show exhibited a kind of maturity that is rare in programs aimed at kids. It wasn’t that Avatar trafficked in risqué or graphic content; rather, the show’s creators treated their cast and their audiences with respect and an attentiveness to craft that others would do well to emulate. There was humor to lighten the quest, but it did not dispel Aang’s burden of responsibility to bring balance to the world, a task that much more difficult for a carefree twelve-year-old than a wise centenarian. He and his friends did not always make the right choices, and for those mistakes, they faced consequences—another advantage of a cohesive storyline, rather than a clean slate by the end.
Beyond the sophistication of the characters and their struggles, the show’s craft is evident no matter which angle you view it from. The creators built a rich, consistent mythology that simultaneously felt familiar—a world governed by four elements—and fresh—distinct cultures among the Tribes, the Avatar’s reincarnations, the hybrid of martial arts and spirituality that is bending (even the word implies a loose form of control). Each type of bending is based upon a specific form of martial arts, further distinguishing one element from the next, in a way that’s deeper than aesthetics. And the cast was diverse and developed beyond stock archetypes. Literally and figuratively, Avatar peopled its world with different hues, adding to the overall texture.
Clearly, I love the series. I think it is one of television’s finest achievements, not just in animation but period. The quality of its production, the cleverness of its plot, the dimensionality of its characters, and the fullness of its setting—all of these things together make it the kind of watershed against which other shows should measure themselves. Of course, the downside to developing an attachment to one amazing story is its end. Co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko ended Avatar in July of 2008 and that was that. Or so it seemed.
Though it isn’t clear if Nickelodeon asked the duo for more or if they had it up their sleeves all along, two years later, in July 2010, fans got the news—the world would get a new Avatar in the form of Korra, a hot-head from the Water Tribe. As trailers and details trickled through various news outlets thereafter, it became obvious that The Legend of Korra would be in many ways a very different animal compared to its predecessor. For one, Korra would be a mini-series with a much more limited scope; Korra herself would start with three elements mastered, whereas Aang had only one. The setting would be different, taking place seventy years later and mostly within Republic City, a wonder of technology and (supposed) peace. And, after effectively saving the world, what does an Avatar do for an encore?
That DiMartino and Konietzko manage to address all these aspects and weave from them a smaller but no less compelling story is a testament to their craftsmanship. Elemental experience aside, Korra is not Aang; she is impulsive and occasionally reckless, an interesting contrast to the portrayal of several waterbenders in the past. Korra’s friends and foes are similarly not simple analogues of previous characters. Any attempt to duplicate too much form the original would ring false. Thankfully, the creators are smart enough to avoid that pitfall and Nick seems to give them the autonomy to tell the story as they see fit.
There’s a lot about the show to admire so far (only seven episodes have aired). For interesting write-ups, check out The AV Club and Tor.com. What I want to discuss, if only briefly, is the conflict at the heart of The Legend of Korra. Yes, she has to learn airbending, but without a compelling need to master the four elements, as Aang had to in order to confront the Fire Lord, it hardly serves as a catalyst for the plot. In the relative peace after the dismantling of Fire Nation imperialism, the world has changed. Some benders compete in a popular sport that takes advantage of their skills. Other benders have fallen in with gangs and low-level organized crime. Responding to this increased attention on benders and the resulting disparities are the Equalists, a group of counter-culturalists who want to level the playing field. Their leader is Amon, a masked man with a flair for oratory and theatrics who can, to all appearances, take away bending permanently.
This is great for several reasons. It gives Korra—and all benders—something to fear beyond death or bodily harm; it’s rooted in character, especially for Korra, who’s more apt to let loose with fire-blasts than to scour patiently for answers. It throws light on a rather sophisticated theme for children’s television—those-who-have versus those-who-have-not. And given the society the series illustrates, the Equalist argument has more than a kernel of truth to it. I think it’d be fair to criticize Avatar: The Last Airbender on the lack of moral subtlety; Ozai and Azula were crazy-evil. But here we see complexity, shades of gray. The intended audience may not understand that completely or at all times but it’s worthwhile to raise these questions, to give viewers more to think about beyond a thirty-minute distraction.
Really, if you aren’t watching The Legend of Korra yet, I encourage you to start. Nick.com has the full episodes online days after they air, so you can stay more-or-less current. And if you like it, tell other people to tune in. Great stories like this, whatever medium, need to be appreciated and shared.