Reincarnation and diminishing returns: Nickelodeon’s ‘Avatar’ series

To be perfectly honest, I almost called this post “Stuck in Aang’s shadow: why ‘Legend of Korra’ doesn’t satisfy.” It was really a coin-toss…

I am a tremendous fan of Nickelodeon’s “Avatar” series. Both of them. It’s a great show. It’s an even better concept. The down side is that TLA (The Last Airbender. The show, not the movie of which we do not speak) is just a better and more satisfying product than any of LoK (Legend of Korra).

In case you aren’t caught up, you can watch the latest season of LoK online. You might want to do that, cause I will get a little into spoiler territory a bit later. I wouldn’t be surprised if you aren’t caught up, because this season was only half aired on TV, and the second half was only available online (what the heck, right?). I’ve just finished watching the finale, so it’s still fresh for me. That finale is probably as close as LoK has come to feeling like good classic Avatar. Most of the time is just doesn’t cut the mustard.

First off, let me talk about a few things that made TLA so great. It had a solid serialized story that people (particularly kids and teenagers) were willing to watch. The characters developed as the who progressed, and it was believable. The action was awesome. The scope was grand and epic. It felt like the people working on the show cared about it at least as much as the viewers, and they always seemed to be giving 100% effort. If you’ve never watched “Avatar: the Last Airbender,” go watch it.

I don’t want to spend a long time nitpicking about things that I don’t think work quite right with LoK. I’ll hit on a few of them, but I want to look at the big picture. I think the overall problem that has prevented LoK from being as good as TLA is that the show runners haven’t been ambitious enough. To my understanding, the original concept was more like a miniseries, and the scope of the story never really expanded beyond that to fit with the longer multiple seasons that LoK ultimately received. With the story and the episode/series count mismatched, you can’t really hope for a comfortable final product.

**MILD SPOILERS**

 

If you’ve watched LoK season three, then you know that they tried to develop a large threat called the Order of the Red Lotus. They even tried to expand it by mentioning that the season 2 villain was associated with them. That sort of retcon is a bit weak, but I can see that they were hoping to make it seem like the seasons are connected, but they really aren’t. I think they could have pushed it one step further and retconned the season 1 villain into their group too, but that’s just me.

Another issue that comes from the scale of the story they were telling is that the sense of place isn’t very strong, and it feels very small. Making the main setting, starting with season 1, a specific city really reduced the sense of danger and importance. In TLA the whole world was at stake, and it felt like that every single week. This was amplified by the core group’s constant traveling. You got to see the whole world, and see the danger that was surrounding everyone. In LoK you see a few neighborhoods of a large city, and a handful of other locations. More than anything, you see a focus on the bay of the city. It’s just so small scale. And the locations outside the city don’t fit into a larger sense of the world they live in. Pull out a map, people! Show me where the action is happening! Do a little “Indiana Jones” travel homage. Make me believe that the world is affected by what is going on in the show.

I thoroughly believe that if LoK had featured a more ambitious story, I would have enjoyed it more, but that would have required a larger and more specific scale of the action. I think the main city was supposed to be important (even crucial) to the functioning of the rest of the world, but I just don’t know. Since the villains tended to act in and around the city, especially in season 1, the validity of their vendettas felt weaker.

I could probably go a lot longer and a lot deeper into the show for more reasons (I once wrote a 12-page paper about just 2 episodes of TLA, so…), but I just want to toss out a few other things:

  • The action in LoK doesn’t hold a candle to TLA. I think part of this comes from tweaking some of the fighting styles to incorporate 1920s boxing, particularly for Mako and Bolin. But pugilism just doesn’t have the visual zing that you get from various styles of Kung Fu.
  • While Team Avatar in LoK is generally older, they feel a lot less mature than the team from TLA.
  • Girlpower is severely lacking in LoK. Even though the main character is female, and she has an aggressive attitude, she often ends up captured, manipulated, defeated, and emotionally compromised by fear.
  • In TLA, the avatar and his friends were in constant danger from those in power. In LoK they are in danger from minority factions, while the avatar holds tremendous political power. People prefer an underdog fighting agains the odds. That tends to look better than inept establishments trying to defend themselves against smaller threats. (Seriously, how many times can the most important figure in the world be kidnapped by terrorists?)

Ok, so that’s my take on that. If they want more seasons of LoK and want people to care, make it big, make it matter, and make the world feel real.

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Reincarnation and diminishing returns: Nickelodeon’s ‘Avatar’ series

6 thoughts on “Reincarnation and diminishing returns: Nickelodeon’s ‘Avatar’ series

  1. Ahhh I could agree with you if we were talking the first two seasons, but I absolutely loved this last season. It was a lot more cohesive and I thought the action and world-building was great. Also loved all the new characters they introduced.

  2. Andrew Darowski says:

    I’ll agree that this latest season was better than the first two, but it still doesn’t measure up to TLA. There were some episodes in LoK season three that are rock-solid. If you take the best LoK episodes, then you could definitely say they are better than some of the weaker TLA episodes. But best LoK doesn’t come close to best TLA.

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