Thursday, June 7, 2012


In terms of joy derived  from invested time, I think Legend of Korra is the best damn show on television right now. Animated or live action. Game of Thrones is great and all, but I've read the books and knowing what happens really takes the edge off the politics (I don't care how much extra sex you shoehorn in). I have yet to really get into Mad Men. Breaking Bad is well written, controversial and exquisitely acted, but horribly depressing. Veep is genuinely funny, but also remarkably normal for a post-Arrested Development sitcom. Community is also funny and it takes more risks with the medium, but its individual episodes are hit or miss and occasionally a little too self-indulgent.  Sherlock is a much stronger live-action contender, but its second season is already over and done with. If you are still incredulous, my runner up, Young Justice, will tell you a lot about my tastes: I enjoy animation and speculative young adult fiction that pushes some boundaries. That show deserves its own post, but good as it is, I think Korra is ultimately superior.

The title card is one of the only things 
about this show that isn't incredible.

It is the direct sequel to Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender, which itself an was an excellent example of animated children's fiction. It told the story of a young boy called the Avatar who had to unite a world at war, a world where certain people called "benders" can control elements of Air, Earth, Fire and Water. The avatar is the only one who can control all four elements and bring balance to the land. As you might expect, the show was more than a little preachy. But it suffered from a far more serious flaw: an annoying protagonist.

Aang (the avatar) was an obnoxiously exuberant caricature of your typical good kid. Occasionally he would enter an Avatar state and display the powers of an angry god, but most of the time he was looking for ways to goof off, whining, or being relentlessly good-hearted. He's the polar opposite of Ender Wiggin. The childish happy-go-lucky flipside to Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces coin. And after about 3 episodes, I wanted to cave his shiny bald head in. That said, the show was quite good. Sokka was an amusing smartass. Prince Zukko was a compelling antagonist turned good guy and Toff was amazing. The world, with it's magical elemental manipulators, and strange chimeric animals (Lion-turtles, polar-bear-dogs, etc) was engrossing and fascinating.

The Legend of Korra picks up 70 years after the end of The Last Air Bender. A new Avatar has been reincarnated, and as you might guess, her name is Korra. She was born into the water tribe, and as a toddler she has already mastered three of the four elements (Fire, Water and Earth). Normally, the Avatar has spend years meditating and training to learn how to bend a new element. Each one took Aang around a year or so (I think).

People writing fantasy heroines take note: 
This is how you do it right.

Korra is a refreshing heroine for a lot of reasons. She is a powerful female protagonist with serious anger issues. She is not hyper-sexualized or habitually (exploitatively) abused, like Lisbeth Salandar. She also manages to have romantic feelings for a guy without a shred of sentimentalism. She is a teenage girl with teenager issues, as opposed to a teenage girl with girl issues. She does not handle her anger with bouts of passive aggressiveness, or by gossiping. She handles them by beating up with her powers, talking back to adults and generally taking charge. I always felt like Sokka and Katara were the real heroes of the original Avatar, because Aang couldn't be trusted to walk to the goddamn market without wanting to ride a squirrel-beaver or whatever. In this series, Korra is very much in control of her own destiny. And she has a tough opposition to face.

The most novel aspect of the Legend of Korra is that it deals with the dichotomy between the magical benders, and normal, non-bending folk. The bad guy (or rather, one of the bad guys) is a masked dude named Amon who leads the Equalists; normal people who want to cleanse the world of the supposed tyranny of the bending elite. That's a bold move for children's fiction. It doesn't have an obvious analog to our modern society, but that kind of disparity is evident in a lot of situations. It's a much smarter and more mature story than the black and white anti-war theme of the first series. It is a real world problem. Of course, the solutions to many of these problems boil down to badass bending fights. But I am perfectly okay with that convention.

Steampunk fans will also want to check out the show to see an eastern take on their decidedly occidental subculture. You have steam-driven automobiles and zeppelins modeled after pagodas, and metal bending cops who use steel cables to subdue criminals. This world has grown in obvious, stylistically rich ways since Aang's victory over the Fire Nation. These changes are also reflected in the 1930's jazz sound track.

Another thing to love about this series is it's expediency. It accomplishes more in its half-hour of viewing time than Game of Thrones does in its average hour long episodes. There is no filler in this series (which was another huge weak point of the original Avatar). Every episode forwards the politics of the world, or the relationships between the characters in a serious way.

This is the kind of fiction I want to raise my children on. The kind that I can watch with them and celebrate without qualification. So find a way to watch it, and watch it now.

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