Saturday, September 14, 2013

Season 2 of The Legend of Korra comes out of the gate with two terrific episodes

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my favorite shows of all-time; I think it's essentially the Star Wars of our generation.  So naturally, I was in between and excitement and extreme trepidation when I first heard the news that creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino were making a sequel set 70 years after the original show.  However, The Legend of Korra quickly justified its existence by delivering the same quality of its predecessor without peddling the same content.   In fact, the two shows display an interesting contrast in the way that they depict their worlds.  In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the characters were still children, and that show was about being at the entry point of discovering all these feelings about yourself and the world around you, whereas the teenage protagonists of The Legend of Korra are right in the middle of it.  The former explored broader, more universal themes of friendship, good & evil, and responsibility, and while it wasn't always light and fluffy, its general tone was more firmly rooted in the style of children's programming.  The latter, however, dove deep into mature and complex themes of racial and class inequality; an Occupy Movement for the Nickelodeon crowd.  Sometimes it felt like a miracle that Nickelodeon allowed the show to air at all, because it didn't shy away from the dark undercurrents of its world.  Where Avatar: the Last Airbender went out of its way to avoid death whenever possible, The Legend of Korra had no problems incorporating a murder-suicide into the story in season 1.

The two shows deviate from each other on a pure structure level as well.  Avatar had 20-episode seasons, while Korra's first season was 12 episodes, and the difference between the two boil down to the standard tradeoff between the network and cable drama models.  The 20-episode Avatar structure allowed space for characters to grow along with the story, taking breaks from the larger narrative to tell standalone tales.  Unlike many other cartoons, the "filler" episodes were as vital as the ones that were heavy on plot (listen, I love "The Fortuneteller" and "Cave of Two Lovers" -- sue me).  On the other hand, Korra benefited from the kind of intense, breathless serialization that only 12-14 episode seasons can deliver.

What we see in Korra is a world that has advanced far beyond what we saw in Avatar.  In just 70 years, a universe similar to feudal Japan has transformed into a steampunk, industrial one centered around a place called Republic City.  The progression is jarring, but Konietzko and Dimartino sell it because of their knack for detailed world-building, and you can just tell that all of the interworkings of Republic City have been fully thought out.  Not only do they fill the fringes with fascinating little details, but the world is also populated with rich characters at its center too.  The main trio of Korra, the new Avatar, and brothers Mako and Bolin, resemble the construction from Avatar: the Last Airbender, but they quickly take on their own lives in the first season.  Korra in particular is just a fantastically written character, one of my favorite protagonists on television.  She's the hero of the story, but the writers aren't afraid to bold and underline her hot-headed tendencies, and the first season featured her constantly bristling at orders from her master, Tenzin (the son of Aang from Avatar).  Couple the layered writing with some stellar voice acting and action sequences, and you've got the first season, which was one of the best of 2012.

That's not to say that the show wasn't without its flaws.  One of my biggest complaints about the construction of the show is that it gave into the urge that many prequels, sequels, and spin-offs fail to resist, in that so many characters seemed to have some kind of relation to a character from the original series.  I mentioned that Korra's master is Aang's son, which is an acceptable and logical choice, but throughout the first season you meet a handful of other characters who share genes with those you know and love from Avatar (and a few more in season 2).  A nod or two to fans of the original series is fine, but eventually the world begins to feel a bit small if it's just an elaborate family reunion.  The other problem hearkens back to the pros and cons of a cable-length season, because the first season sometimes felt like it was too rushed, particularly towards the end.  There was less of a chance to get a sense of the characters due to the forward momentum of the plot dealing with Amon and his Equalist movement, so some of the crucial moments didn't land as much as they could've.

Season 2, which premiered in an hour-long installment last night, does much in the way of answering the first complaint.  Like I said, there are still some introductions of characters who tie back to the original series, but making the arc of the season be about spirits is a smart choice if the show wants to expand its focus.  The spirit world was introduced in Avatar: the Last Airbender, but it was only briefly touched upon there.  The main focus of season 2 of Legend of Korra seems to be concerned with exploring the mythology of the spirit world, as Korra goes back to her home in the Southern Water Tribe to find out that the village has been under the constant attack of restless spirits.  Like in season 1, the major arc is a story goal, but it's constructed in such a way that it's essential to her growth as a character as well.  Although she's changed a bit from when we first met her in the pilot, Korra's natural instinct still is to attack problems with immediate action and brute force, but in order to bridge the gap between the human and spirit world, she's going to have to learn careful consideration and spirituality.  It's an interesting choice to have spirits be the obstacle for the season, as opposed to another Big Bad like in the first season.  Essentially this is like the Eastern version of man wrestling with God.  There may be corporeal adversaries along the way, but having this larger force at work in the background makes the show feel more grandiose.

It's too early to tell whether they've answered the second complaint, but these first two episodes were much better paced than anything from the first season.  Overall, "Rebel Spirits" and "The Southern Lights" was a great reintroduction to this rich and fascinating world.  The hour just felt so cohesive, almost like a single movie that reminded us of all the fleshed-out characters and nuanced relationships that exist within the show.  If there's one theme to extract from the premiere, it's the idea that the frustrations of being a teen and being the Avatar have some parallels.  When you're a teenager, you're stuck between having more freedom than you did as a child and still being trapped under the thumb of authority.  Likewise, Korra is essentially "the chosen one," yet there are so many different people trying to advise her and tell her what to do.  The conflict between what Korra wants and actually what's best for her isn't anything new, but it's a fertile well from which to draw stories.  This season's purpose is not only to lengthen the show but to also deepen it, and this central conflict has a chance of finally cashing in on the potential that was built up in the first season.  It's been gone for so long that I forgot how much I missed the show, but The Legend of Korra is back and not taking any time reminding us of its greatness.

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