By the way, this is just a cartoons blog now. I don’t read or play video games anymore. I gave all my systems to orphans and now I just watch cartoons all day, forever.
Having just shotgunned the entire back half of Avatar: The Last Airbender in the past week, I was entirely prepared to come here to the ol’ blog and give a detailed analysis of the most impressive aspect of that show: Prince Zuko’s character arc. I had the post half-outlined, even, bits and baubles tucked away in a .txt file from the first two seasons of the show, talking not only about why Zuko was a stellar character in and of himself, but also how amazed I was someone had signed off on his inclusion in what is ostensibly a children’s program. I felt that by digging into Zuko I could really get to the heart of why Avatar was so tremendous, and that it would be a better way to attack the post than by simply doing a huge-ass review.
But I’m not going to do that anymore, because in the past few days I’ve gotten myself up to speed on The Legend of Korra, and I have a much better way to attack the post now. The Last Airbender was some truly excellent writing, start to finish, and Korra has given every indication of continuing that trend. So instead of making Zuko my poster boy, I’m going to simply take it head-on and share three observations that will explain why I feel this writing is so strong, and why I’m so glad to have it as part of my weekly cartoon rotation.
Generally speaking, both Avatar series have a healthy level of respect for their audience. This is really a combination of two different things. For one, the writers trust the audience enough to understand the story and the motivations of characters without explicitly spelling everything out for them. And for another, the writers trust themselves enough to keep a firm hand on the fanservice faucet.
As to the first thing, the thing about respecting the audience’s intelligence, I do think it’s fair to hold children’s programming to a certain standard. A lot of people don’t, dismissing it with “It’s a kid’s show, what do you expect,” but that’s just wrong. Kids are smart. They can learn things. In a sense, learning things is all kids know how to do. Obviously you’re not going to get away with intricate subplots of the wheels-within-wheels variety, but that’s no reason to make nuance and subtlety completely verboten. Consider Iroh’s scenes in The Tales of Ba Sing Se. Early on, as he is shopping for some odds and ends, he cheers an upset child by singing about a brave little soldier boy. Later, he sings this same song in memory of his dead son. He has been shopping all day for the ingredients of a little shrine, clearly a ritual he has undergone before, to commemorate a sad event in his life. He doesn’t explain to anyone he passes on the street, “Today is the anniversary of my son’s death,” or even “Your boy reminds me of my own son.” The audience is allowed to fill in the blanks, because there is only one way the blanks can go.
It’s not just kid’s shows that get this wrong. It’s the difference between The Wire and CSI: Wherever. There are shows at every age level that aims at what the writers suspect must be the lowest common denominator. In my opinion, the bad ones tend to aim much too low. Maybe it’s a result of those grown-ups having their expectations molded by cartoons which assumed they were dummies, back when they were kids.
The other respect issue is fanservice, and this is one of the big reason I can’t watch serial anime. At some point of the development process the writers begin getting feedback about what their audience thinks they want to see, and then either 1) gives it to them or 2) teases them with it. The problem is that the audience usually doesn’t know exactly what they want to see. We lack the scope and imagination to understand what the show is capable of doing, and packing it into tiny boxes like “Toph x Sokka 4EVER” is counterproductive to giving us a well-realized story. It can lead to character elements that don’t make any sense, or to the show simply not inventing anything new because the fans are always clamoring for more of the stuff that’s already old.
My favorite example of anti-fanservice so far happened within the first few minutes of the first episode of Korra. A young child runs up to the sole remaining character from the first series and asks her about the one lingering mystery that series ended without solving. “It’s a remarkable story,” she’s told — but then she’s immediately interrupted by a second child who begins machinegunning stupid, banal questions instead. The mystery is left unsolved. This was a very strong message. “Yes, that story is interesting,” the writers are telling us, “and we will get to it eventually. But now’s not the time. We have this new character and this new world to show you first. Don’t worry so much about everything that came before; our new story is just as good.”
That kind of storytelling takes respect and courage.
This one is really a no-brainer, and is a key aspect of pretty much all fantasy fiction. The world of Avatar is a mystical place which gives the likes of Westeros and Middle-earth a run for their money. It’s very clear that this is a place which was well-defined geographically, politically, culturally and spiritually before the first episode was even written. Somewhere at Nickelodeon HQ is a filing cabinet full of information about Avatar that will never make it into the show proper, but rather will just be used to color the story as appropriate.
It blew my mind when I realized the huge lake and double-circle-thingy that I’d been staring at on the map during the intro in every episode turned out to be a huge geographical feature and an enormous city, respectively. The map was there in the first few seconds of the program. Serpent’s Pass and Ba Sing Se weren’t relevant until well into the second season.
The Last Airbender focused a lot on Aang developing his superpowers, which led to a lot of what the elements meant culturally as well as practically. However, the story was set in a time where the air culture had long been wiped out, and Aang himself had no more use for airbending instruction. And so while water, earth and fire were all explained to us during his lessons, air remained at least a little bit of a mystery.
That came to an end during the second episode of The Legend of Korra. Korra is the exact opposite of Aang; she has already mastered (or, at least, has a natural aptitude for and has received competent instruction in) three of the four elements, but simply cannot grok the concepts behind air. Enter her airbending teacher, Tenzin, who for the first time in sixty episodes gives us some very basic explanations behind the art. What you realize, as you watch Tenzin’s children whirling between the spinning gates, is that these concepts have been within the very heart of the series all along. Korra is, after all, just learning things that came natural to Aang.
I’m willing to bet, before the series was even pitched to the network, someone sat down and delineated what each of the four elements would represent in this world, what their cultures would look like, what their practitioners would be able to do. Then, after laying that overtop the plot graph for The Last Airbender, they realized that while this airbending stuff is important, there’s no realistic place to really put a fine point on it. No reason to have someone sit us down and say, “Okay, this is what airbending is and why it works.” The information was there, it just wasn’t spelled out until it became necessary to do so, at the beginning of the second series. Now that the second series is here, we can look back and say, “Oh, yeah, that all makes sense. It all fits.” This gives the viewer the sense of a world that persists whether they are watching it or not.
Because the world of The Last Airbender was such a vibrant and well-realized place, I not only know that Korra‘s more focused setting has a firm foundation, but also that it will continue to grow in a believable way.
This is the big one, though. The really, really big one. The Last Airbender had an ending. A for-real ending that was for-real planned by for-real writers who for-real knew where they were going. It was a completed story, and you can tell it was built that way from the very beginning. Each season (or “book”) had a self-contained plot, and each episode (or “chapter”) advanced that plot. There was very little filler, and what was there was used for pacing rather than padding. The writers were never in this limbo where they had to just keep the story spinning its wheels until they saw whether or not their next season would be picked up.
In a series like Avatar, I really really need this kind of structure. I need some assurance that, if I watch fifty episodes of your TV show, I will not have wasted my time. I need to know you’re going somewhere. This is why I very rarely begin watching a series that hasn’t already run its course. Yes, I know now that Lost had a worthwhile structure that told an incredible story spanning six years’ worth of episodes. But how could I have possibly known that the night the pilot premiered?
The Last Airbender had just such a structure, though. The individual episodes were worth watching, but so too was the entire series worth watching. Absorbing the journey is fine, but I’m really more of a destination guy. What this says about Korra, though, is that the writers have their direction, know where their end point is, and have the chops to get us there. I know I can put my money on the table here and get something for it.
Of course, there are lots of reasons to like Korra outside of its storytelling muscle. For instance, you can dress up just about anything in jazz music and fedoras and make it instantly appealing to me. But that’s a superficial kind of fandom, and Korra deserves more than that.
I should also point out that a good TV show doesn’t need these three elements in order to work well. My other favorite currently-airing cartoon possesses none of them to a particularly enviable degree. But then, Korra wants a larger investment from me than other cartoons do. Because of what its older brother accomplished, I’m happy to pay it. I think it’s going to be a great ride.