In my experience as a Serious Television Consumer, I’ve found that animated series tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to garnering accolades. Sure, animated comedies like Archer get their share of praise, but when the time comes for people to make their year-end lists and discuss its merits, you’ll rarely see it ahead of live-action shows like Community or Parks and Recreation. I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious reaction or what, but animation as a medium just doesn’t seem to get taken as seriously. This is particularly evident with animated dramas. If The Cape had been a well-made meditation on the responsibilities of superheroes instead of being mediocre and campy, or Heroes hadn’t fallen off a cliff after its first season, I’m confident they’d both get more respect from critics and TV snobs than, say, Batman: The Animated Series or Justice League.
It’s this kind of bias that spurred me to write this post. The spring slate of shows has been an extremely good one, with the return of Mad Men and Game Of Thrones, in addition to the premiere of Girls. Despite the pedigree of three shows (I am a regular viewer of all three) and the groundswell of support they receive — obnoxious Lena Dunham backlash excluded — the show I look forward to watching the most every week airs Saturday mornings at 11:00 AM on Nickelodeon. The Legend of Korra is a sequel — which is a bit of a rarity for TV — to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which developed a rabid cult following (and received a horribly botched movie adaptation), but still didn’t garner a lot of mainstream attention when it initially aired.
If you’ve ever seen the original series, or had the misfortune of seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s tedious interpretation, the premise for both series is roughly the same. Among normal citizens there exist a minority that can manipulate specific elements — water, earth, air, and fire. The most powerful of these “benders” is the Avatar, who is the only person on earth capable of bending all four elements, or even more than one. The Avatar is essentially a more magical version of the Dalai Lama: when one dies, he or she will be reincarnated shortly thereafter, ensuring that there is always an Avatar to help maintain balance in the world.
In this case, Korra, the series’ titular character is the avatar in question. She is a 17-year-old girl (voiced by the excellent Janet Varney) who has managed to master firebending, earthbending, and waterbending in relative isolation, but must travel to Republic City to study airbending with Tenzin (a surprisingly pensive J.K. Simmons), the son of the previous avatar. It’s a bit sad that a strong female protagonist is still a relevant accolade to give, but one of the biggest strengths of the series is how good the title character is. There are a lot of pitfalls when it comes to constructing a female character who makes a point of fighting regularly. On the one hand, you can get preachy (and often hypocritically oversexed) “girls can kick ass, too!” characters that ruin the equal ground they’re on by drawing too much attention to their gender and playing it off like a novelty.
The flip side to this is the glorified damsel in distress, whose strength of character is constantly undermined by her need to be rescued from predicaments by male characters (Samus in Metroid: Other M is the perfect example of this). Korra avoids both of these — easily enough — by treating its protagonist like, you know, an actual person. Korra is an incredibly talented martial artist, but she’s also a teenage girl, and the writers make a point of finding a happy medium between the two.
Korra is an excellent cornerstone, but she’s also surrounded by a fleshed out, fully realized world. Avatar was set in an almost feudal society composed of the earth and fire nations, as well as the nomadic water tribes, and the air temple — which was wiped out by the genocidal fire nation. The politics at play in the series — particularly the willingness to address mass atrocities in a show ostensibly for kids — did a lot to make it an immersive viewing experience. Korra could have coasted off of this previously established structure, but the writers instead elected to create an even more complex environment to house its characters. Republic City, 100 years after the events of the original series, is a fascinating amalgamation of old and new technology, political backbiting, and societal development. Its filled to the brim with steam punk inventions that would bring tears to Jules Verne’s eyes, features a popular sport — “pro bending” — that puts Quidditch to shame, and is the site of some serious political unrest. It seems that the cities non-benders aren’t exactly happy with their social status, as their opportunities for employment aren’t what they used to be with benders essentially making certain manual labor obsolete with their supernatural abilities. Instead of facing the straightforward threat of a fascistic, malevolent nation like Aang, Korra must deal with many of the people she’s sworn to protect and the shadowy leader they’ve rallied around.
Korra‘s story and characters would be enough to make it a worthwhile experience, but its superb animation and action sequences elevate it from good to essential viewing. You won’t find a better looking animated series on television at the moment. Korra’s characters and environments are beautifully drawn, and the animators have added some delightful, anime-inspired facial tics and reactions that really help to drive home the show’s sense of humor. The show has the best action on television as far as I’m concerned, with some absolutely jaw-dropping sequences — several involving a fan favorite character, who is essentially Batman and Spiderman combined — and almost unlimited options, given the medium. Its fights are incredibly well-choreographed, constructed with the help of martial arts and MMA consultants — giving the show a wide range of styles to throw at its audience. Korra might shoot fire out of her mouth one moment, then subsequently body slam them. The results are, by and large, pretty bad-ass.
The Legend of Korra is nearing the end of its truncated first season, but it’s already been renewed for a second one. It couldn’t hurt to watch Avatar (which is available in its entirety on Netflix Instant) before checking out Korra, but the show is generally welcoming to new viewers, without too much hand-holding. Korra is thrilling, funny, well-acted, and always riveting. If you’re not up on this yet, you are missing out. It’s as simple as that.