TV Review: The Legend of Korra, Book 1

The fine upstanding gentleman at the top of this post is called Amon. He’s the leader of the Equalists, a grassroots political movement based in the fictional Republic City which seeks to rid the world of the imbalance created by the ruling bending class. He is methodical and gets results, building a widespread following among the oppressed non-benders of the city.

He is also the villain of The Legend of Korra, a show developed primarily for children.

That should be all I need to say to introduce the fact that Korra is a very ballsy show. A children’s show with a political center is a rarity. Even rarer is one which features protagonists labelled as oppressors, and still rare one that actively encourages that label. The morally grey nature of Korra’s early episodes cement it as one of the greatest children’s series ever produced.

The problem lies in the second half of the season.

Unlike it’s wildly popular and imaginative predecessor, The Last Airbender, Korra had only a paltry 12 episode season (for what reason I do not know; Nickelodeon apparently does not like money). There was thus not nearly as much time to develop the characters as there ought to have been, and this is the ultimate failing of the show. Whereas the original show had some of the most richly drawn characters in television at the time (not only children’s television, either, but all of television), Korra settles mostly for archetypes rather than characters. Korra is the headstrong, “girls can kick butt too” type which has become increasingly common (and in many ways is no less sexist than the alternative). Mako is the brooding, aloof type (for whom it is obvious Korra will fall). Bolin is the comic relief (akin to early Sokka). Asami is the rich girl and Korra’s competition for Mako’s affection. It’s a familiar setup, and the show didn’t bother to develop these characters much, and that’s a grave mistake.

The first half of the season, however, makes up for its lack of characters by weaving a delightfully interesting tale. Morals are in short supply all around – the Equalists kidnap people, and Korra openly threatens innocent people who support the Equalist cause. Nobody is in the right, and that’s a fresh take for a children’s show. Amon has a cold, calculating demeanor that sells him as sinister, but is a fiery speaker who drums up passion for his cause not only in the characters but in the viewers as well. The writers string us along an exciting adventure story, with amazingly cool characters (but not particularly deep ones) at all corners. It’s filled with the action choreography that made the original show stand out, and the animation is top notch. Character development would surely come later – right now it was time to set the stage.

Enter Tarrlok, a charismatic politician with more than a few secrets to hide. His actions seem brash and thoughtless, and almost universally help the Equalists’ cause. It’s an intriguing plot thread – but it detracts from the main story. In a 12 episode season, there isn’t enough time for mini-arcs. Tarrlok’s arc lasts a full four episodes, and while Amon and the Equalists are there for most of them, they take a backseat as the protagonists attempt to determine what Tarrlok is up to. It pushes the political angle, but it takes up valuable time.

A fifth episode is then devoted to Korra reaching into the past and discovering what Tarrlok’s goals are. This flashback sets up the story of Yakone, a former mob boss who openly bloodbends – a dark technique that was outlawed long ago. It is revealed – in what is one of the least surprising reveals in history – that Tarrlok was Yakone’s son. That’s a reveal that is not only predictable, but also has no impact. Yakone was a character introduced in that very episode – we had no preconceived notions of what he was or what he could do. Revealing that Tarrlok was his son doesn’t make us take Tarrlok more seriously, but rather the reverse – Tarrlok is the character we know, so that relationship affects our view of Yakone. It was a weak reveal that ultimately suffered from a lack of time building up Yakone’s story.

We’re now well past the halfway point of Korra‘s season one arc, and the characters still haven’t moved from their archetypes – quite the opposite. Bolin in particular was robbed of his dramatic potential as seen in “The Spirit of Competition” and downgraded to solely comic relief. He fills that role well, but that he is drained of a potentially great character arc is disappointing. The show is going to have to kick it into high gear to get the characters developed in any remotely satisfying way.

But nope! Turns out, kicking it into high gear only makes things worse. The last three episodes of the season are the most rushed episodes of either series. They are so rushed, in fact, that characters do things blatantly out of character – not because the character wouldn’t do that, but because the growth that would allow them to make that decision is completely absent. Tarrlok, fresh from trying to take over Republic City by becoming its hero, decides to help out Korra from his jail cell. Amon, fresh from a victory over benders and now working to create equality by removing the bending of Republic City, is revealed to be a bloodbender and Yakone’s older son (another reveal with absolutely no impact whatsoever – Amon had been developed as a great villain already). This reveal in particular is a grave sin, for it makes the Equalist movement, once a morally grey one that had a very fair point, a hypocritical one that is the center of a revenge scheme.

And then comes what is, in my eyes, the worst offense Korra could commit. Despite having entirely dropped the subplot involving Korra’s attempts to learn airbending since THE SECOND EPISODE, after having her bending removed by Amon, Korra suddenly is able to airbend and save the day.

One of the best things about the show had been the interesting questions it raised about secularization in industrial society. What was once a spiritual discipline – bending – was now being used for vanity and recreation (pro-bending), quality of life improvements (generation of electricity), and crime (the bending Triads). This was personified in Korra, a headstrong Avatar with little regard for the spiritual requirements of the job. Her journey to become more spiritual should have been a focal point of the show – but instead, they completely dropped that plotline and tied it into her romantic interest. Rather than airbending being achieved through great spiritual growth, it was achieved because her love interest was in danger.

Now that sucks.

The finale of the first season ruined the political messages, and sent a clear one that bending truly does equal power – so much for equality. It ruined the spiritual undertones of the show, instead opting for the most hackneyed “love conquers all” drivel imaginable – so much for spiritual growth in a secular world. And it did all of this while abandoning the character development that made the first series so great.

The Legend of Korra had great potential, but squandered it by rushing through its story, leaving characters and themes behind in the process.

Season Grade: B-


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