The Avatar shows The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are two of the most important kids’ programs of the past decade. Let Roz and Anais tell you why.
Avatar has been a part of our lives since 2005, beginning with The Last Airbender, or The Legend of Aang, and ending with The Legend of Korra‘s finale in 2014. The magical world of elemental bending, fantastic blended beasts, and high adventure coming-of-age stories has wrapped up for now. For fans of both shows, it’s a time of reflection as we prepare to binge watch the entirety of Avatar all over again.
For me, Avatar: The Last Airbender is an almost perfect series for all ages. I was mesmerized from the first encounter with Aang and his flying bison, Appa. The beauty of Last Airbender comes from the melancholy premise of the show. Aang is a child running from responsibility, only to learn that he is now the last of his kind. In the first season, Aang deals with death in a profound way. Aang visits the very temple where his friends and mentors died. It’s so sad. As the show evolves and Aang grows up, he becomes confronted with the idea that he must defeat the evil Fire Lord. He may have to kill a man. With so much tragedy, how can this possibly be one of the funniest and sweetest children’s programs I’ve ever watched?
Avatar: The Last Airbender is phenomenally well written and the characters are so beautifully crafted that they become alive with spirit and hope. Although the show is about Aang, it could easily be the journey of Zuko, a disgraced prince on a mission of redemption, or Katara, the young woman who defies the odds and masters her craft, or even Iroh, a mentor with secrets and knowledge who wants to save his family from themselves. Each character has an arc and we cheer for them to overcome the trials before them. The characters have different perspectives and ideals, so that the tension between Aang and his friends tests their friendship at every turn. Toph is an excellent example of how you can build a fascinating character that disagrees with your protagonist and can present alternative points of view without just being wrong. And the show manages to capture the spirit of a child, through Aang, and the humour of life, through Sokka, in a magical way. I’ve never wanted so much for a lost character to be found, like Appa in the desert, or young love to prevail, just shut up and kiss already! Again, the story of Aang is turning me into a blubbering mess. It’s awesome. We all know it.
So, expectations for Legend of Korra were understandably through the roof. It’s a lot of pressure and right out of the gate, Korra’s journey felt a little bit more grown up, more mature. Not only is Korra older than Aang, but her world has changed significantly. I loved the technology boost and urban, steampunk vibe in Republic City. But while the show was good, it suffered significantly from production problems at every turn, and I think the writing was weaker as a result. Some story moments felt rushed or too convenient, like trying so hard to explain metal bending when we already accept it’s a form of magic, and then even an entire episode told in flashbacks of stock footage because they didn’t have the budget for a new episode. Despite all of the problems, Legend of Korra managed some pretty amazing accomplishments.
First off, Nickelodeon wasn’t that interested in the series and suspended production because the protagonist was a girl. Well, the series premiere averaged 4.5 million viewers and The Legend of Korra ranks as the network’s most-watched animated series premiere in three years. So, in your face, boys loved Korra too. The first season, Book One: Air, had an average of 3.8 million viewers per episode, the highest audience total for an animated series in the United States in 2012. Suck it, stupid producers. For a bunch of reasons, Book Two: Spirits had lower ratings and things all went to crap. The next seasons suffered. The final season was produced in parallel to the previous two seasons and had serious budget cuts that showed in the storytelling. I was often left feeling like the story was hurried and characters made inconsistent decisions because there was no time to show them experiencing change. Kuvira, the final antagonist, screams at Korra, “Never!” and then promptly changes everything about herself. The weak execution of that moment was completely overshadowed by the finale image, which is kind of how I feel about the show overall. Legend of Korra dealt with mature, complex themes like spiritualism, sociopolitical issues, and depression and I forgive it so many problems because the intentional effort to be brave and challenge us is there. In the series finale, Korra and Asami leave together, implying that they are bisexual characters and have fallen in love. That’s a lot for a show to deal with when they are fighting just to stay alive.
Despite all of the issues I have with The Legend of Korra, its legacy will be just as lasting as Avatar: The Last Airbender. They are both shows that don’t talk down to kids and find a way to engage them in stories set in another world, but reflecting our own. These shows are challenging, exciting, and awesome television. They have fandoms that will never die. They are reborn with each new person who discovers the Avatar series and falls in love with these characters all over again.
I discovered Legend of Korra and its eponymous protagonist on a cool spring night, reluctantly giving in to the show after months of being grumpy about the simple fact that one of my favourite shows got a seemingly unnecessary spin-off. I then proceeded to watch Korra firebend her way through life until she finally learned hard lessons from the complex world she evolved in. Korra changed a lot during the show, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. In season one, she was the brash girl who didn’t know any other way to express her feelings than forcing them onto people. At the end of season four, she was the one who calmly walked away with her loved one, holding her hand as they entered the light. Korra made us mad with frustration, sad, annoyed as all hell, but in the end, we grew into her. It was a pleasure to watch her make the difficult transition into adulthood.
Korra’s evolution and impact as a character is pretty representative of the show as a whole. Despite the amount of criticism directed at both of them, it’s always surprising to realize that they’re dear to people’s hearts. I can’t say if they’re more or less important than Avatar: The Last Airbender, though. I simply think that both shows are equally important in their own way.
I watched The Last Airbender partially during the second part of my not-so-wild adolescence. I immediately fell in love with the characters and the story, but I didn’t watch the show in its whole three-season long glory until I was closer to my twenties. Despite not having patiently followed it week after week, like I did with The Legend of Korra, The Last Airbender is pretty much my definition of a perfect show. Not only is it beautiful and creative, it spoke to me on a moral and spiritual level. The Last Airbender is about taking responsibilities and coming to terms with one’s tragic past. It’s about becoming a better person even when everything seems against you. To this day, The Last Airbender is one of the only western shows I know that has such an impressive collection of compelling characters on top of some top-notch writing. Azula’s relationship with her mother and Iroh’s whole character give me writer boners every time I think about them, and they’re just two examples among dozens. In the world of kids’ television, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a jewel of a show, an example that everybody should strive to follow.
The Legend of Korra is different, almost polarizing. As I discussed it with Roz and with all my friends that are fans of the show, the reason we get so frustrated with The Legend of Korra is because there is a lot of greatness in it, hidden, or at least partially covered, by a lot of problems that could have been easily fixed had it not been for the number of problems that the writers ran into. We will never get our perfect version of the show, but we still have a lot of fond memories to hold on to. The Legend of Korra is powerful and it tackles a whole set of different ideas than its predecessor, completing it in many ways. The execution may be flawed, but the ideas behind it are still brilliant.
TV is a hard world, especially when it comes to kids’ programs. Everything has to be written to please a certain audience, usually young boys whose parents wouldn’t want them to have nightmares, or even worse, think about things. You just have to take a look at Nickelodeon’s website to realize that most of their cartoons belong to the boy comedy genre. I have nothing against the genre as a whole: Adventure Time is technically a boy comedy. But seeing how little varied kids’ animated shows are makes you appreciate the uniqueness of the Avatar franchise even more. It aims high. It does its best to describe the world in shades of grey to an audience who is way to used to a sharp black and white reality. It talks about peace, equality, and freedom, and was all about people of colour on top of that. There’s even a chance that it opened the door for a better representation of queer peeps in cartoons. Despite the shows being over for good, I hope that the years to come will bring many, many new fans to celebrate their awesomeness.