Sunday, September 16, 2012

Let’s Review a TV Series: The Legend of Korra Season 1

I was going to do this as an episode by episode review, but as I re-watched the season my thoughts on the later episodes kept creeping in on the earlier ones so I’m doing it all in one go; this is season one.  Or as I like to call it: how to wreck a lot of great ideas in twelve episodes or less.

That really is my greatest problem with the show as it stands thus far.  We had a lot of great ideas that were introduced in ways that promised to be interesting and complex.  We had a lot of different characters that looked like they could grow and change as the series went on.  And in the end what we got was a black and white resolution with a pat happy ending that returns everything to the status quo. 

I mean seriously we started off in such a great place with this show.  It seemed like it was going to be the best of both worlds at the onset.  Here was a show that kept itself connected to its predecessor by using the descendants of the original characters as some of the side characters, as well as showing the older characters in flashbacks.  The world had seemed to grow organically from the events of the last series.  Instead of having the conflict be about one type of bending oppressing the other benders we have a conflict of benders oppressing non-benders; at the same time though Korra looked like it would be able to stand on its own as a work.  It was using older characters which would be good for the original audience for the show because they would be older now too.  While it also took care at not getting itself tangled up in continuity and making the show inaccessible to new viewers. 

On the character side of things we had a protagonist who was very different from Aang.  Not just that she was a girl but that she was determined and headstrong, and fully immersed in her identity as the avatar.  Unlike Aang she liked being the avatar, specifically on being able to bend all the elements hard and well.  Korra doesn’t focus on her spirituality at all and sees bending as the be end all of being the avatar.  That was great as it established her as a strong and driven character, but also one with a lot of room to grow.  To learn that there is more to being the avatar than just bending. To overcome that fear we see in episode four with her nightmare about Amon. “After I take your bending you will be nothing.”  To really take the element that this book is supposed to be about to heart and become a more rounded person by the end of it.

Besides Korra we had a good variety of other characters and a wide age range of them too which was fun, although I personally could have done without all the toilet humour from Meelo.  Aside from that though the characters were introduced as being diverse and interesting and many of them also had a lot of room to grow.   The character designs were really great and the animation in the show was gorgeous; and seeing 2D used in something besides adult humour entertainment is wonderful to me.  Some of the CGI elements are jarring, but they don’t distract from the work too much. I also enjoyed the music with the mix classical wind style instrumentals and the funky upbeat jazz.

So where did it all go wrong?  For me the ideas are all great, but the execution was poor and I think the main problem of that comes from the writers absolutely shattering the classic rule of show don’t tell.

The biggest place I see this is the conflict of benders versus non-benders.  This is the central conflict on which this whole show is supposed to spin and we’re told a lot about it, but shown very little.  In the first episode we saw the triple threat triad threaten a shopkeeper and the guy yelling rhetoric with the bullhorn, but that’s really it.  There is a possible hint the government has a bias for benders, because the council appears to have only benders as representatives.  However, in the flashback in episode nine we see that Sokka was once a member of the council and he’s a non-bender.  So is the council being all benders a recent thing that would indicate that benders are getting more privileges than non-benders?  Are the council members even put in by a diplomatic process, or are they appointed by some other authority?  We hear about the supposed oppression but we don’t really see it anywhere.  Mako makes the comment that the pro-bending arena is the only place benders and non-benders can really get together, but again this isn’t shown anywhere.  We started to get some of that with Tarrlok passing curfew laws and rounding up people just because they were non-benders, those are sweeping actions that would probably cause people to react in extreme ways like joining a terrorist organization like the Equalists to bring about change.  But in the very next episode Tarrlok gets his bending taken away by Amon and none of that is ever spoken of again.  Nobody even comments on it once afterwards to say it was too far.  It also doesn’t help that with the reveal that Tarrlok as Yakone’s son and that Tarrlok wanting to control the city as his motivation for his actions it kind of puts a wedge between the whole non-bender bender issue and him just being a controlling asshole.  There is a nice line Tarrlok gives about Korra wanting to use her bending to intimidate him, and then she proceeds to do exactly that, but it never comes up again, and that’s what bothers me so much about this.  We get hints of the conflict like bending being used to intimidate, or even kill people, but it’s not developed, it’s not dealt with it’s just there.

So, the central conflict isn’t very well developed, but that could have been overcome had they not then messed up the flip side to the conflict, that is Korra growing as a character over the course the season as she deals with bringing balance to the city and learning airbending at the same time.  As I said Korra needed to learn that being the avatar isn’t all about bending, that a fist to the face of your opponent isn’t the only way to deal with problems, and that patience is a virtue worth looking at.   Unfortunately Korra doesn’t grow at all here.  Again we are told that she’s grown when Tenzin tells her that she’s learning well after they decide to retreat from Amon until Iroh’s forces arrive and they have that advantage.  But then in the very next episode she is complaining that she hates being patience and they should go knock some heads.  Letting us know that Tenzin’s words were bullshit.  Tenzin asked Korra when she would learn that being the avatar is not all about fighting and the answer is never.  In the final episode she confronts Amon by yelling out at a rally that he is really a waterbender and when that fails she has no back-up plan, she just starts fighting Amon when he threatens to take away the bending of Tenzin and his children.  Also having them be captured, and off-screen no less, made Lin Bei Fong’s badass sacrifice in episode eleven completely pointless, way to go guys.  So Korra fights Amon and gets her bending taken away, and this somehow unlocks her airbending.  Now I was expecting Korra to unlock her airbending in the finale episode.  The book is called air after all and to not have that happen would make the show even more of a mess than it currently is.  The problem I have is how it happened.  It didn’t come from Korra being patient or trying a proper airbending style it came for her wanting to protect Mako and thus punching at Amon.  Also the fact that's it's Mako of all people that brings that about really bugs me.
I have to say that I hate Mako I really do.  This character is just garbage.  Oh he’s confused people say, that’s a reason for his behaviour it doesn’t excuse it.  Because you’re confused is not justification for treating your girlfriend or your friend the way Mako treated Asami and Korra.  He was cold to Korra before he learned she was the avatar.  Then when she was doing her job as the avatar by investigating Future Industries he had the gall to actually say that Korra was just doing this because she is jealous of his relationship with Asami.  Wow Mako way to make me believe that you think Korra is amazing when you also believe she is petty enough to try to get an innocent man thrown in jail just so she could date you.  And this guy isn't even datable material as he is a terrible boyfriend to Asami.  He isn't honest with her, he thinks it's his job to protect her from stuff she doesn't need protecting from, and when he doesn't want to be with her anymore he thinks it's perfectly okay to start flirting with Korra and doesn't get why this pisses Asami off.  The defense he gets for this is that he’s a teenage boy they make mistakes; now that’s true anyone at any age can make a mistake what matters is how they grow and learn for those mistakes, and Mako hasn’t.  Hell Mako won’t even acknowledge the fact that he made mistakes when Asami confronted him about the kiss with Korra and asks him if he has feelings for her.  He doesn’t give a simple yes or no answer, he doesn’t say I was confused and I did something I shouldn’t have I’m sorry and from now on I’ll be totally honest with you.  What he does is try to derail the conversation by saying that there’s stuff going on and they can talk about later, which they never do.  Instead he continues to go after Korra never once taking Asami’s feelings into consideration.  And when he finally gets around to dumping Asmai he still won’t take any responsibility for his actions.  When he breaks it off with his half-assed apology he says stuff happened.  No Mako stuff did not happen.  You cheated on your girlfriend both physically and emotionally, and now you’re going to run after Korra with no reflection on this relationship because you realize you love her, you selfish asshole.

And what’s worse is that Mako too had the chance to really grow as a character if those flaws were acknowledged as proper flaws.  We see time and again that Mako wants to protect people whether they actually need it or not, and learning the limits of control would have been a great lesson for him.  Where Mako grows to see that he doesn’t have to be the white knight for everyone anymore, and that Bolin especially is able to take care himself.  That Korra can clearly take care of herself physically and so can Asami.  We even had a nice moment in episode nine when the gang are escaping from the equalist prison.  Mako is watching them being chased by the equalists and Bolin steps up to him with a gesture of ‘I’ll handle this’ and then uses earthbending to bring down the tunnel.  It was a great little moment that would have shown that Bolin is becoming an adult and that Mako can step back and let him be one.  Instead though Mako is shown to be totally right about trying to do everything on his own, for example when Bolin’s attempts to raise money in episode three get him involved in a gang war and Mako and Korra have to rescue him.  It’s supposed to be touching that Mako threatens to burn some guy’s face off when Korra is kidnapped in episode nine and shoves everybody out of the way to carry Korra bridal style to the sky bison.  Well, it might have been if Mako wasn’t threatening an unarmed individual and if Mako wasn’t already dating someone else!

Why the hell does the love triangle even need to be in here anyway?  You have twelve episodes to tell your story, getting bogged down in romantic junk isn’t needed.  I mean without it all of episode five could have been devoted entirely to something else.  A further problem I have with this is that once again we can’t have a strong female protagonist as the lead in a series without having a goddamned love interest for her too.  We can’t just have Korra doing her duties as the avatar and being a strong independent female with a great group of friends to help her.  Nope we have to a love interest, because breaking formulas is bad.   Also all the love drama really diminishes them as a group of friends too.  In episode eight we see that Korra was doubting herself as an avatar and her ability to be what Republic City needs.  Then Asami, Bolin, and Mako come to her saying how they’ll support Korra and be there as a team; and we get one good episode of that and then it all goes to hell.  Mako flaunts his feelings for Korra in front of Asami leaving her as an outsider in the group.  Bolin becomes nothing more than comic relief, and Korra is apparently oblivious to the drama going on between Asami and Mako.  Honestly there is no way to feel good about the Korra Mako relationship because an innocent friend, who has already lost everything, is getting hurt in the process of them getting together and it did not need to be written like that.

Speaking of the third part of the love triangle, after Bolin is shoved aside with the total waste that is episode five, I have to say that I love Asami.  She calls Mako out on his bullshit and handles herself with grace and control despite losing everything in the world that meant anything to her.  She’s the only character whole actually provides a reason for fighting against the equalists.  She gets that just because one firebender did something terrible doesn’t mean that all benders are bad, although Mako being a terrible boyfriend might have tarnished that idea a bit.  She also made the note that just because her and her father are non-benders doesn’t mean they agree with Amon.  That was a great area that was also never explored in the whole non-bender bender issue.  Sato joins the equalists because one fire-bender killed his wife.  A terrible crime and tragedy yes, but that doesn’t mean that all benders are bad.  The same is true of the triads really.  One gang of three terrorizes one area of town, or perhaps even just one shop keeper, and suddenly benders are oppressing non-benders?  Amon’s backstory has that damn problem too.  Apart from once again being told that Amon wanted everything to be fair and equal and seeing nothing that backs that up.  It actually makes sense that Amon would come away from his childhood thinking that bending was bad/evil.  Once again though it’s still one person, Yakone, who did something terrible, not one class of people looking down on another.  It’s not benders as a whole looking down on non-benders.  Or companies discriminating against non-benders in their hiring practices, or showing a recent trend in the city for benders and non-benders to be segregated in some way.  Heck the only place where I see a job that could only be done by benders is the metal bending police force, but that would technically discriminate against non-benders and other element benders besides earthbenders so it doesn’t really count.  In fact the only group I see doing the oppressing are the equalists.  Think about it, they work to take away a person’s bending, either temporarily or permanently.  After the attack on the city in episode ten, that probably hurt innocent civilians, they make bending illegal round up benders, remove their bending, and then throw them in prison.  Remind me again who the oppressed group was supposed to be here?  And what’s worse is that none of this hypocrisy is called out by anyone.

However, the final thing that totally throws this season right under the bus is the dues ex machina ending.  Despite all the problems of the season so far the final few minutes of episode twelve was still a great spot to build on for the second season.  Korra rejected Mako’s declaration of love which meant there would be time for Asami to get over the hurt of losing her relationship along with her father, her home, and the life she has always known.  It would give the whole Mako Korra romance some more time to grow.  With Korra losing her bending there was still a great chance for a lot of character growth for the next season despite the lack of it here.  Now she was faced with the reality of her greatest fear, Amon had taken her ability to bend all the elements except air.  Now she would have to learn to work with her weakest element and to finally learn that being that avatar was not all about bending.  It also put her in a great place for dealing with the bender non-bender conflict too because, as one non-bender said “you’re our avatar too.”  That would have been great way to show that fully.  Where she and everyone else learns that she can bring balance to the world, and do it without just bending the problem away like she did with Amon.  But none of that awesomeness gets to happen.  Instead Aang makes an appearance and gives Korra her bending back and mastery of the avatar state all in one go, and in the worlds of Lin Bei Fong “you've done absolutely nothing to deserve this.” I mean if I wanted to watch Aang save the day I would go watch Avatar: The Last Airbender.  But I wanted to watch Korra save the day and grow while doing so and that just did not happen.  

Now let me get to the biggest excuse I’ve seen for all the problems I just mentioned: it was only twelve episodes they didn’t know they would be getting a second season that's why everything was crammed in like this.  In my opinion that just makes all of this worse, because this is how the series was planned to end.  It wasn’t like they had a big long five season thing already to go and then got cancelled half-way through.  They knew they were getting a twelve episode miniseries and this is what they decided to do with it.  They chose to focus on filler with unnecessary love triangles and pro-bending rather than the central conflict of class and privilege.  With the ending as it is it’s clear that they didn’t expect Mako to need any growth, because he doesn’t learn anything about letting people do their own things or being faithful to his significant other.  It’s clear that they thought that Korra learning to kick and punch air was a proper character arc for her.  And that punching and kicking said air at the villain, who turns out to be a power mad bad guy instead of an idealist gone awry or something interesting like that, is enough to deal with the other political conflict that put a city at war. 

In short this whole show is just so disappointing right now. After such a great set up that set the stage for growth and complex issues what we got was a weak last two thirds of the season that undermined the plot, the characters, and the whole conflict in general and I’m not looking forward to season two at all.

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