By Phil Brown, Contributor
One of the most memorable TV shows in the past few years is Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, a landmark series that is certainly the one of the greatest shows made specifically for children, if not one of the greatest shows of the mid-00s, period.
The show, which ran from 2005-2008 on Nickelodeon, introduced youngsters to incredible characters and complex themes, and was an artistic triumph, perfectly mixing Eastern and Western animation influences. With an average audience of 3 million, reaching 5.6 mil for the four-part series finale, it was also wildly popular, bookending an important part of the childhood of millennials, and influencing that culture significantly.
Oddly enough, the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, the first season of which was released four years later in 2012, has struggled to find a consistent audience, and has been throttled by the same network that benefited so much from the first series.
While the first season of Korra started optimistically with a similar average audience rating as the initial series, and resulted in a four-season order from Nick, the following seasons saw a steady decline in viewership even as critical reception to the show remained glowing.
Part of that is due to Nickelodeon’s poor promotion of the series and inconsistent management, placing the show in the worst time-slots after the first season, unexplained lengths of time between seasons, and culminating in the complete removal of the show from air and it’s relegation to online sources only in the middle of the third season.
It appears the network has given up on the show entirely, the fourth and final season of the show, which began to “air” a couple of weeks ago, is only available online and hasn’t been promoted at all.
The likely reason for the show’s issues is the seeming dichotomy between the subject matter and style of Korra and the remainder of Nick’s programming. While Nick’s current programming tends to be light in the extreme, the bodies continue to hit the floor in Korra, its problem child series, which is darker in tone than its predecessor, tackling complex and even ambiguous issues, and not shying away from showing violence and tragedy.
In many ways, Korra is a grown-up continuation of the first series, and the network is unwilling to grow up with it, and seemingly unable to work around it.
This is made all the more unfortunate because The Legend of Korra is still an incredible work of art, expanding and enhancing the world its creators began in the first series. One of the elements that made The Last Airbender so compelling was the incredible universe DiMartino and Konietzko crafted, which was detailed, consistent, and immediately engrossing.
The Legend of Korra takes us forward many years from that time, shining a different light on the same underlying concepts that were so compelling in the original. The action sequences, which elevated the original so much, are just as breathtaking in the sequel.
The concept of “bending,” manipulating the elements to one’s will, is just as powerful, and the artists are even more creative in showing off the potential in battle sequences that rival anything in live-action movies. The art of the show is more serious, eschewing the brighter colors of the original for a more intensely real palette, and the characters are less cartoon-y.
The themes are also more mature, more firmly grounded to real life. The characters must come to terms with a post-industrialized society, and the issues that come with it: social unrest and revolution, religious extremism and exploitation, stifling bureaucracy and violent idealism. The titular Avatar Korra, endowed with unimaginable heroic power, struggles to find meaning as a superhero in a world that does not want to be saved, tasked with leading humanity to unity and balance, but rejected as a leader.
The characters in the show are wonderful. Featuring a great lead in Korra, a strong woman in every sense of the phrase, a teenager who does her best to carry the weight of the entire world on her shoulders, protect her friends, and maintain her own sense of justice and purpose. Voiced brilliantly by Janet Varney, Korra’s character progression has been incredible, if occasionally frustrating.
Other great voice actors lend their talents to the series, including some recognizable names: J. K. Simmons (Spider-Man) as Korra’s mentor, John Michael Higgins, Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, Aubrey Plaza, Zelda Williams (daughter of Robin), and more.
While the early seasons laid on the teen-drama themes a little too heavily, the characters have matured along with the show, contrived love triangles dissolving into healthy friendships, teenage rebellion subsiding into relationships based on mutual respect. The writers and creators seem much more comfortable telling a tale that is mature and nuanced, but still very accessible.
If you loved Avatar: The Last Airbender when you watched it as a kid, and are still sleeping on The Legend of Korra, I would strongly encourage you to immediately binge the first three seasons. Or watch a couple every day: they’re only 20 minutes long. It will be worth it to catch up with the current season, which is already shaping up to be one of the best after only two episodes.
To anyone else, if you haven’t watched either series, you really should. Sure, they’re technically made with children in mind, but so is candy, and candy is amazing. Also, great art transcends network, intended audience, and time. These shows will prove to you that animation is not just for kids, and that even shows on Nickelodeon can be beautiful, emotional, compelling journeys.