Monday, February 3, 2014 0 comments

Looking Pilot Review

Sunday, February 2, 2014 0 comments

The Legend of Korra is Disappointing

Avatar: The Last Airbender is often cited as one of the best children's television shows ever made. With smart writing, serialized plotting, and an imaginative setting; the show set a new standard in children's television that still has yet to be surpassed today. The creation of the sequel, The Legend of Korra, was anticipated to be the moment where that bar would finally be surpassed. The season one premiere seemed to confirm this, as a mature script, fluid direction, and improved animation suggested that Korra was likely to, not only equal, but surpass its predecessor.

Two seasons later, it would become very obvious that, while certainly a beautiful looking show with fantastic individual episodes, the writing and plotting are simply not strong enough. Whether it be the abrupt endings of both seasons that seemed desperate in it's eagerness to hit the reset button, poorly developed supporting characters, questionable character actions that stretched both character believability and consistency, and a second season that seemed to work only in its second-half.

The problems really began to show in the latter half of Korra's first season, when characters like Mako, Bolin, and Asami, while certainly not terrible, seemed to be getting the shorter end of the stick. Episodes would go by with little understanding of their wants or need. It was as if the show was moving too fast, as Korra had both a shorter season than that of Avatar, and a pacing that simply did not allow for the standalone problem of the week episode that so regularly characterized Avatar.

In Avatar, especially in it's first season,  the main storyline would often move in short bursts right after a few standalone episodes that would have the characters going from town to town dealing with various problems. Such episodes assisted in developing the world and the various supporting characters who inhabited it. In Avatar, you cared about the side-characters because they were more than a single personality type.

Korra doesn't do that. Instead, it's narrative is way more serialized and fast-paced, resulting in much less standalone episodes. That's not to say that a faster paced structure is inherently worse than a slower one, but it does mean that the writing necessarily must be more efficient than that of a slower paced show. A writer has much less time to give us the necessary motivations, personalities, and details that make up a well-rounded character, much less one where the episodes are only half an hour long.

The first half of season one suggested that maybe this was possible, as the main-story was just forming and the characters were all just being introduced. A standout episode of the first season, "The Spirit of Competition," had Korra, Mako, and Bolin clashing while also attempting to win a pro-bending game. The episode not only maturely dealt with the love triangles that were beginning to form between the characters, but also gave us time to settle down with the characters and better understand who they are when they aren't busy saving the world.

Unfortunately the inferior second part of the first season simply suffers from a pacing that is way too quick. Characters are introduced with little to no understanding of what motivates them or who they even are. Mako turns into a boring and emotionless character who's main attribute seems to be that he can spout fire. Bolin is relegated to comic relief duties, making him funny a lot of the time, but also universally boring in dramatic moments. Asami is given an arc that is interesting at first, but then falls apart due to the writer's  neglecting to give her much to do. That isn't to say that nothing interesting happens in the second half, it's just that it would of been much more interesting if I was given a reason to care about any of the supporting cast.

And then there's the ending of that season, which seemed so desperate to close off the story, that it ended up using multiple contrivances in order to end nearly all the conflicts in the season rather abruptly. Avatar at least had the decency to let those conflicts play out in the succeeding seasons, often leaving things off with big cliffhangers that felt natural. Korra, on the hand foregoes this naturalism in order to maintain a status quo that raises nearly no anticipation for the next season. As if to add insult to injury, the show also preceded to have a dues ex machina that ensures that none the characters in the show would suffer any consequence from any of the preceding events in the season. It was bizarre how far the show was willing to go not to disrupt the existing situation.

Nevertheless, the first season of Korra is at least provides some solid fantasy thrills, the political and social conflicts within the city being quite interesting, the animation consistently being fantastic and beautiful, the plot still moving briskly enough to provide entertainment in the moment to moment action, and Korra herself being a very proactive and interesting character. Her hotheadedness, drive, and toughness, along with the acknowledgement that she still was a 17 year old who has to deal with the issues of being a celebrity, made her quite unique. All of this led to the hope that the second season would iron out all of the problems that plagued the first season and make for a smoother ride as a whole.

Boy was I in for a disappointment.

The second season of Korra, not only fails to improve upon the problems of the preceding season, but also proceeds to create other problems. They start almost immediately by having Korra rehashing a seemingly fixed conflict she had in the first season, her volatile relationship with her mentor, Tenzin. As if to add insult to injury, Korra also develops a conflict with her father and her new boyfriend, Mako, out of seemingly nowhere. That isn't even mentioning the fact that Korra spends the first four episodes helping a man who is so obviously the villain of the story and then proceeds to spend an entire episode attempting to start a war by repeatedly complaining to everyone about how much the war means to her and her people.

Not only does this whole exercise serve to establish Korra as a whiny, unlikable, stupid, and unthinking child that serves to make the audience dislike the only interesting and likable character from the first season, but it also stalls most of the episodes in the beginning. The first 3 episodes build up to the extremely obvious discovery that Unalaq is a traitor. Many episodes are spent on a ridiculous and completely pointless arc that has Bolin turning into a celebrity and an out of character jerk. Mako breaks up with Korra, gets together again with Asami, then breaks up with her when he gets together with Korra again. The first half of the season is essentially the show spinning its wheels.

And I haven't even gotten to the animation.

When season two of Korra was being made, the studio that animated the entire first season, Studio Mir, was busy working on The Boondocks. This meant that they were only going to be able to produce the latter half of the 14 episodes in production, resulting in Studio Pierrot, the animation company that animates shows like Bleach and Naruto, to take charge of the first 7 episodes.

The Studio Pierrot episodes are really inconsistent. The character models lack fluid motion and generally look wrong, lifeless, and very awkward. Action scenes suffer immensely and basic character interactions seem stilted and off. That isn't to say they're bad, as the backgrounds, locations, and creatures look generally good. Thankfully, the Studio Mir episodes are absolutely stunning to look at and feature some of the best animated fight scenes on television.

With the animation, the show itself also begins to pick itself up beginning with the two-parter, "Beginnings," a flashback episode that chronicles the life of the first ever Avatar. Possibly the best episode of Korra ever created, the episode tells an epic origin story that not only succeeded in reinvigorating the season, but also added an element of tragedy to the Avatar's entire existence. Ironically though, the best episode of Korra ever is an episode that barely features the title character.

From the point onward, Korra, while still being a show with poorly developed characters, questionable character actions, and writing that isn't very smart, now was burning through plot rather quickly, bringing back the much needed pulpy thrills of the first season. It almost seemed that the season might end on a high note.

Until the show completely struck out with another bad season finale that further established Korra as a show that simply wasn't willing to take risks. The finale featured a two episode long battle that was tiring in its longevity, ridiculous in its use of dues ex machina, and completely devoid of really any consequences for any of the main characters. The status quo changed minimally, with little to encourage anyone to want to visit another season of this show. Oh wait? Mako breaks up Korra again? Oh, how I can't wait for next season!

If it sounds like I hate The Legend of Korra, then I must clarify that I do generally like the show to a certain extent. The Legend of Korra is a show that has its moments of pulpy fun and narrative brilliance, as evident by "Beginnings." However, as good as it can get, the show ultimately suffers from way too many problems relating to its inconsistent and poorly developed characters, uneven plotting, and unwillingness to take any risks narratively. Some of these criticisms are born out of comparisons to the original, which definitely set a really high bar for the spinoff. However, as much as I understand the pressures of fulfilling those expectation, The Legend of Korra has a much higher budget, much more creative freedom, and shorter episode orders that allow for greater narrative economy. The fact that The Legend of Korra has all of that going for it and still wasn't able to get even close to reaching that expectation is perhaps the biggest tragedy.