With over two decades of successful adult-oriented animated comedies on American television, most having more than an occasional brush with science fiction and fantasy, it's pretty surprising that American attempts at adult genre animated dramas have been few and far between. The crash and burn prime-time experiment Invasion America (1998), alongside more niche-oriented cable shows such as Aeon Flux (1991-1995) and Spicy City (1997), found small numbers of fans, but none became a phenomenon of the same magnitude as American live action genre dramas.
Greater success was met by animated genre dramas aimed at a younger audience but made with enough visual and narrative complexity to appeal to adults as well. Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) started this trend, drawing adult viewers with its stylish, Fleischer Studio-inspired dark visuals and adaptations of many classic comics stories. The show and its many spin-offs set the bar for animated adaptations of American comics that followed, with the most impressive example being the 2008 show Wolverine and the X-Men, a dark, ambitious, and complex series about Marvel Comics's mutant universe that I still rank as the best adaptation—animated or live action—of American comics made to date. But even Wolverine and the X-Men couldn't be seriously considered as the American answer to Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999).
Then came Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008). Which, to be clear, wasn't the American answer to Cowboy Bebop either. In fact, compared to Wolverine and the X-Men, it leaned toward the younger end of the scale, often over-emphasizing simplistic moral lessons, and rather blatantly drawing influence from other sources—Star Wars, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dungeons & Dragons, anime, and new age mysticism—assuming that most of its young viewers were not sufficiently versed in geek-lore to care. But while the show's different ingredients, or even the way they were mixed, weren't particularly original, Avatar's ambitious scope went above and beyond anything ever done before in an American animated drama.
Avatar took place in a fantasy world populated with benders—people with the ability to manipulate one of the four classical elements. In each generation, an "Avatar," who can master all four elements, is born, and acts as a peacekeeper among the different bending nations. But Aang, the last Avatar, has been missing for decades, allowing the militant Fire Nation to go on a violent conquest campaign against the other nations. The show began with the discovery of Aang—preserved as a twelve-year-old—and his awakening by two young siblings from the Water Tribe. With his newfound friends, Aang had to complete his training in order to stop the Fire Nation's nearly-complete conquest of the world.
Avatar took its audience on an epic journey through a carefully planned story that spanned three seasons. As noted above, there wasn't anything really original about the basic plot or the world in which it took place, but the gradual revelation of visual wonders, the protagonists' increasingly desperate race against time, and the sympathetic cast of characters spiced with some measure of complexity (notably in the character of Zuko, the young heir to the Fire Nation throne), made it a significant milestone in the development of American animated dramas, and a hit among both young and adult viewers.
Avatar concluded its run in 2008, but fandom remained strong, leading to the announcement of a new show set in the same universe—Avatar: The Legend of Korra. With the recent conclusion of the new show's first season, the producers should be applauded for attempting to take things in a very different direction—even if they pretty much failed in producing something as entertaining and engaging as their previous show.
The Legend of Korra takes place decades after Avatar, with peace between the different bending-nations restored, and most of the original series's protagonists now long gone. Republic City, a huge metropolis where people of all nations gather and co-exist, has been built according to Aang's vision. It is at this city that Korra—a young Water Tribe girl and the current Avatar—arrives at the beginning of the show to complete her training. The excitement of discovering the wonders of the big city and making new friends is quickly pushed aside by the threat of Amon, a mysterious masked figure who attempts to lead the city's non-bending residents in a revolution against the benders' leadership.
The very choice of show's location dictates a different kind of atmosphere than Avatar's. While Avatar led its protagonists in a journey across the world, The Legend of Korra remains bound to a single location, with Republic City's day-to-day routine replacing the discovery of each new exotic location. And there are some impressive visual pieces to explore in Republic City: one could raise an eyebrow at the technological leap that show's world had experienced since Avatar—from pseudo-medieval to advanced steampunk—but the combination of bender-driven culture with elements from east-Asian architecture and America of the Roaring '20s gives The Legend of Korra a unique visual flavor.
Unfortunately, this unique visual flavor wears off about halfway through the season, as if the producers ran out of interesting ideas about their location. At that point, Republic City becomes a rather generic background that has trouble supporting the ongoing plot. Part of the problem is the awkward pacing of the season's events: episodes alternate between several different plotlines—Korra's training, her participation in pro-bending competitions (the producers' attempts at a sport drama are a truly clichéd and a dull mess), her romantic longing for her teammate Mako (romance stories are something that wasn't handled convincingly in Avatar either)—which fail to merge into something coherent. Plotlines are resolved quickly and then ignored, for the most part, in favor of the ongoing plot about Amon's upcoming revolution. Which, for the most part, is another letdown.
Aang's struggle against the Fire Nation in Avatar had a consistent feeling of desperate tension to it, as the protagonists spent almost all their time running for their lives (looking back at it now, I realize just how great an achievement it was to maintain this tension over three seasons). Korra's struggle against Amon lacks the same kind of urgency. The dialogue keeps referring to how grave and dangerous things are, but aside from Korra's fear of Amon's ability to remove bending powers, the situation doesn't feel personal for her or her friends until the season's two concluding episodes—which, to the show's credit, increase the stakes considerably, with some exciting action spectacles thrown in for a good measure, but also resolve the revolution story in most anti-climatic way imaginable. One theme that the The Legend of Korra successfully delivered throughout its first season is that Amon's arguments against the benders' regime have a legitimate basis: that benders have indeed fallen into political corruption and organized crime, and that the victims of this process are indeed of the non-bending population. The literal revelation of Amon's true face at the end of the season is a weak plot-twist that sets aside any moral complexity hinted before.
But the biggest problem with The Legend of Korra is its protagonist. Aang's character in Avatar, under its boyish joyfulness, was essentially a tragic figure: the last of his people to survive, all his friends and relatives murdered, and someone who has to find the answers to an impossible mission on his own. Korra simply has too much going for her: born and raised by loving parents, surrounded by supportive tutors and friends, with the entire political and law enforcement establishment of Republic City on her side. Along with her generally optimistic and carefree nature, Korra is a person who has it all too easy (and the producers made it worse by having deus ex machinas work in her favor all too often—notably in the season's forced, nonsensical happy ending). In contrast to Korra, the more interesting character of Asami, a privileged non-bender who joins the Avatar in her struggle against Amon, turning her back against her own people, is the more interesting character of the show. Alas, she remains—like many other interesting elements in The Legend of Korra—sadly underdeveloped.
While the first season of The Legend of Korra left me disappointed, the producers deserve a credit for at least trying something new, instead of playing it safe and sticking to the same familiar elements of Avatar. And given that this is the show's first season, I have hope the second season will show an improvement. The potential for the new characters and setting is there, even though for the most part of the first season it remained unrealized.
When he's not working on his PhD researching animation as a text, Raz Greenberg works as a content editor for an Internet company, and spends his time writing reviews, articles, and stories. His articles have appeared in Strange Horizons, Animated Views, RevolutionSF, and Salon Futura; his fiction has appeared in FutureQuake, Murky Depths, and Ray Gun Revival, and in several Hebrew genre magazines in his home country of Israel. In 2010, a short story by him was nominated for the Geffen Award, given by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.