I am a big Avatar: The Last Airbender fan. I’ve already rewatched it once after writing this love list to it. I recently started The Legend of Korra with a mix of eagerness and trepidation. See, I’ve had quite a few conversations with other people gushing about AtLA. None of them have resulted in anyone saying “You gotta watch Korra, it’s amazing too.” A few have included warnings or the classic “I didn’t get on with it but am curious to see what you think”, a saying that I know from long use is 95% a genuine desire to promote enjoyable activities for others and 5% a tiny shamefaced wish to have someone else to dunk a show with. A quick search reveals plenty of links talking about the same phenomenon.
This is important to include to me as this post will be a lot about expectations. Not that I think these particular set of expectations are what had me at loggerheads with The Legend of Korra’s first episode. But I want to include them for the full picture, and I was certainly at loggerheads. Hell, if it didn’t have Avatar at the front, I’d straight up never watch the show again. It wasn’t just what I wanted, it was semi-objectively bad, and I think it’s easy to see how this show ended up disappointing a lot of AtLA fans. I don’t know if that will include me, I’m going to give it a full and as unbiased go as possible, but it’s started on the wrong foot. So – warning for some spoilers – let’s talk why:
1. Personal Preferences
Let’s start with things this show did that rubbed me the wrong way and maybe set my mindset on other things that are wholly subjective. The big one is that Korra is a brash know-it-all who can’t be wrong and that is probably my least favourite protagonist type of all. I did have a mild panic when first exploring that thought in my own head as to whether this is some deep buried sexism, that guys can be cocky but girls are just annoying, and was therefore overjoyed when re-reading Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and thought that Taran was a berk for just the same reason. It’s also the same reason I can’t re-read Jezal’s chapters in The First Law and why I threw The Traitor Son Cycle across as the room during a Captal de Vrailly chapter. Come to think of it, Sokka made me really cringe in early AtLA episodes. I just straight up don’t like it on anyone and while I can see it’s meant to be part of a journey, I don’t want to start from that place. And since Korra is the main protagonist and nobody else in the episode even really qualifies as a well-developed secondary, there’s not a lot of things to look at other than that place.
So yeah, this episode was viewed through a cranky pair of eyes, and that might be colouring what comes next. I don’t think it is to a significant degree, but it might.
2. Failed Expectations
You knew this one was coming, right?
I didn’t expect a clone of AtLA, but I did expect a sequel to possess a lot of the same qualities and aim for a lot of the same tonalities. The Legend of Korra deliberately shies away from that. It goes out of its way to make its differences clear. Korra’s brash arrogance and love of fighting are obvious contrasts to Aang’s pacifism, his desire to be ordinary, and self-doubts. The setting evolves to match its protagonist too; less spiritual, more confrontational. It tries to make its similarities clear by starting in Waterbender territory, having Katara, having children of the originals, but the similarities are softer spoken than the differences.
Captain Obvious says that it would be dull and pointless if sequels always trod the same territory as their predecessors, and also that this is obvious ground to explore after the first series. Captain Obvious is right. Captain Obvious is also right to say that missing the mark when it comes to the “Same But Different” part of sequels – not enough the same, too different – is the easiest way to give people a bad experience. Look at the Star Wars prequels. The Legend of Korra missed the mark for me on tonal differences and as a result, my expectations got in the way of enjoyment.
That can be overcome.
What is far more difficult to overcome is not having the same qualities. I look back at AtLA and what I love most is how well done the characters are, and how well they bounce off each other as a result, and how naturally funny and dramatic the show is simply because of the characters following themselves. It’s unfair to compare the first episode of a new show to an entire product, but I do it subconsciously anyway. And it is fair to compare it to the first episode. AtLA started with a strong pair of characters with a strong bond in Katara and Sokka, then immediately added a third wheel who was just as strong and who could change their dynamics in Aang. Episode one of The Legend of Korra is very much, as noted, the Korra show. She has no meaningful relationships. I think this is another deliberate attempt to distance itself from AtLA but in this case, it’s less throwing the baby away with the bathwater as starting house renovations by completely demolishing it.
I can live with a sequel taking an unexpected angle on themes. It takes adjustment at times but I can live with it. That’s what stories are about. Sequels not providing the expected entertainment type is a show-killer. That’s where The Legend of Korra really failed my expectations, and not just as a sequel. It failed to provide much entertainment at all, which kind of segues into:
3. Where’s the Story?
Here we get into what I consider semi-objective territory.
There is no Narrative Momentum in the first episode. There is precious little story. It is naked scene-setting with little if any attempt to include a contained narrative that entertains and draws us in. It’s like the creators believed they didn’t have to win us over to this new story because it has Avatar in the title so they skipped all the story parts that engage and just got to setting out their building blocks.
Let’s dig deeper into the accusation that there is no story. A common Anglosphere definition of story is that’s in someone in conflict with something else; that the protagonist wants to do something, but someone or something is stopping themselves, and the story covers what happens. This is a crude way of putting it but it covers the basics of how I am measuring it, and how I expect a narrative to unfold.
Korra wants to leave her home and go master the fourth element, Air, in the big city. Her teachers don’t want her to do that. Boom, there we go. Story set up. So Korra tries to leave home and… just succeeds. Okay, fair enough, playing with expectations of conflict is tight and hey, they want to show off their big setting. Besides, her teachers can send her home, right? Well, Korra doesn’t seek out her teacher. She gallivants around the city, gets into a fight with the Triad, complains when she’s arrested – fine character building stuff I guess, but no story – and aha! Finally. Her teacher says go home. She says please no and makes a little speech. About seven lines of dialogue later, the teacher gives in. And, wait, what? That’s the end of the episode? Objectively, by that common definition, there is very little story. Someone wants something, they get it after token resistance. I suspect another thematic choice to demonstrate that Korra gets what she wants without any conflict, but it is a very risky storytelling choice to make. There’s a reason conventional storytelling doesn’t put the thematic statement as the very first thing.
4. A Conclusion and What I’d Change
It’s always a happy day when one of my favourite Yes Minister quotes is appropriate to a situation.
Me thinking that what they set out to do is a damn silly thing is very subjective. I don’t much like characters like Korra, I don’t particularly like the changes in theme or the modernisation of the setting. If you’d given me the IP after AtLA and told me to do a show, I wouldn’t have gone that direction. I’m not sure what direction I’d have gone – my off the top of my head thoughts would be to focus on the Earth Kingdom, and the clash between Earth’s conservative enduring nature vs Water’s flowing innovation, and the restoration of the Air Nation – but I wouldn’t have chosen theirs.
However, I could be sold on it – and hope to be still – with better choices on how to tell it.
The first episode needs more interesting characters and even more, it needs a story. I don’t know what it is, but a new series needs to win fans’ trust again, and that starts with a good story. The quick easy fix is to have Korra spend the entire episode in the White Lotus camp in Water Tribe territory trying to convince her teachers to let her go. The other one is to drop her in Republic City from the get go and give her an arc in which her clash with its values convince her teachers to send her away, and she must persuade them otherwise.
I think the best fix though would have been not to concentrate on Korra at all. Concentrate on a pair of friends in Republic City. Show the changes and flaws of it through their eyes. Give them a story. Have Korra shown in places desiring to go to the city – almost give her the Zuko role. Why? You can have a more likable pair of characters ease us into Korra clashing with the world. Sparing use of Korra’s brashness would actually strengthen it. It creates anticipation of what will happen when Korra meets them. It uses a similar narrative springboard to get us comfy with the jump into the different. Thematically, concentrating on someone other than the Avatar would seem to fit the progress and questioning of bending privilege that’s being set up. And it would allow for stronger characters to make the show more interesting.
Maybe those characters would be victims of the Triad who write to the Avatar pleading for help because the police are useless. Maybe they’re bandits or rebels who Korra wants to track down. Maybe they’re campaigners trying to get bending powers restricted. All of these angles would work.
Doing something like this would have given The Legend of Korra’s first episode a far more conventional feeling and, I think, a stronger appeal as a result. I know there’s got to be some people out there who love The Legend of Korra in part because it bucked so much against convention from the start and probably wouldn’t want such changes. What I’m suggesting isn’t entirely conventional either though – how many TV shows start with their lead character barely seen? It’s an attempt to try to preserve it’s attempts to challenge viewers while making it more accessible and entertaining; to try and sell it as a story in its own right, rather than as a mix of nostalgic name-checking and introductions to the future.
It’s also an attempt to just look at what makes a good start, both in its own right and as a sequel. What draws people in, what puts them in the wrong frame. The Legend of Korra makes a lot of bold decisions to try and cut its own path, but focuses too much on showcasing its boldness and not enough on just forging forwards with an actual story. And that is its biggest flaw, and its biggest what not to do.