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When dealing with spin-off television series, it’s almost always a good rule of thumb to lower your expectations. As most fans of any beloved TV show will tell you, “Nothing compares to the original,” and in many cases that’s true. But every once in a while, you’ll find a universe that is so rich with potential that it practically begs for more content. Rarer still, you’ll land a spin-off series that becomes just as, if not more, successful than its predecessor -- shows like Angel, Xena: The Warrior Princess, Star Trek: The Next Generation or Frasier. In the case of The Legend of Korra, Nickelodeon had the advantage of bringing back Avatar: The Last Airbender creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino to develop the highly anticipated sequel saga.
In many ways, The Legend of Korra did exceed the original Avatar series. Technically speaking, the animation has never looked better. Indeed, this show may be the most beautifully rendered animated series airing today. From character and set design to the fluid movement of the intricate choreography, there is no denying that Korra has taken the animated medium to new heights on television. The sharp contour lines of the characters contrast perfectly with the impressionistic, almost painterly backdrops -- any one of which could be used for my next desktop image.
The show also introduced a decidedly new look for its 70-year time jump, infusing elements of steampunk and 1920s industrialism into its previously established eastern flair. While this might have been initially jarring for longtime viewers of the Avatar series, the show’s updated makeup really lent to the darker stories, giving us the edgier facelift we never knew we wanted. All things considered, in terms of visual style, The Legend of Korra is second to none.
The series also presented a fresh and innovative take on the bending world at large. Through the eyes of Amon, we were given a new viewpoint that felt more believable and relatable than Fire Lord Ozai’s self-serving quest for dominance. Amon was a character with multiple layers, and he embodied a side of antagonism that we’d never seen before in the Avatar universe; he was morally amorphous -- a radical tyrant, for sure, but one with fair-minded goals and a complicated past. It was really his storyline that set in motion these new themes of equality and questioning right from wrong. Above all else, he was a character with redeeming qualities, and that’s always the mark of a good villain. Plus, he was just kind of a badass. (Thanks, Steve Blum.)
But the show also came with a healthy dose of humor to counterbalance the overarching conflict. Characters like Bolin, Tenzin’s kids and even Korra showed us a lighter side to the story that helped ease the dramatic tension. (I think Meelo get's the MVP award this season.) More importantly, these characters worked really well together as a team. They all had extremely complementary personalities, each with their own quirks and foibles. It also helps that they were voiced by such a talented cast of voice actors. Even auxiliary characters like Pema, General Iroh and Hiroshi Sato had their moments to shine alongside Team Avatar. In fact, the only character that didn’t fully meet expectations was Mako. He was certainly featured enough to warrant our attention, but the character never really came into his own. It was almost as if the creators forgot to play up what I imagine would have been his mischievous charm. (Personally, I think Penny Arcade summed him up the best.)
This brings me to one of the series’ most glaring downfalls: the love triangle. While the characters by themselves had some very strong qualities, it was the romance subplot that really fell short. Now, I'm not one of those people who thinks the relationships were “rushed,” because I’m of the opinion that twelve half-hour episodes is more than enough time to tell a satisfying love story. (Hell, we see it all the time in 90-minute feature films.) What's more, I think we’ve seen a compelling romance told in this very series -- and no, I’m not talking about the one between Korra and Mako. I’m talking about the connection between Lin and Tenzin. Here’s a relationship that speaks volumes without ever even talking about it. Just from the way these two characters interact, we get the whole story. That’s part of what makes Lin’s sacrifice in “Turning the Tides” so powerful; it’s a gesture of love in its truest form, surpassing all petty emotions of jealousy and regret, and it’s executed flawlessly.
This is why I don’t think Konietzko and DiMartino should be criticized too harshly. We’ve seen from past experience that their forte is working with characters on opposite ends of the spectrum: children and adults. Characters in their adolescence -- Aang, Toph, Sokka, Katara -- these are the heroes we fell in love with, which is why it’s so easy to connect with Tenzin’s kids on the show; they harken back to those whimsical priorities of a child facing larger-than-life situations. It’s also easy to latch onto the older characters because they have that element of intrigue and wisdom about them. But as with real life, teenagers are a tougher nut to crack. They're hormonally charged, enigmatic question marks, and sometimes their decision-making skills can veer in seemingly arbitrary directions. That doesn’t mean I’m making excuses for the way things panned out between Korra and Mako, I’m just offering reasons for why their relationship never really clicked.
But romances weren’t the only shortcomings of Season 1. While the Amon storyline was indeed a strong and gripping arc, there were also redundancies like pro-bending, which could have either been drastically cut down or removed from the season altogether. It was an interesting idea, and I’m not even totally opposed to the concept. But by the time we got to “The Spirit of Competition,” these repetitive sequences had definitely overstayed their welcome. While it was nice to see the championship dovetail with Amon’s revolution, the incorporation of pro-bending just never felt totally in keeping with the rest of the series. Honestly, the show became much more interesting after it was dropped.
As for the end of Season 1, I’ve read a large number of opinions (mostly comments on this site) that were pretty evenly split down the middle. From what I’ve seen, this was one of those “love it or hate it” kind of endings where you either embraced the optimistic conclusion or you wrote it off as a cop-out. Speaking as someone who doesn't really mind a well-written deus ex machina, I can still see why there would be some frustration with things being tied up in a neat little bow. But the way I look at it, this type of plot device is nothing new to the Avatar series; just look at the lion turtle from Season 3, or even the Moon Spirit from Season 1.
And unlike the original series, Korra making a spiritual connection with Aang was something that’s been hinted at from the very beginning. If you recall, one of the first lines in “Welcome to Republic City” spoke to Korra’s lack of spiritual prowess. I will admit that having her struggle with just one element for another season could have opened up the doors to some great character development, but so could exploring the reign of a fully realized Avatar. That’s why, for me, I consider the end of Season 1 to be a perfect bookend to the premise we were introduced to in the pilot.
Overall, I think The Legend of Korra’s first season was a truly excellent follow-up to Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I honestly don't think I could have hoped for more. Is it better than the original series? That is obviously up for debate. But you can definitely see the hard work and effort that went into it. For both newcomers and fans alike, Season 1 gave us a memorable journey with dramatic highs and plenty of good-natured humor to back it up. More importantly, despite its minor flaws, it told a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. The show did a great job of separating itself from the original source material, while also offering enough references and nods to please the fanbase. As a standalone narrative, The Legend of Korra: Season 1 was a worthy addition to the Avatar mythos, as well as a solid adventure tale, all its own.