Like a Geek God #15 by Mark Pursell
The Legend of Korra Season Two: A Post Mortem
Sequels can be tricky. Many times, the attempt to preserve the spirit of the original object while also striking out in a new direction leads to one of two extemes: transcendance, or catastrophic failure. Aliens, The Godfather: Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Road Warrior capitalized on their progenitors and catapulted their franchises to greater heights of artistic achievement.
On the other hand, we have…The Matrix Reloaded, Jaws 2, Basic Instinct 2, and any number of direct-to-video Disney follow-ups.
It’s hard to say why there’s rarely a middle ground for sequels. Maybe it’s due to the fact that—unless an intellectual property (IP) is conceived with sequels in mind—the existence of a sequel only comes about because the original IP has been commercially successful. This sometimes coincides with critical acclaim and sometimes doesn’t, and it’s hard to say which is the worse offender: a bad sequel to a bad movie that was, despite its badness, financially viable, or a bad sequel to a good or even great movie that squanders exciting storytelling opportunities and tarnishes the franchise/IP’s name.
Television has to deal with this, too. There’s hardly any data for television shows that attempt to be sequels. Spin-offs are more common, and though they can hardly be referred to as sequels in the most accurate sense, conventional television wisdom holds that a spin-off series is an equally-risky bet that rarely pans out well (here’s looking at you, Joey and Golden Palace and Joanie Loves Chachi and The Lone Gunmen). Fortunately, geek television culture is littered with spin-off success stories. Angel and Torchwood, though you may argue the finer points of their worth, extemporized from their source material (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who, respectively) with enough elan to distinguish themselves and establish their own fan bases.
So, the question of a sequel series to Nickolodeon’s hot-property Avatar: The Last Airbender wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion on the side of the negative. Actually, it seemed like both a good idea and a novel one. Airbender is one of the most cohesive and satisfying storytelling experiences in modern serialized television, though often overlooked because of its animated nature and its youthful target audience. Creators and lead writers Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko proved again and again during the series’ original run that they were worldbuilders, screenwriters, and showrunners of not only competence but complexity. Though Airbender as a series ended with that most rare of commodities—a satisfying finale—its universe was ripe for further exploration. When Nickoloden announced The Legend of Korra, a sequel series set seventy years after the events of Airbender and starring the next incarnation of the Avatar—a belligerent teenage girl named Korra—Airbender fans across the globe rejoiced.
With the Airbender IP in place and DiMartino and Konietzko once again taking the reins, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Korra would live up to, possibly even surpass, the original series. Early press made much of the fact that the creators had asked for and been given a smaller number of episodes per season to write, allowing them to discard stand-alone episodes and subplots in favor of telling a serialized story arc with precision, focus, and momentum. A dream come true, especially for those of us (*raises hand*) who rant regularly and with passion about how the network standard of twenty-two episodes per season is an enemy to great art, whether it is comedy or epic fantasy.
And things started well enough last year when Korra’s first season aired. The discrete nations of the Airbender world, depicted in the original series as being in the infancy of an industrial revolution, coalesce in Korra to a Gotham analogue called Republic City where the different strata of the Airbender world gather in one place, with the result that—as in most melting-pot metropolises across our actual history—the clash of cultures has led both to advancement (Republic City is essentially a steampunk Shanghai, with zeppelins and metalbending police officers) and antagonism. When the show opens, the mix of elementally-powered benders and “normal”, non-bending people has led to a wave of anti-bending sentiment among Republic City’s ungifted and disenfranchised populace. This idea is embodied by first season villain Amon, leader of an anti-bending organization (the Equalists) and a revolutionary firebrand with, naturally, more than equality on his mind. It’s a relevant, contemporary tableau. Then you have Korra herself: she’s an admirably flawed character, tough and empathetic but headstrong and impatient. She makes an effective contrast to the first series’ Aang, whose airbender serenity, cheerfulness, and insight into human nature is offset by occasional arrogance, reluctance to “grow up”, and fear of his own destiny.
Unfortunately, the very storytelling element that Korra’s shorter season run was supposed to enhance—plotting—emerged as the show’s weakest aspect, against all expectation and logic.
A strong initial salvo of episodes degenerated into a tired love triangle (can we just put love triangles away for a few decades? Bella and her monsters, Katniss and her male damsels-in-distress…leave it alone, please). Then, bizarrely, the show seemed to change its mind about the identity of masked villain Amon, having seemed to set up “his” identity as supporting character Asami and then, in the eleventh hour, pawning the villain’s role off on a previously-unseen/unknown character in whom the audience had no interest or investment. Then the plot was all neatly wrapped up, even though the creators had already been guaranteed a second season (and later signed a deal for three more seasons). They then announced that they had decided to dispense with the overall serialized arc of Airbender and that each season of Korra would feature a discrete arc. Oooookay. Buh?
Whatever floundering marred the end of Korra’s first season continued (and how) with his year’s second season run. The overall conceit of the season was a focus on the spirit world (a running worldbuilding element in the Avatar universe) and the origins of the Avatar’s singular ability to manipulate, or “bend”, all four of the primal elements. However, the first six or seven episodes of Season Two frittered away screentime on a too-obviously-villainous waterbending leader and his engineering of a civil war among the Southern Water Tribe. By the time the season got around to its main point in the “Beginnings” two-parter, this writer’s disinterest had reached eye-rolling proportions. Did we learn nothing from The Phantom Menace? Bureacratic and political machinations can certainly be interesting, but you have to know your brand. I mean, it’s Star Wars, it’s Airbender, it’s high fantasy adventure. This isn’t fucking House of Cards. I suppose it might be different if the political intrigue was written well, but it wasn’t. It was mostly a hash of first-thought “revelations” and betrayals which could have been tossed out completely, being beside the point as they are. The back half of the season was somewhat stronger because the focus shifted to the spirit world and Korra’s relationship with it, ending with a *SPOILER* intriguing development that saw a reentry of the spirits into human society and Korra’s loss of ability to connect with the spirits of her Avatar predecessors. However, even these more exciting story elements suffered from the kind of logical inconsistencies and unforegrounded developments that rarely plagued Airbender. (It should be noted that DiMartino, who co-wrote every episode of Korra’s first season with Konietzko, wrote only a handful of episodes for Season Two; Konietzko wrote none at all).
Why the faltering quality? If I had to spitball, I’d say it has to do (and it usually does, when things like this happen) with the creators and showrunners. DiMartino and Konietzko wrote all twelve episodes of Season One by themselves; while I normally advocate for this kind of writing set up, to avoid a “too many cooks in the kitchen” lurch in quality and tone from episode to episode, they seem to have grown fatigued by the end of the Season One run, a supposition further supported by Konietzko’s lack of writing credits in S2 and DiMartino’s limited participation. For all of Korra’s interesting and complex ideas, and the fantastic, wide universe of Airbender to explore, these guys seem tired of their own show.
In the end, Korra is a rare exception to the general sequel rule. It isn’t devastatingly awful so far, but it doesn’t really live up to Airbender, much less expand on it successfully. It’s possible that, having flushed some unsteadiness from their pipes, DiMartino and Konietzko will find their feet with the in-development third season. Time will tell. At least Korra is better than the live-action Airbender movie (a cinematic abortion for which M. Night Shyamalan should be jailed). And if you’re an Airbender fan, like me, and Korra frustrates you by not capitalizing on its potential brilliance, revisit some of your favorite episodes and story arcs from the original series. After all: we’ll always have Aang.
Mark Pursell (Episode 75) is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.