Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
I’ll be honest—while the airbending innovation that is fartbending wasn’t the main reason The Legend of Korra became the only show I had any interest in watching when (most) of the country first went into lockdown back at the end of March, it certainly wasn’t low on the list.
Like, forget the sudden pile-up of early CW season finales. Forget The Last Dance. Forget, (god forbid) the nightly onslaught of bad and worsening news. When America retreated indoors to start waiting out this calamitous virus (and the incompetent administration too callous to take it—or us—seriously), I discovered that the only thing I truly wanted to watch was Avatar Aang’s five-year-old grandson fartbending the lights out of a passel of chi-blocking, anti-bending goons. Enormous hat tip, honestly, to my Paste TV colleagues for humoring weeks of me “joke” nominating The Legend of Korra in our regularly scheduled Power Ranking email threads. I can only hope they appreciate, in retrospect, that I didn’t also inundate them with fartbending Meelo gifs.
If this sounds like me doing a bit, it’s really not. I mean, sure, the childish glee Meelo takes in his fartbending is objectively funny. (Sorry! I don’t make the rules! It just is!) More germane to this specific column, though, is the fact that, both as an innovation to a bending discipline nearly wiped out by a genocide, and as a goofy weapon a five-year-old kid might whip out to use against genuinely dangerous foes, fartbending is also symbolic of everything that made The Legend of Korra so much fun to watch when it first aired, and which makes it just as compelling to binge now. Because, like, fartbending, right? What a concept! What a completely anxiety-soothing, corona-erasing concept. See also: Pro-bending as a post-war sport. See also: Lin Beifong’s metalbending police force. See also: Future Industries’ Satomobile, Varrick’s movers, and the equalizing effects advancements in technology and mass media provide to non-benders. See also: Jinora’s ability to project her mind into the Spirit World. See also: Lavabending. So many cool ideas, all expertly engineered to update the mythology and visual language established in Avatar: The Last Airbender in the sharpest, most visually dazzling ways. When the series premiered in 2012, these inventive updates were a constant source of delight for AtLA fans of all ages. Letting them wash over my pandemic-numbed brain again when history started collapsing in on itself felt like nothing more than settling in for a long soak in a pop culture spa.
At the same time, as fans old and new have been rediscovering since it returned to Netflix in the middle of May, Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t short on delight, either of the visually dazzling or mythologically compelling variety. And yet, as much as I love Aang’s animal-loving antics, Azula’s psychotic take on firebending, and Sokka’s… Sokka-ness, AtLA wasn’t the Avatar series I woke up on Day 1 of lockdown desperate to watch. Because as it turns out, what I wanted to immerse myself in wasn’t just the pure delight of watching Meelo fartbending, or the old-timey radio announcer giving a newsreel rundown of the state of the narrative at the beginning of each episode, or an awkward Bolin waxing poetic about his body, and all the mustaches he might have in the future—what I wanted to sink into was Korra’s pitch-black darkness.
Now, this isn’t me saying that AtLa isn’t also intensely dark—it absolutely is. I mean, its central premise is that, at the start of what would become a civilization-ending Hundred Year War, the Fire Nation committed such brutal genocide against the Air Nomads that Aang (the Airbender child still so early in his training to become the next Avatar that he hadn’t mastered any bending discipline beyond the one he was born into), literally had to sink himself, in the Avatar state, into the sea in order to not succumb to the bone-deep trauma of losing his entire culture. As that series progressed, the devastation wrought on individuals by war and hungry empires—not to mention patriarchy at its most sociopathic—was explored in granular detail. Zuko’s abusive childhood was painfully dissected. Katara discovered bloodbending. Aang nearly died.
Korra, though—man. If AtLA’s darkness is intense, Korra’s is fucking unrelenting. While Aang gets to go on a hero’s journey that is marked by a few major showdowns throughout the series but eventually culminates in one giant, non-violent victory at the end of Season 3 that ends the Hundred Year War and opens a path to peace through the establishment of Republic City, Korra is cursed with one that grinds her to a pulp over the course of a single season, then just resets after each skin-of-her-teeth victory to start pummeling her again in the next. That is to say, because Aang’s story starts in war, Aang has the gift of having one single Biggest Bad to take down in order to restore balance to the world. Because Korra’s story starts in peace, she has an unending stream. Because here’s the thing—the only certainties in life (beyond death) are that power will corrupt, progress will crack, and there will always be people willing to go to evil ends to solve whatever it is they’re convinced is the problem.
Or, as Old Lady Toph/Ex-Chief of Republic City Police Beifong grumbles at Korra when she finally makes an appearance early in Season 4: “The names change, but the streets stay the same.”
In the end, it’s this grim thesis that—more even than Meelo’s fartbending—drove me to so zealously cobble together a way to stream The Legend of Korra back in March before it landed on Netflix. (While CBS All Access carried all four seasons at the time, it was only streaming the first two.) As cathartic as it always is to watch Aang fight his long, good fight and come out the other end with that visually astounding, deeply inspiring non-violent victory over Fire Lord Sozin, the endless battle against the forces of moral corruption, social inequality, xenophobia and authoritarianism that Korra finds herself intractably embroiled in—battles where there might be Big Bads like Amon, Unalaq, Vaatu, the Red Lotus, and Kuvira to fight, but whose victories can only really be won on a civic/political level—are way more realistic. Ending a war isn’t easy, but it is concrete. Maintaining peaceful balance thereafter … that’s the work of a hundred lifetimes. Which, I don’t know if you’ve looked around the world lately, but, extremely relatable (!)
In a similar vein, while Avatar: The Last Airbender does a beautiful job of giving its audience deeply complex characters from all sorts of backgrounds, the only real non-teen/young adult character (at least, who isn’t one of Aang’s past Avatar lives) given significant dimension is Iroh. The Legend of Korra, meanwhile, takes the character development formulas AtLA perfected and applies them to a truly astonishing array of characters who span not only class and bending background, but also generations. Korra and her friends, whose ages throughout the series range from late teens to mid-twenties, seem like the characters whose personal dramas should demand the most screentime, and in many ways, they are. (Korra is always at its worst, alas, when shamboling through the obligatory Bolin-Korra-Mako-Asami love quadrangle in the first two seasons. Once that’s out of the way, everything improves a hundredfold, not least because fallout from the triangle obliges Mako to be extremely awkward around both girls, and obliges the girls to develop a bond that eventually blossoms into an endgame-style romance.)
However, in spite of what would seem like a mitigating factor in Korra having originally aired on Nickelodeon, the show gives just as much consideration to the personal growth of middle-aged characters like Tenzin (the only airbender out of Aang and Katara’s three kids, who carries the weight of the airbending legacy on his shoulders), his siblings Bumi and Kya (a military man and a hippie waterbender), Lin and Su Beifong (Toph’s neglected, estranged daughters) and Korra’s own father (exiled from the Northern Water Tribe by his backstabbing brother), as well as to the more nebulously adult inventor/mover producer/businessman Varrick and his assistant/partner/possible future President of Republic City, Zhu Li. (Not to be outdone, Meelo and his sisters, Jinora and Ikki—and later, Jinora’s kid-crush, Kai—make up a third leg of the generational triangle, but for a show on Nickelodeon, it would be weird to expect any less.)
That a show could be nimble enough to weave together so many far-reaching, multigenerational character arcs would be impressive enough; that Korra managed to do so while lasting four seasons on Nickelodeon is a real testament to the skill with which they did that weaving. It’s also critical to the unrelenting darkness discussed above: The Legend of Korra isn’t just dark because it puts Korra through physical anguish, emotional trauma and psychic devastation—it’s dark because it so deftly underscores the fact that, like a virus, any evil that takes root in a community won’t limit the havoc it wreaks on the most willing and able-bodied young adults. It will attack anyone, and unless you’re ready to fartbend your way to safety, the only way through is to consider humanity as an interconnected whole, dads and daughters and cool aunts and awkward retired Fire Lords named Zuko all willing to see each other as important and interesting and valuable in turn. And, like, goddammit if that isn’t exactly the space I need us all to spend some more time dwelling in right now.
That said, like all art, The Legend of Korra isn’t perfect. The pro-bending arc in Season 1 is excellent entertainment, but hardly enough to make up for the narrative muddiness of the Equalists’ anti-bending domestic terrorism agenda. Season 2 is kicked into gear by Avatar Wan’s stylistically transcendent two-part origin story, but thanks to the angsty mess of that season’s first half, a lot of people drop out before making it even that far. Season 4 features a genuinely terrifying (and increasingly familiar) villain in the coldly fascist Kuvira, and finally brings Old Lady Toph into play, but loses some good will in making Bolin a willfully oblivious fascist lackey, and in losing momentum with a clip episode not even the creators wanted. (Season 3, for my money, is without major fault.)
Most glaringly, though, is the fact that the voice cast—excellent though their work is, across the board—is almost entirely white. I love J.K. Simmons’ take on Tenzin, and Janet Varney’s on Korra. It’s hard to imagine a Varrick not voiced by a John Michael Higgins turned up to 15. Nevertheless, there’s no good excuse for the fact that, on the show’s IMDb cast list, you have to scroll down 23 lines before you find an actor of Asian descent (Stephanie Sheh, who voices Zhu Li). One of the top-line criticisms of Shyamalan’s universally panned 2009 AtLA film (do not seek it out) was how white-washed the cast was. Frustrated discussion about the whiteness of the series’ voice cast was A Thing before even that. As two white creators who had already spent so much time enmeshed in both fan and critical response to both AtLAs, it really feels like Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko could have taken a more thoughtful, intentional approach when it came to casting Korra. Would it have been a different show? You know, maybe. But it would definitely be one with greater depth and complexity—and given the high bar the version of Korra we got already set for complexity, that’s saying a lot.
Happily, along with the news that Netflix would be partnering with DiMartino and Konietzko to adapt Avatar: The Last Airbender to a live-action series (Update: no longer) came the promise that they would be hiring a “culturally appropriate, non-whitewashed” cast, which is … progress. Presuming their live-action AtLA has the chance to pull off the same film-erasing adaptation success of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, one could imagine that a similarly non-whitewashed live-action Legend of Korra might eventually come our way, but that’s really putting the flying bison before the air harness. As Korra’s devastating trials have taught us, there is always more fight to come. For now, at least, the Legend of Korra I’ve got is the Legend of Korra I’m happy to live with.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s still a pandemic out there. Nothing for it but to check back in with old-timey broadcaster Shiro Shinobi and see where Korra and her friends left off….
Watch on Netflix
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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