Because fans should be critical, too

So I Watched the First Episode of Book Three

It’s amazing what a little perspective can reveal, isn’t it?

On one hand, the Frozen video review, which I initially intended to be just about the movie, has grown way beyond anything I first imagined. I never expected to extol so much of my energy into this thing, but once again, the wisdom of the late Roger Ebert proves true: “Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may be.” Indeed, Frozen is such a fascinating film to write about because, even as I trash it, there is so much more to it that makes it worth pondering and exploring. Everyday I revise my review, and I find so much more to say!

On the other hand, I practically had to force myself to watch the first episode of Book Three of The Legend of Korra, and came away with just about nothing to say. At least, nothing that I haven’t said a million times already on this very blog. If anything, I came away more assured than ever that I’d made the right choice to leave the series altogether. Even my attempt to treat the viewing experience as a sort of scientific examination—with so little investment of any kind (let alone emotional!) in the story and characters, I’d keep myself interested by approaching the show from a purely theoretical viewpoint in regards to storytelling—proved futile. If anything, creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko beat me to the punch: this first episode is so emotionally and artistically inert that it truly feels like an avant garde experiment masquerading as an American animated children’s show; the only interest I can see being gained from this show are purely intellectual.

And when I call this series an experiment, I truly mean it: it’s like DiMartino and Konietzko are testing their audience, consistently pushing the limits of how little actual storytelling they can get away with before even their most loyal fan base finally abandons them. If Book One was the morality test (how ideologically wrong-headed can a protagonist and her goals be before you can no longer consider her victory satisfying?), and Book Two was the spiritual test (how nonsensical can the events on-screen get before the audience no longer cares?), then Book Three is the emotional test, in which the essential elements of storytelling are stripped of all invention, creativity, and acknowledgement of the potential for real, emotionally involving drama.

This mentality is most apparent—painfully so—in the dialogue. The dialogue in this episode should be taught in screenwriting classes on how not to write acceptable dialogue. It’s so on-the-nose, so obvious, so lacking in any personality and/or invention that you’d swear what you were hearing was the very first draft of the script being read from the legal pad it was written on. That legal pad, of course, had to be passed from voice actor to voice actor in the studio, and it shows: no characters speaks as if they’re actually talking to another human being, even if, on-screen, that person is right in front of them. Either the actors are in on the experiment, or they’re at as much a loss as I am on how to comprehend—let alone add emotion to—any of the interactions in the script.

Speaking of the actors, part of the reason I watched this episode, at least, was to hear Henry Rollins’ voice as the new main villain. What a letdown that was! Rollins is not the greatest actor in the world, but he has a natural presence and charisma that is shockingly absent in this episode. Perhaps Rollins was defeated by the brain-dead dialogue (just as the incredible Christoph Waltz was in Epic, an animated film so profoundly stupid that it makes Frozen look like Citizen Kane on ice).

To make matters even worse, the main theme of the episode—and the series, apparently—revolves around change and its repercussions. This, of course, means we get blatant conversations between Tenzin and Korra regarding the consequences of change, all of which seem suspiciously like creators DiMartino and Konietzko trying to explain themselves or justify their poor storytelling choices throughout Korra. It was at this point—beyond the lack of tension, creativity, effort, etc—that I knew that watching any more of Book Three would only be masochistic. Why should I even give this series another chance if it’s just going to patronize me?

And this is surprisingly where Frozen has my utmost approval: it is not a patronizing movie. It’s wrongheaded in many places, but it isn’t trying to bait you into questioning its authenticity like Korra is. Frankly, I’ll take a sincere commercial product over nasal-gazing “artistry” any time. It’s only fitting that Frozen should make a billion dollars while Korra has been banished from regular television programming to spend the remainder of its season online. Poetic justice arises in the most unusual places.

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12 responses

  1. Interesting. My tastes generally align with yours when it comes to Avatar episodes, but I couldn’t disagree more with what you’ve written here. I believe this season to be the best of Korra so far, an opinion that is supported by many other prominent reviewers. In fact, as a series of episodes only Earth Part 2 and Fire Part 2 rank higher in my book.

    So what’s going on here that could create such polarizing reactions? It cannot be like Book 2 which was universally derided. I ended up reading reviews to find out the plot because the episodes were unbearable, and I like to think I have as much good taste as any film or TV buff…

    I guess my point is that this sort of scenario is gold for fruitful debate. It is lazy, frankly, to dismiss the series as poorly written when no such consensus exists. The key is discovering the source of that divide. Something about the style is not working for some viewers but appealing to others.

    I’ll post my analysis on my blog ramblingspot if you’re interested. I won’t try to change your mind at all. I just want to offer my own perspective and insight.

    August 2, 2014 at 5:07 am

  2. JMR

    I’m going to have to join in on the disagreement here. I can understand the complaint about the stiff and expository dialogue. Tim Hedrick wrote the first episode, and while I actually generally enjoy the episodes he writes, he does have an unfortunate tendency towards awful dialogue. It’s sort of like how you could always tell the DR Movie animated episodes in ATLA before even seeing the credits because of the obvious animation mistakes. Whenever I hear that trademark stilted dialogue, I’m willing to put good money on the episode being written by Hedrick.

    I felt the same way about Zaheer at first, too. He really is hurt by Hedrick’s terrible dialogue in the first episode, but he and his crew end up becoming quite compelling villains, unlike Unalaq last time around. They actually just let us in on their motives in the last episode, and it brings back the dumb Vaatu/Raava thing from last season, but in a way that I’m actually hoping can redeem the lame-brained “good vs. evil” nature of that plot.

    Overall though, I’ve been enjoying the hell out of this season so far. It feels like the writers are the same page in a way that they simply weren’t in season two. Part of that is probably the work of the new story coordinator, Katie Matilla, who also wrote the amazing episode Old Wounds.

    August 2, 2014 at 11:48 am

  3. I don’t really understand the extreme criticism of the dialogue in this episode. Legend of Korra is already densely written, it’s a part of the shows foundation. I mean yes the dialogue is kinda on the nose and is clearly being used to transition from one season to the next but after the first few episodes that disappears and the plot gets moving. I also think it’s well mixed with other elements like good pacing, funny moments, and action sequences that break it up. This season actually started better than book 2 imo. It starts kinda slow but it really gets going. Definitely the best season so far.

    August 2, 2014 at 2:00 pm

  4. Brian

    The dialogue is a problem I’ve always had with both Korra and Avatar, but I never noticed how prominent it was in the series until I pretty much saw the first episode of Korra, where it’s the worst it has ever been.

    It was so uncomfortable, so obnoxiously self aware and so forced that I actually wanted the episode to be written by an anime writer, and as someone who doesn’t normally like anime dialogue, this is pretty much sad.

    It’s like The Great Divide in the sense that it highlights the show’s weaknesses and exaggerates them. It gets better as the book progresses, but it’s just distracting nonetheless.

    August 2, 2014 at 4:33 pm

  5. s7

    I’m actually in complete agreement with you here Marshall. I mean this season is definitely an improvement from the atrocious Book 2 and the villains (well more like the two female ones in the group) are easily my favorite in LOK since early Amon. However, that doesn’t excuse the show’s problems which are still really prominent imo. I think people are just so excited to see some decent LOK episodes that they are ignoring the blatant issues.

    First of all, who the hell are our characters anymore? The main cast barely has consistent personally traits and they show no consistency in character development. They feel more like caricatures that are trying sooo hard to be appealing (ie: Mako being all dorky and what not).

    I know you havent’t watched more than the first episode but I’m going to point out some other issues that appear later on. I really dislike the “metal clan” or whatever (which I know a lot of people love). I had issues with the metalbending police in Book 1 as well simply because it standardized metalbending which kinda made it less cool in my eyes. Also, I really, really hate how they’ve decided to depict Toph as a parent. The half-sister character feels thrown in and pandering.

    The biggest issue I have with this season though is the Earth Queen. I kid you not, the kids go to Ba Sing Se to repeat the same storyline (with slight differences) from ATLA. Oh no, the Da Li doing evil things?!?! Wow the ruler of Ba Sing Se is a fucking asshole?! How new and innovative. Like shit, the Dai Li even capture airbenders and hid them underground to creat an army for the Earth Queen. Like Jesus, this was done before and much better in ATLA.

    Sorry for the long post, I just have a lot of anger at Book 3 because people are ignoring all the problems it has just because it’s not horrendous. The show still lacks cohesion and consistency and it’s so aggravating seeing it ignored.

    PS: Not that there is anything wrong with loving this season because that’s totally understandable! I just needed a rant

    August 2, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    • Grindal

      Okay, is it not a bit selfish to blatantly post spoilers about the show even if you don’t like it so far? Let someone view the content first before trying to force an opinion down their throat.

      August 3, 2014 at 8:50 am

      • s7

        Shit, sorry about the spoilers! Tumblr always makes me forget that not everyone knows what’s happened. I apologize if I spoiled it for anyone, it wasn’t my intention.

        However, selfish? It was an accident. I don’t see how I was being selfish (maybe a bit self-indulgent, but isn’t that the basis of blogging in the first place?)

        I also don’t see how I was forcing my opinion down anyones throat. I made it clear that I was venting my own opinion and that disagreeing with me is totally legitimate. I was aiming for discussion but whatever.

        August 5, 2014 at 7:58 pm

      • Don’t worry about it. Soon, I’ll be caught up, and we can all discuss where Korra is at so far.

        August 6, 2014 at 2:51 pm

  6. rosemon

    Though it may not be as pretentious as Korra, wasn’t Frozen being pretty patronizing towards the whole “Don’t fall in love with some guy you just met, you foolish girl” schtick? And then for Anna to end up with another guy that she just met?

    August 3, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    • I believe that whole bit of business is the symptom of a bigger problem with the movie. I’ll elaborate on it in the video, but it essentially boils down to the theory that the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether Frozen should have been a sincere Disney effort or a satire of Disney. They tried to do both and ended up screwing themselves over.

      August 4, 2014 at 12:17 am

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