For the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about the next few episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender on my playlist, and failing miserably. Have I reached the limits of what I can say about this show?
Yes and no. In fact, I want to take a conscientious break from the episode retrospectives for a while to do a one-off piece on something that continues to perplex me, and which I’ve found very little written up on. Just how is it that Avatar became so popular and so critically acclaimed in its heyday, and yet seemed to leave such an insignificant mark on the animation landscape as a whole? Inversely, what did its spiritual successors, namely Adventure Time, do so right that made them the most influential cartoons in the last decade that the show’s actual successor The Legend of Korra did not? Was there something intrinsically flawed about Avatar that prevented it from having a more lasting influence? How much is M. Night Shyamalan’s travesty of an adaptation really to blame for Avatar‘s lack of mainstream acceptance? Is Avatar simply the Elvis Presley to Adventure Time‘s Beatles, the Pixies to Adventure Time‘s Nirvana*? Were creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko too self-consciously revolutionary for their own good (an impression reinforced by numerous interviews in which the two postulate that Avatar was intended as an antidote to the sitcom model that dominated the television animation circles that worked in, from King of the Hill to Family Guy)? Or was Avatar always destined for cult status no matter what?
I have no idea. But I’d like to do a post exploring a few theories of my own. I’m letting you all know because: 1) I’ve already been shitty for not updating in the past couple of weeks; and 2) I’m sure some folks have theories of their own–or maybe even some disagreements–and would want to throw in their two cents.
This will be my focus for the next couple of weeks, and then the retrospectives will continue like normal. For now, though, what exactly is your take on what I’ve dubbed “the Avatar Problem?”
*It’s generally acknowledged by everyone, including Kurt Cobain, that Nirvana adapted the soft/loud dynamicity of the Pixies, substituting the absurdity, the humor, and “hipper-than-thou” attitude with a more basic, more accessible, and more emotional approach (though no less melodic). Between Avatar and Adventure Time, the same kind of trade-off occurs, but almost in reverse: the expansive world building fantasy aspect is retained, but instead of the strict adherence of Avatar to a specific worldview and art style (i.e. Asian- and anime-inspired), the rules, style, and worldview of Adventure Time are borderline random, yet the show is smart enough to make this a key source of its humor and excitement, and the writing, the characters and performances are strong enough to make it entertaining.
I should’ve known better than expect to do much viewing and reviewing during Independence Day weekend and Tuesday. But the festivities are over with now, so I can get back to writing. Hopefully you all had a good Fourth of July as well.
Promises, promises. I’m honestly thinking of abandoning the idea of these self-imposed, frequently missed deadlines altogether. On second, I won’t do that, because how else will I learn to discipline myself?
In any case, I want the “Winter Solstice” retrospective up by Wednesday, followed by “And the Winner Is…” on Saturday. Then after that, the next Avatar reviews–which will encompass four episodes–will take two weeks to do a write-up on. (From now on, the general aim will be one week for one to two episodes, two weeks for three to four.)
So I haven’t given up, even if “And the Winner Is…” was, admittedly, a bit demoralizing. Suffice it to say, it’s no longer the shining beacon of competence within the ruins of Korra that I once felt it was. Aw well.
My retrospective review for the “Winter Solstice” episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender won’t be posted until next Saturday. By then I’ll have actually had the time and energy to work on it. This week has been crazy busy, culminating on Saturday with the wedding of a good friend of mine. It’s out of state, so I’ll be away for the entire weekend. Once I get back, I can resume my work here. I was hoping I could get this one done in the midst of all this, but it just wasn’t working out. I’d rather put it off and give it the proper due than try and rush this thing (especially for these episodes, two of the best in Book One and in the entire series).
Speaking of proper due, I haven’t been true to my word in responding to my commenters on the days I established. I swear I read all of them, and they’ve all been insightful in one way or another. For instance, latenightscribe’s last few comments taught me all about head writer Aaron Ehasz’s ideas for the Book Four that never happened because of the production of the live-action trilogy (that also never happened) , and how “shipping” created rifts in the writers’ room. The behind-the-scenes drama of Avatar and Korra is becoming just as interesting–if not more so–as the series themselves. I may write something on this in a post separate from the retrospective when I have the time.
For now, sit tight and I’ll be back next week with the retrospective on the two-part “Winter Solstice.” All I’ll say about them now is that they reminded me just how wonderful Avatar really was. This retrospective would not be nearly as tolerable if I had to watch Avatar and especially Korra straight through on their own. Even a terrible episode of Avatar is more inspiring and forward-thinking than any episode of Korra past Book One, so I’ll gladly sit through Korra every other week if it’s means watching Avatar again.
The next Retrospective review is getting pushed back to next Saturday, April 29th. I won’t bother you all with the details, but let’s just say that a few days back, I experienced a “debilitating relapse” that all but wrecked my mental faculties for the rest of the week. I’ll be back on track by Sunday, by which point I’ll recommence with the Retrospective and the research.
Speaking of research, I want to say thank you to everyone who sends me links to interesting interviews or articles on Avatar and Korra. I’ll be adding them to the Research Hub. I also need to get better with responding to any and all comments I get, so I’m going to reserve Wednesday and Saturday as the days I respond to all new comments. We’ll see if that works out better.
In general, I want to thank everyone who’s been with me on this long, crazy ride to review Avatar and Korra (AGAIN). This entire process is always fun and educational for me, especially seeing what other folks feel and think about these two shows. To have created two shows so rich with ideas and intrigue is no small feat, and whatever my qualms with the quality and execution of either show, DiMartino and Konietzko deserve a good deal of praise and respect.
Thanks again for all the love and support. Have fun, be safe, and choose life!
For the past few days, I’ve combed through the episode lists of Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra to figure out a way to review them side-by-side while taking into account the difference in their number of episodes (Avatar has a total of sixty-one episodes, while Korra has fifty-two). The schedule I’ve devised perhaps doesn’t completely rectify this problem, and yet somehow that may work in this retrospective’s favor. We shall see.
So here’s the plan: starting next Saturday, I will alternate between reviewing Avatar and Korra. The first week will focus on Avatar, the second on Korra, then on Avatar, then on Korra, etc., etc. What episodes I review and how many of them will vary as the weeks go by, especially since I want to conclude both series at the same. Depending on how significant the individual episode is, it will either receive its own weekly review, or be lumped together with one or two or even three other episodes. In other words, I will no longer be giving each and every episode its own personal write-up for a few reasons. One, it’s too arbitrary and time-consuming, especially if I want to post once a week. Two, I’ve already done that Avatar, and absolutely refuse to do the same for Korra. Three, this isn’t about ranking each episode so much as making note of the emotional high points and low points of each series as they progress. And fourth, and pettiest of all, so much of Korra past Book One is such a blurry mess in terms of quality that attempting to dissect each episode on its own terms is all but impossible.
And this all comes back to the general thesis I had in mind for both series: Avatar, even when it wavers in quality, manages to overcome to the inherit limitations of television animation and maintain a strong and specific emotional core because of its unified narrative structure and unique vision, while Korra ultimately falls apart because its narrative is so fragmented and shaped by forces and values that don’t grow organically from within but rather are imposed from the outside (hence why Korra and Asami’s surprise union at the series’ finale, while cathartic for some audience members, makes little to no sense from a narrative standpoint).
It will be interesting to see how this develops from week to week, and I definitely hope to get more than a few different voices in on this discussion. I definitely can’t wait to start watching Avatar again, even if means sitting through Korra one more time. Let’s do this!
P.S. I’ve finally created the Research Hub page for all Avatar/Korra interviews, articles, and the like. Expect more to come.
While I have no delusions of this re-vamped Avatar: the Last Airbender retrospective becoming some kind of professional thing (i.e., no MLA citations), as I’m amassing all of these articles and interviews, I figure it would be a good idea to create a specific spot on this blog where it can all be collected and viewed for easy reference, by myself and anyone interested who’s interested. There is a lot of great stuff out there and more seems to pop up every other week (just two weeks ago, Nick Animation’s Youtube channel posted an interview of co-creator Bryan Konietzko and co-composer Jeremy Zuckerman discussing the music of Avatar and The Legend of Korra).
Hopefully, if time allows, this new page will be implemented by the end of this week, and all this great material can slowly be compiled onto it. Who knows, maybe some people would like to contribute to the reference pool with interesting articles and/or interviews they’ve come across themselves. Rosemont, a long-time follower, frequently links me interesting articles and posts relevant to Avatar and animation in general (including just recently linking an article on the declining quality of Disney animated features up to Moana).
In the meantime, I’m busy with this and other projects (and my day job, ugh). So stay tuned and thanks once again for your patience. And Happy Valentine’s Day!