I liked Avatar: The Last Airbender, though with reservations. Most of their comic relief for most of the show was annoying, not funny. The whole first season was fluffy and full of too much kiddie-show filler. They fumbled the ending. But they did plenty of things really well, and overall, I liked it. So much, that I was pretty enthusiastic about getting to see the sequel.
Man, did they ever learn from the first series. The pacing was tight and relentless. Possibly too tight, there were a couple episodes where I felt like an extra minute or two would have given them room for the characters to believable draw the conclusions or make the decisions they wind up making instead because PLOT. But I was willing to take it in exchange for the extremely lean, intense viewing experience. Having the main cast of characters a few years older was a huge improvement, too. Not only did I take their agency and emotional lives more seriously, but since they were older, I trusted the threats of danger against them more.
The lesson they seem to have learned most well, though, is villain control. The secondary villains aren’t allowed to steal the show from Amon, and Amon is both clever and powerful enough to be convincingly threatening. He also has a point – is anybody on the city council not a bender? And yes, the degree of worship centered around bending athletes are problematic, especially when you see the attendant bullying tied in there. And teaching chi-blocking is illegal, flat out? What the hell? I can see assaulting somebody via chi-blocking being illegal, but the skill set entirely? Uhm…not cool, Republic City. Not cool at all. Of course you have a fervent anti-bending movement on your hands. You deserve it!
And that’s half my big complaint about the show. It doesn’t, at any point, acknowledge that Amon has a point and concede that things do need to change. Instead, they go for and extremely ham-handed, clunky, unconvincing, “Hey, since Amon is a bender he’s not at all credible, and his entire movement turns on him even though that’s not remotely how it would go at all but the writers couldn’t be bothered to come up with a better solution.” How many socialist and communist movements had kids of privilege at the forefront? MOST. It’s a fact of history that the downtrodden are often a little busy being downtrodden, and movements get enough legitimacy to get noticed when somebody with better resources/mobility/freedom gets involved. Amon being a bender wasn’t the least bit surprising – my early theory was that he had a shard of Avatar soul or something something, and after the reveal about Tarrlock’s blood bending switched to, “Super-advanced blood bending, also, not actually permanent.”
My other big beef is with the Korra-Mako-Asami triangle. They were doing so well, and then when Asami figures out that Mako is fond of Korra she starts doing the obnoxious, pouty, “Oh noes! My boyfriend has feelings for another woman, therefore I must be all rejected and feel like he doesn’t actually have feelings for me even though he’s chosen to be with me.” Argh! And then, instead of having a conversation about it, or pointing out that while she respects that he’s chosen her, not telling her about swapping spit with another person is a serious relationship-foul, she gets catty. Because that is the only response a woman has available to her. Or something. Bolin can do a dignified mope and get over it, but Asami, who has less reason to be upset, has to behave poorly for some reason. The reason is, I suspect, shoddy writing. With the resolution of the series was chock full of.
Look, I don’t expect a kid’s cartoon to suggest polyamory as the solution to anything.* I don’t expect American television to do it anywhere except, perhaps, HBO, and then they’ll do it with too many tits. But watching my peers tear themselves apart because they were interested in more than one person at a time and sincerely thought that made them bad, deceitful people was what got me thinking about the issue in the first place. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a kids cartoon to say “Hey, it happens. All the feelings are real, legitimate things. What counts is the choices you make, and whether you deal with them well.” Telling kids that what they’re going through as kids is normal and acceptable and here’s a good model for how to deal with it is the point of media targeted at children, if we must give it different goals from other media.
If I come across as extraordinarily irritated by the show, it’s because it was so, so very good, right up until it decided to stop trying, stop making interesting choices, and turn into just another kids cartoon full of bad relationship models and anti-communist propaganda. None of the kids in the demographic the show was targeted to were even alive while there was still a Soviet Union. Could we find a new lazy short hand for evil, please?
I still strongly recommend people who liked the first series watch it, and people who didn’t like the first series might want to check it out anyway, depending on their reasons for not liking it. But they fumbled the ending, hard. Hopefully with the next three seasons they’ll learn how to fix that problem, too.
*And it’s not the solution to this issue, either. Mako-Korra is a terrible romantic relationship. Korra and Bolin have much better long term potential, even if Mako is way, way sexier.