There are a lot of great TV shows out there, but I’d definitely rank Avatar: The Last Airbender as being one of the best shows aired in the last 10 years. The tale of a young boy tasked with mastering the elements in a process known as bending, uniting four divided countries, and saving the world aired on Nickelodeon from 2005–2008, and even spawned a film adaptation (which I don’t think is even necessary to discuss). Airbender boasted great art, a stellar voice cast, fantastical creatures, beautifully choreographed fight scenes, and a plot that was unafraid to touch on deeper issues like racism, disabilities, and war—especially for a series aired on a children’s television network.
When the show ended, fans clamored for more, wanting to know what happened next; the show’s creators listened. I was particularly excited when the sequel series was announced. Finally, Avatar: The Legend of Korra premiered online last weekend, two weeks ahead of its television premiere. (Caution: Spoilers ahead.)
The Legend of Korra takes place about 70 years after the events of Airbender, and most of the familiar faces from the original series have passed on. The four nations (Earth, Fire, Air, and Water) were united into a republic by Aang, the titular Airbender of the first series, and Fire Lord Zuko. Aang’s youngest child, Tenzin, is now an Airbending master with three young Airbenders of his own. This series’ Avatar, Korra, an energetic and impatient teenager who has little patience for tradition, is decidedly unlike her predecessor. A Waterbender from the Water Tribe, her first words in the series come in a flashback to her being discovered as a young child: “I’m the Avatar, and you gotta deal with it!”
In spite of her bravado, Korra proves to be remarkably naïve about how the world works. She’s remained immersed in her training in a far South Pole complex for most of her life, being taught to master each of the elements (except Air, which she is frustrated by), but apparently has paid very little attention to complex topics such as history, politics, or manners. Raised on stories about Aang and his adventures, she is genuinely surprised when she finds that not everyone remembers him as fondly as she thinks they ought to. Korra presumes her Avatar status alone will bring her friends and fortune, but soon finds that she needs to build a reputation as herself, and that there is more to real strength than simply fighting.
Most of the series’ action takes place in Republic City, the capital of the new republic. Republic City reflects the bustle and growth of a city in the 1920s. Skyscrapers, cars, and radios are ubiquitous; small gangs, homeless vagabonds, and protestors are common; and law enforcement is no longer done by local soldiers, but by a police force of Metalbenders. The major sport of the day is “Pro-bending,” a sport not unlike boxing that pits teams of benders against each other in an arena. Republic City was meant to be an example of benders and non-benders living alike in harmony, but there is tension rising between the two, in part due to Amon, a menacing, masked man who wants to get rid of all bending in the name of equality.
The Legend of Korra has a lot to live up to, but it’s off to a great start. The series seems just as beautifully animated as The Last Airbender, and Korra is a particularly expressive character. While her obstinate personality makes the character difficult to relate to, she’s a joy to watch. (I also particularly enjoyed her animal guide Naga, a polar bear dog with a large appetite.) The Pro-bending scenes were also very well-choreographed and animated. The series’ soundtrack is again provided by The Track Team, which unites Eastern-sounding themes with jazz and ragtime for a soulful but action-packed auditory experience.
The voice cast for Legend of Korra is also good, including J.K. Simmons as Tenzin, who offers a calm facade in the face of disaster, but demonstrates a hidden temper when riled. The series has yet to demonstrate the balance between serious drama and comedy that Airbender had, and I often found myself missing the dry delivery of Jack DeSena’s Sokka, although Tenzin’s children thus far contribute most of the humor very well indeed.
If you’ve seen The Last Airbender, I can guarantee that you’ll like The Legend of Korra. It’s a bold, fresh take on the world Aang and his friends traveled across, and it’s fascinating to see how things changed in 70 years. I don’t know if The Legend of Korra will be as compelling for those who haven’t seen the original series, but don’t be afraid to give it a try. (Besides, if you’re still baffled, The Last Airbender is available for Instant Viewing on Netflix.)
The Legend of Korra makes its official debut Saturday, April 14, at 11 am on Nickelodeon.