Tag Archives: Avatar

No, But Seriously

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Betsy has gotten really into Downton Abbey recently. She’s in the second-to-last season now. (I wanted to say “penultimate season” but I’m not wearing a monocle.) I haven’t been watching it like she has, but I’ve caught a number of scenes and the occasional full episode, so I’ve got some sense of what it’s like.

Now, fragments of a work are no basis for judging the whole thing, so I’m not making any pronouncements on the quality of the show overall. But I did notice early on that something about it bothered me, and I couldn’t figure out what.

The writing is excellent, and so is the acting. The costumes and sets are believable. The story seems tight, with good tension throughout. The directing feels good too, from what little I know about such things. It feels like it has all the elements of a near-perfect show. So what’s the problem?

I thought about it a while, and I think I know.

The problem is that the show takes itself seriously. Very, very seriously. Every scene, every line, is infused with such gravitas you’d think they were imparting the location of the Holy Grail whilst formulating a vaccine for death. After a while, you just want a breath of fresh air.

This got me thinking even more about the seriousness of stories and art in general.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I think a story can be either serious or lighthearted, and it can take itself either seriously or lightly. These options yield four possible combinations of content and tone, and I think it’s worth looking at each one separately.

1. Lighthearted content that takes itself lightly.

This is a good place to be. The story is fun, or silly, and knows it. Most comedies fall in this quadrant, at least to some degree. Monty Python – any episode or movie, take your pick – is absurd from start to finish and never pretends otherwise.

It doesn’t have to be comedy per se, though. Many action and adventure movies sit comfortably here too. The Indiana Jones films, despite their occasional serious moments, are mostly fun popcorn flicks, and they know it. A good time is had by all.

Except for that dude whose heart was ripped out of his chest. He had a really bad time.

2. Lighthearted content that takes itself seriously.

This is by far the worst, dumbest, least tolerable quadrant: silly stuff that thinks it’s serious.

The first example that springs to mind is Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I can think of no other show that treats such minute trivia with such an air of epic tragedy. A problem as minor as not being invited to a party is presented like it’s a sequel to Oedipus Rex. A similar phenomenon happens with over-the-top, over-detailed analysis of the minutiae of presidential campaign politics.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy watching both Kardashians and obsessive news coverage from time to time. They’re a kind of meta-comedy, fun in their own way. But they’re not what you’d call, you know, “good.”

Of course, all these judgments are heavily subjective. I personally find NCIS insufferable because it feels to me like it’s in this quadrant, but I suspect most people would disagree.

3. Serious content that takes itself seriously.

This is Downton Abbey. It’s also The MatrixMoby-Dick, Breaking BadLord of the RingsRequiem for a DreamDune, and a million other stories. Virtually all the foundational religious texts – the Bible, the Quran, the Tao Te Ching, the Lotus Sutra, and so on – are squarely in this quadrant.

It’s a tricky place to be. It can work if it’s done well, but if it fails, it can fail hard. Why? Because you have to have a truly serious, profound subject matter the entire time. If at any point you fall short, you drift back into the second quadrant – something flimsy with pretensions to grandeur – and you get into trouble.

And everyone gets into trouble to some degree or another. The Matrix sometimes believes its own religious symbolism a little too much. Moby-Dick tries to pass off encyclopedia entries about marine biology as high art. Lord of the Rings, my all-time favorite novel, is ridiculously pompous on occasion. Dune thinks “Kwisatz Haderach” is something you can say without giggling. The Lotus Sutra is very – how can I put this? – stupid. (Sorry, Buddhists.) The list goes on.

Nobody’s perfect. But some offenders are worse than others. For me, Downton Abbey fails somewhat – not spectacularly, but enough that it bothers me. I find Grey’s Anatomy much worse in this regard. Every drama, every obstacle, is presented as the end of the world. Well, the world can only end so many times before you begin to suspect it’s not really an apocalypse.

But, again, this is all subjective. The broad popularity of both Downton and Grey’s is proof that many people find the content and tone to be a suitable match. And I’m sure a lot of those same viewers would say Star Wars takes itself too seriously, too. (Especially the prequels – yeesh.)

4. Serious content that takes itself lightly.

For me, this is the sweet spot, the golden quadrant, the highest bullseye you can aim for. Why? Because an audience is never more thrilled than when you under-promise and over-deliver. And because serious things are far more dramatic and beautiful when contrasted with levity, just as paintings are more beautiful when darkness is contrasted with light.

So many of my favorite stories are in this quadrant.

Babylon 5 manages this beautifully. Yes, the tone does get serious when appropriate – sometimes deadly serious – and it does occasionally overplay its hand (e.g. Ivanova’s “God sent me” speech). But for the most part, B5 understands that even its greatest tragedies – like all great tragedies – have an element of comedy.

One of the saddest scenes I’ve ever watched on television is near the end of B5, season 4. A woman is sobbing over a man who loved her, who she loved in return, but never told him – and never can, because he has just sacrificed himself to save her life. I don’t think I’ve ever watched it without crying myself. But at the end of the scene, the woman says to her friend: “…maybe I should’ve tried just one more time. I could’ve done that for him. Now I can’t. At least I should have just boffed him once.”

Crying works best when you’re laughing too.

I’m not the biggest fan of Shakespeare, but I give him credit – he mixes plenty of comedy into even a tragedy like Hamlet. More modern examples include The Lion King (fitting, since the plot is based on Hamlet); Avatar: The Last Airbender; some of the standup comedy of Louis C. K.; and even Galaxy Quest. I’d also say that a lot of Marvel superheroes, like Spider-Man and Iron Man, live in this territory (whereas a lot of DC superheroes, like Superman and Batman, tend toward quadrant 3).

But for me, the ultimate expression of the quadrant 4 ideal – and this will surprise nobody – is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Few shows can match Buffy for sheer emotional depth. The way it handles themes like sacrifice and love, power and responsibility, is something you have to see to believe. The way it depicts clinical depression in season 6 is unmatched on television as far as I know. And the season 5 episode “The Body” is absolutely, without qualification, the most realistic and resonant and beautiful depiction of death I’ve ever seen in any episode of anything.

And yet it’s also just about the goofiest show you could ask for. Monsters in cheap costumes? Check. Cheesy music and bad CG? Check. Ridiculous jokes in almost every episode? Check. Best of all is the title. How can you take a show seriously when it’s called Buffy the Vampire Slayer? You can’t – at least not at first. The title is absurd by design. “There is no way you could hear the name Buffy and think, ‘This is an important person,'” explains show creator Joss Whedon. In effect, for better or worse, the silly packaging acts like a bouncer at a night club – if you take your own tastes too seriously, you won’t get in.

Lest I start taking my own tastes too seriously, I’d better wrap this up. This is already a much longer post than I ever planned, and I do have a few other things I’d like to do today. See you Wednesday, hypothetical reader!

Transcendence: Siege of the North

Each week, we’ll look at another example of what I call a “moment of transcendence” – a scene from a show, a passage from a book, or anything else, that I find soul-piercingly resonant: joyful, sad, awe-inspiring, terrifying, or whatever. These moments are highly subjective, so you may not feel the same way I do, but nevertheless I’ll try to convey why I find the fragment so powerful. I hope we can enjoy it together.


Warning: Major spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Avatar isn’t perfect, but its season finales are pretty damn close. Each of the show’s three seasons ends with that mix of breathless emotion and precise plotting that you only achieve when you’ve thought your story through carefully in advance.

Season 3’s finale, set in the Fire Nation, is grand and operatic. Season 2’s finale, in the Earth Kingdom, is intricate and dark.

And season 1’s finale, in the Water Tribe – Siege of the North – is a master class in pacing, escalating tension, and pitch-perfect payoff.

The plot’s a bit complicated and I won’t try to explain it all, but basically, the Fire Nation (bad guys) is invading the Northern Water Tribe (good guys) with a massive army. The waterbenders (sorcerers, essentially) are stronger when the moon is out, so the Fire Nation general has a plan to kill the Moon Spirit, effectively destroying the moon itself and throwing the entire planet out of balance.

Things are looking bad – it seems like he’s really going to do it –

And then he really does it.

The moon vanishes. The world goes dark. Everything on the screen turns black and white. The Fire Nation is rampaging through the streets. Even the general himself seems horrified by what he’s done. As one character succinctly puts it: “There’s no hope now. It’s over.”

And then Aang, the goofy little kid who would rather braid necklaces than fight anybody, who never wanted to be the Avatar, steps forward, eyes glowing with pure light, and says, in a voice like a chorus of angels:

NO. IT’S NOT OVER.

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The precise mechanics of what Aang does are less important than the triumphant music, the gorgeous interplay of color and light and dark, the climax of a conflict that has been brewing for three episodes (and, to a lesser extent, the whole season), that finally reaches its breaking point.

This is what we in the editorial world refer to, professionally, as “wicked sweet.”

Avatar is a criminally underrated show, and – at just 61 episodes of 22 minutes each – the time commitment is minimal. Aang is cool. Spread the word.

Transcendence: Iroh’s Tale

Each week, we’ll look at another example of what I call a “moment of transcendence” – a scene from a show, a passage from a book, or anything else, that I find soul-piercingly resonant: joyful, sad, awe-inspiring, terrifying, or whatever. These moments are highly subjective, so you may not feel the same way I do, but nevertheless I’ll try to convey why I find the fragment so powerful. I hope we can enjoy it together.


One of the great things about going to a large university like Ohio State is that you get a lot of visits from cool guest speakers. About a decade ago, I got to hear a talk by James Earl Jones. A lot of the audience (myself included) came because we were Star Wars fans, and he was very polite, but it was clear that he was way past the whole Darth Vader thing. He said that his main interest now was “simple stories, simply told.”

I’ve been thinking about that phrase today.

Avatar: The Last Airbender has so many moments of transcendence, it’s hard to pick just one. But it occurred to me this morning that most of those moments require a good knowledge of Avatar‘s complex plot to be fully appreciated.

Not so, however, with the Tale of Iroh, a self-contained four-minute story within the episode “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” season two. It contains no spoilers, it has nothing to do with the larger plot, and it’s only got one main character: the old man named Iroh.

I apologize for the quality of the clip below, which is cropped and shown mirror-image by the video uploader. It was the best I could find, and it’s good enough to get the story across. The video should start at 3:13, which is where the Tale of Iroh begins.

If you can’t see the embedded video, here’s a direct link.

Note: the video is cropped and mirrored to prevent YouTube from discovering that it is, technically, a copyright violation, just as my showing it here is, technically, a copyright violation. However, since I’m giving the show free advertising, not hurting their sales, not profiting myself, and not claiming credit, I don’t have any ethical qualms about showing it. I’m not sure how long this particular link will remain functional, though.

Anyway – I don’t have a lot of commentary. The story speaks for itself, I think. The dialogue is clunky in places – dialogue was never Avatar‘s strong suit – but I think it’s quite lovely regardless (and even better if you’re familiar with Iroh’s character).

Simple stories, simply told. I think this may be the kind of thing Mr. Jones was talking about.

Postmortem: The Legend of Korra

(Warning: spoilers for Korra and Avatar.)

It hasn’t exactly been a secret that Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my favorite shows of all time. It’s a mass of contradictions. An American cartoon – in an anime style. A kids’ show – featuring revenge, honor, Eastern philosophy, and political intrigue. An epic journey – squeezed into 22-minute increments. A colossal battle of good and evil – with bright colors and funny jokes.

When it ended, fans wanted exactly one thing: MORE. And starting in 2012, they got it.

The Legend of Korra is a sequel series to Avatar, set seventy-ish years later in the same universe. As before, certain people can “bend” (manipulate) the four classical elements, earth, air, fire, and water. Most can bend only one, but the Avatar commands all four, and has some other pretty intense mojo to boot. The first show’s Avatar, Aang, has died, and the new one – Korra – has inherited the mantle of saving the world, keeping peace where she can, drop-kicking bad guys when necessary.

Korra has the same creators, the same premise, the same universe, the same style, even some of the same characters. But does it work?

Betsy and I – who watched both shows together – got to the Korra finale a couple weeks ago. The verdict is yes, it works…and no, it doesn’t.

First, the good:

  • The animation in Korra is much, much better than it was in Avatar. Not that Avatar‘s art was bad or anything, but Korra is simply gorgeous. The characters, the environments, the “special effects”…if they got a bigger budget (as I assume they did), they certainly knew how to use it.
  • The music is great. Not as memorable as Avatar, in my opinion, but still beautiful.
  • Most of the stuff that was cool in Avatar is still cool now. The bending, the Avatar State, the landscape and architecture design, the meticulous attention to detail, etc. And it’s cool to see what finally happened to characters you cared about (Aang, Zuko, Cabbage Guy) and how certain places have changed (mainly the Earth Kingdom).
  • The in-universe technology has advanced a lot since Avatar, and I give them props for keeping things fresh. The weaving of machinery and “magic” is well-executed.

But there are some problems…

  • In the first couple seasons, Korra just isn’t very likable. I know this was deliberate, as she needed room to grow emotionally (and she does), but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
  • The dialogue isn’t very good. In Avatar, it was snappy and creative. Now it feels mostly functional, people saying what the plot requires in the most obvious way possible. Example: “You’re an inspiration to the world.” -Tenzin. “I’ll always try to restore balance.” -Korra. (Yawn.)
  • There’s something wrong with the dialogue delivery, too. Not with the voice actors – they do a great job. I think the pauses between lines are a bit too long. I know that sounds like nitpicking, but it really drives me crazy.
  • Hate to say it, but Korra isn’t as funny as Avatar. The humor style is the same, but the jokes aren’t as good.
  • I just don’t connect with the characters. Not like before.

That last one is the biggest problem by far.

Don’t get me wrong – I like Korra, Bolin, Asami, Tenzin, even (I suppose) Mako. But who in Korra is as funny as Sokka? As purebred awesome as Toph? As wise as Iroh? As terrifying as Azula?

And when the old characters do show up in Korra, they’re ghosts of their former selves. Zuko is passive, Iroh is a mere caricature, and Toph has gone from smartass-and-cool to just plain, annoying smartass. Only Aang retains any of his former glory. I get that the writers can’t have old characters monopolizing the show, but that doesn’t mean they have to be cardboard cutouts.

Korra had its high points, certainly. The two-parter about Wan, the first Avatar, had a beautiful story and beautiful art. The death of the Earth Queen. The season 3 finale, when Korra went full-on wrath-of-god on Zaheer. The realistic, heartbreaking, and shockingly adult portrayal of what can only be called clinical depression in Korra. And her recovery in “Korra Alone.”

Besides which, this exchange is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen:

“You amuse me. I will make you mine.”

“You mean like a boyfriend, or like a…slave?”

“Yes. Win me prizes.”

But for every great episode, there are four more that are just okay.

And then there are the villains.

I salute the creators for writing villains with complex, realistic motives, beyond the basic Ozai-style “I WILL DESTROY TEH WORLD.” The problem is, it never really works.

Amon starts off intriguing, as it seems like he might actually have some moral high ground…but then it turns out it’s all lies, and they just have a big fight. Unalaq becomes a Dark Avatar, which is an intriguing idea…but it turns into a spirit-fueled slugfest with no real deeper meaning. Zaheer – the best of the bunch in my opinion – just didn’t connect with me for some reason. And Kuvira’s basically a generic dictator.

Which leads me to the series finale.

In a technical sense it was great. Lots of well-orchestrated action, heroic sacrifice, “emotional” moments, lessons learned. The problem was, I didn’t care about any of it.

Look at Avatar.

When Sokka, Suki, and Toph took down the airship fleet, it wasn’t about the explosions. It was about Toph, hanging on for dear life to Sokka, the only real family she’s ever had – her tough veneer stripped away, not a cocky show-off anymore, just a twelve-year-old girl who doesn’t want to die.

When Aang fought Ozai, it wasn’t about the fireworks. It was about Aang’s ethical struggle, his determination not to kill the Firelord, no matter what the cost. And it was about him finally claiming his birthright, finally becoming a full-fledged Avatar. He wasn’t just a fighter anymore; he was a force of nature. But he never lost his compassion.

And when Zuko finally fought the half-insane Azula in the Last Agni Kai, it wasn’t about the charged-up firebending, or the hauntingly beautiful score, or even the Fire Nation throne. It was about Zuko redeeming himself; it was about sacrifice; it was the conclusion of a lifelong mortal rivalry. As they prepared to duel, the atmosphere was simply electric. (Metaphorically, I mean, though it turned out to be literally as well.)

By contrast, when Korra fought Kuvira, it was mostly about the logistics of taking down a giant mech. Yes, there was some sense of Korra trying to redeem herself, and yes, they tried to play up the similarities between hero and villain. But mostly, it felt like empty action.

One final note, the obligatory Korrasami comment. I don’t have any particular feelings about it, except I love that they threw gasoline on the already-intense shipping fire. We’re going to see a lot more fan art, and that always makes me happy. (That, and of course I’m always happy to see positive portrayals of gay relationships.)

Anyway – I’ve rambled on way longer than I ever intended, so I’ll wrap it up. Overall, in spite of all its flaws, I did enjoy Korra, I’m glad it exists, and I respect what they were trying to do. But for my money, it doesn’t hold a candle to Avatar.

What do you think?

Friday Link

My favorite Avatar AMV of all time. 😀

Have a great weekend!

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By Popular Demand: Appa!

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Still Alive

I’m still struggling with illness, so updates will continue to be spotty for a while. But I’ve kept on drawing, so here’s a little something to keep you entertained.

Uncle Iroh:

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Katara:Katara digital

Toph:Toph digital