Element-ary, my dear: Catching up on ‘Avatar’ and ‘The Legend of Korra’

Even though a large part of my job is guiding people to TV shows they might find interesting, I rarely find it easy to point my own kids to things I think they should watch – or, better, to things we can watch together. There's too much good adult TV for me to keep track of these days, so I'm virtually lost when it comes to children's programming. Every now and then I'll stumble into something current and fun, like “Phineas & Ferb,” or I'll pick out a vintage show that seems kid-safe(*), but they often want to watch the things their friends are watching, or just rewatch the same episode or even scene a thousand times in a row. (I can't swear to it, but I'm pretty sure the two kids spent a week at home where the only words they said to each other were, “Is mayonnaise an instrument?”) And sometimes I'll find something that seems perfect for one or both their age groups – and that I also would enjoy seeing with them – only for them to reject it for some kid logic reason there's no arguing with.

(*) Though this is not always fool-proof. For a while, we were working our way through “The Cosby Show” on Hulu. Now, we are not.

One of my biggest successes in recent years was Nickelodeon's “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and later its sequel “The Legend of Korra.”

My daughter and I caught up on both over the last couple of years, using a combination of different streaming sites, On Demand, and at times DVDs(**).

(**) Our adventure was a nice reminder of the value of physical media – and/or downloads you pay to own -as we were in the middle of one “Korra” season when the streaming availability suddenly went away, and I believe we finished “Avatar” only a couple of weeks before the Netflix license ran out.

I had heard good things from fellow nerds, and I had once sat in a big Comic-Con ballroom during a “Korra” panel that was happening right before a “Firefly” reunion panel (a fact that inspired many self-deprecating jokes by the “Korra” cast about what the people in the room were really there to see), and was ultimately intrigued enough to give it a try, watching the first couple of episodes solo and then starting over from the beginning with my daughter.

For those who don't know, both series take place on an alternate Earth where magic and spirits are real, and where some people have the ability to control, or “bend,” the elements of earth, fire, air and water. (Later seasons would introduce subsets of those powers, like bending metal, lava, or blood; because the whole thing is modeled on Eastern cultures and philosophies, this plays out like new martial arts disciplines expanding on what was possible with earlier ones.) The world is divided into four nations devoted to one of these four elements, and to keep the world in harmony, each generation gets an Avatar, who can master all the elements. “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” gives us Aang, a young boy who emerges from 100 years of suspended animation in an iceberg to discover that the Fire Nation has conquered much of the world, and wiped out all other airbenders. “The Legend of Korra” picks up about a century later (the main setting is like an alt-Hong Kong of the 1920s) with teen girl Korra going up against various people who want to tear down the new society Aang and his friends created.

The two series offer action, comedy, and romance (more on that in a bit), just as they offer philosophy and thoughtful – but still kid-friendly (though “Korra” is definitely tougher and more mature than “Avatar”) – discussion of war, the environment, the strengths and limits of family, and even tricky topics like PTSD, which is a major unspoken theme of the final season of “Korra.”

It's really quite something, and my daughter and I ate it all up with a big spoon.

Our intermittent schedule also worked out well because she was arguably too young for “Korra” when the whole project started, but was definitely right for it by the time we got there. There's some hard stuff in “Avatar” – not least of which is Aang coping with the genocide of his people – but much of it, especially early on, is more light-hearted, and apropos of the younger age of its heroes; by the time the real rebellion against the Fire Nation begins, the show has built emotionally to it, and in turn properly prepared its audience for what's to come on “Korra.”

It was also interesting to see how the creative teams structured the two series. “Avatar” was one long story, and that show eventually ran out of material before the end – there's a strange middle section of the final season where the heroes are just killing time (and even commenting on how they're killing time) until the big climactic battle – where each “Korra” season had its own arc and villain, even as the show as a whole was charting her maturation from impulsive girl to wise young woman. Neither approach is wrong, and the “Avatar” story wasn't one that could be easily dispensed with in a season, but “Korra” was probably the more consistent show because it never had to sustain any one plotline for too long.

“Korra” also has the added bonus of using a lot of familiar actors for its voice cast, including J.K. Simmons (in a spiritual 180 from his award-winning “Whiplash” performance, even though both characters are teachers with impetuous students), John Michael Higgins (whose rapscallion inventor/businessman Varrick made my daughter laugh so much, I now need to figure out how old she can be before she sees one of Higgins' movies with Christopher Guest), Kiernan Shipka, Mindy Sterling (as perhaps the most badass character in either series, police chief Lin Beifong), Aubrey Plaza, Anne Heche, Lisa Edelstein, Henry Rollins, Bruce Davis, Lance Henriksen, and on and on. (I also watched all of “Korra” after I had seen season 1 of “You're the Worst,” and now I'm wondering how I will respond to Janet Varney's performance there as Becca Barbara, now that I'm used to her as Korra.) “Avatar” has some of that – America's favorite crier, Mae Whitman, provides the voice of Aang's friend and love interest Katara – but not nearly to this degree.

The scope and ambition of both shows, and their devotion to action-adventure even more than comedy – with the writers and artists taking advantage of the unlimited special effects budget of animation to create one remarkable action sequence after another – made “Korra” an outlier in recent American animation for TV (it has much more in common with anime than most of what's produced here), and made the franchise something Nickelodeon didn't always know what to do with. (At times, new episodes didn't air on Nickelodeon, but were simply released online.) But I'm very glad I got to see it, and disappointed that the saga's now over. (Though there have been some rumors about prequel stories.) In the meantime, I can watch highlights of my favorite sequences, like Korra and Lin taking on the Equalists in season 1:

One other thing: we were still playing catch-up on “Korra” season 3 when the series concluded in December, but I caught enough of what was being discussed on social media to gather that the finale made Korra and her friend (and former romantic rival) Asami into a couple. As a result, I went into the final season looking for hints of that, and they were indeed there, as the creators insisted in their elegant blog posts (one by Bryan Konietzko, one by Michael Dante DiMartino) explaining why they went in that direction with their relationship. In those posts, they also acknowledge that the nature of the show meant that the revelation had to be done in an implicit rather than explicit way, but the whole thing was set up well – with more grace, frankly, than some of the franchise's other romances, which could at times feel rushed and/or odd(***) – and very much fit the series' themes of change and growth and needing time to figure out who you truly are and what you care about.

(***) Aang feels True Love for Katara when he's 12 years old, which isn't unheard of but also felt like something the show had to push through because the nature of the story gave them a limited timeframe to work with. Then again, considering that people in this world are much longer-lived – Katara and several other “Avatar” characters are still around at the time of “Korra,” and this isn't considered unusual – maybe our standards for what's appropriate by age don't quite apply.

So, yes, that was a ton of fun. Now we just need to find our next show to watch together. Ordinarily, I'm the one making viewing suggestions, but in this case, I'm open to yours. Fire away with those, as well as any stray thoughts you might have on the “Avatar” and “Korra” of it all.