Korra and Me

Avatar: The Last Airbender is my all time favorite television series. (I’ve explained exactly why this is before, so I won’t rehash it; go see for yourself if it’s really that important). And when I found out that co-creators Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko were hard at work developing a follow up show focusing on Avatar Aang’s successor, a 16-year-old girl named Korra, I was optimistic, but cautiously so. Back when Ron Moore and Jane Espenson launched the Battlestar Galactica prequel series Caprica, I’d been far too optimistic about the series’ quality, and ended up sorely disappointed–and at the time, BSG was my favorite series. (Yes, A:TLA bested it. Again, I have my reasons, and I’m not changing my mind. But let’s fight about this anyway!) I didn’t want that to happen again, so I had some apprehension.

Now, we’re four episodes into Korra, and I’m glad that apprehension was firmly in place, because it’s made this daring, dramatic, and altogether captivating show all the more satisfying.

It’s obvious that the series bears some similarities to its predecessor, but it differs in all the right ways. Beyond her avatar status, Korra bears little resemblance to Aang; where he was earnest and playful, she’s stubborn and rebellious, with a willingness to bend the rules set by her present guardian and airbending mentor, Aang’s son Tenzin. Rather than palling around with a pair of sparring Water Tribe siblings, an adorably brash earthbender, and two wacky animal sidekicks, she’s accompanied by orphaned brothers with a complicated past and … two wacky animal sidekicks, but one of them is essentially a red panda, so, you know, good enough.

Most importantly, the wars Aang and Korra fight are radically different. Aang took on the evils of the Fire Nation with the intent of bringing unity to the Four Nations once again. Korra lives in the world where the Four Nations are more or less united, and the villains within the walls of Republic City are somehow more terrifying than Fire Lord Ozai ever was. These villains are anti-benders who vow to rid the world of those who can manipulate elements. They possess the ability to take away benders’ abilities–and if they’re able to take away Korra’s avatar powers, then unity will be a near-impossible dream all over again.

Initially, I wasn’t sold on the strength of this story. A:TLA is borderline perfect in my mind, full of the kind of heart that precious few TV series possess. Even after the premiere, I was doubtful that the co-creators could somehow replicate A:TLA’s success. But three episodes later, I think they’re well on their way to a different sort of success. There are reflections of the same humor, heart, beauty, and drama we’ve seen before. But Korra is darker and somehow deeper than what came before it. And I could very well be speaking too soon here (check back in a few months), but I get the feeling that Korra, Republic City, and who and what she encounters there will be as memorable as Aang and his world.

Well, maybe not as memorable. But it could be close.

Favorite Characters, Part I: The Smaller Screen

As you may have noticed, I enjoy making lists. Here, I specifically enjoy making lists of characters. Televised crushes. Prospective best friends. Favorite bromances. Favorite couples. So I want to do that again, but I think I’ll go a bit broader this time. I think it’s time to share my favorite characters. Because there are many of them, this’ll be a three-post series, starting with TV, then moving to books and concluding with film. Now, this could get tedious quickly, so I’ll limit myself to more than five but less than ten. Fair? Fair. Here we go.

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

There are countless standout characters in this particular corner of the Whedonverse. From Adam Baldwin’s cruel, calculating, and undeniably cool Marcus to Charisma Carpenter’s surprisingly multifaceted Cordelia, Angel’s characters are a consistently interesting and attention-grabbing bunch. And more so than anyone else, there’s Wesley (Alexis Denisof). Denisof takes a feeble minor character from Buffy and, over the course of five seasons, develops him into one of the richest, most complex parts of an altogether great show. Wesley goes from startled scientifically minded geek to roguishly handsome ass kicker to some balance thereof and does so seamlessly. It’s always a joy to watch Wesley’s story unfold.

Spike, Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Spike (James Marsters), a rebellious bleached blond vampire with a wicked sense of humor and a nicotine addiction, wasn’t meant to stay around for very long on Buffy. But he ended up as one of the series’ most enduring characters, staying strong even through the uneven final seasons. Not quite a villain, but never a hero, Spike’s complicated, tenuous relationship with Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the entire Scooby Gang led to endless gags, surprises, and even the occasional tender moment. By the time both Buffy and Angel come to a close, Spike is much more than a womanizing vamp with a sarcastic streak and a killer pout.

Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, Battlestar Galactica

This was hard.

I can’t think of a single member of the BSG cast I don’t absolutely adore in their role. But I keep coming back to Kara (Katee Sackhoff). At first blush, Starbuck’s just a wiseass pilot with some unresolved issues. Look again, though, and you see a deeply flawed, beautifully complex character. She doesn’t always make the right decisions, and she knows that. But she embraces her flaws and does what she can to pursue whatever destiny she might have, even if it might kill her.

Abed Nadir, Community

If Abed (Danny Pudi) were a real person, I think we’d be friends. We’re both socially uncomfortable, so we could be uncomfortable together. He actually knows more about pop culture than I do, which is alternately attractive and intimidating. And his ability to read people is nothing short of stunning. Though his personality and quirks are solidly set in place at this point, it’s true that there is hidden depth to his character. He’s layered, and he’s peeled back slowly, such that, even if a pop culture reference is inevitable, Abed’s sure to do something surprising every now and then.

Ben Linus, Lost

(Caution: any conversation of Lost inevitably includes a spoiler or two. You have been warned.)

Introduced as an unassuming balloonist who stumbled on the island by chance, no viewer could expect what Henry Gale–soon to be revealed to be Ben Linus (Michael Emerson)–would become, and what bearing he would have on the show. Perhaps the most morally complex and confusing character of the whole Lost gang, Ben’s motives are often unclear; on occasion, the man seems downright evil. But someone so wise surely can’t be completely corrupt, as we are reminded in his rare moments of mercy and kindness. Those moments become more common as the series progresses, and over time, Ben Linus is shown to be so much more than a turncloak or an antihero or whatever word comes to mind.

Leslie Knope, Parks & Recreation

It’s a tired complaint and I’ll turn it into a compliment here: you don’t see a ton of funny women in the limelight on TV, but on NBC every Thursday night, they’re unavoidable. Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, Tina Fey, and the lovely and amazing Amy Poehler do their damnedest on every episode of their respective shows, and the result is consistently hilarious. While her comedy may be a touch more restrained than what is seen on Community or 30 Rock, Poehler shows the most chops of anyone in the bunch. Her Leslie Knope is a genuinely inspiring character, a champion for an otherwise unremarkable small Midwestern town. She plays well off any other comedic force, whether it’s a familiar foil like the incomparable Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) or any number of guest stars (Will Forte, Andy Samberg, Parker Posey, and beyond). She’s simply brilliant and yet another reason to love P&R.

Henry Pollard, Party Down

Not since Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth (Arrested Development) have we seen such a great straight man as Henry (Adam Scott), a former commercial actor who goes into the L.A. catering business as a last resort. No matter where he’s serving, from orgies to high school reunions and everything in between, craziness abounds, but Harry stays centered through it all. Throughout the show, though, Henry’s fighting back the urge to get into the acting game. Watching him struggle through mixing drinks and serving appetizers while knowing what he could be if he only tried never gets old till the very last frame.

TV Couples Worth Emulating, Minus The Parts With Horrible Accidents And/Or Death

This is my third attempt at a blog post today. I started one and it fell apart after one paragraph. The second took less than two sentences to do the same. So I figured I’d do what I do best: rehash something I’ve already written about extensively but take a slightly different tack.

Here is an abridged list of some of my favorite TV couples. These are the couples whose relationships I find refreshingly functional. They have their hiccups, their miscommunications, and their occasional deadly consequences. But these couples are generally content with each other and the loving partnerships they maintain.

Two notes before we begin:

1. Here come some spoilers!

2. I chose to go with series I’ve seen from end to end, thus the absence of The West Wing’s Jed and Abby Bartlet and any couple, however major or minor, on The X-Files.

Bernard and Rose Nadler, Lost

I would argue (and I think it would be a pretty solid argument, if I do say so myself) that more than any other couple on Lost, Rose (L. Scott Caldwell) and Bernard (Sam Anderson) excel at ducking out of the supernatural to maintain a healthy, happy relationship. They’re undeniably older and most likely wiser than just about everyone who survived the Flight 815 crash, and the story of their relationship feels more familiar than more tumultuous and unusual fare. They remain largely unaffected by the existence of apparitions, alternate timelines, and the concept of the constant, and I maintain that their reunion midway through season two is one of the sweetest, most satisfying moments in the show.

Karl “Helo” Agathon and Sharon “Athena” Agathon, Battlestar Galactica

I get that Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) once grappled with the idea of falling in love with a Cylon and, at some point, shooting her in order for her to be born again. Really, I get that. But I also get that through all the chaos that comes with living in the BSG world, Helo and Athena (Grace Park) were able to stay relatively stable together. Even as they defied death on a near-daily basis and saved the life of their daughter time and again, they never fell out of love.

Marshall Eriksen and Lily Aldrin, How I Met Your Mother

I’ll flatly state this: no one else on How I Met Your Mother is good at relationships. While I do think that HIMYM is, as far as sitcoms go, excellent at portraying the friendships of 20- and 30-somethings in a realistic way, it’s undeniable that Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) is a semi-unstable sex addict, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) has unhealthily unrealistic expectations for relationships, and Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) tends to fail spectacularly, no matter who she’s with. But Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) help me to forget all that. No matter how many times one disappoints the other, they always come out stronger for it. Though the title of the show has so far been one giant six season tease, as long as Marshall and Lily are around, I don’t care how Ted met those expressionless kids’ mother all that much.

Hoban “Wash” Washburne and Zoe Washburne, Firefly

It’s been said before and I’ll say it again: I don’t love Firefly as much as the rest of the world seems to want me to. That said, I do love Wash (Alan Tudyk) and Zoe (Gina Torres), two members of the Serenity crew who, under the circumstances of being space cowboys or something of the kind, couldn’t possibly be a more normal couple. In general, their sensibilities are remarkably different. Wash is defined by goofy charisma and a knack for making light of unquestionably dark situations, whereas Zoe treats everyday struggles on the ship as vitally important military-style missions. In some cases, this may force them to oppose each other. Instead, they’re mature enough to balance each other out, recognizing the good in each other’s attitudes and working from there.

Stay tuned for next time, when I write something new and different and maybe even not in a list format! (Maybe.)

Stunt Casting Triumphs and Mishaps

First, for those of you who are new here (i.e. just about everyone), thanks for stopping by. Sadly, not all my entries are written as letters to Damon Lindelof. Most are about television, though, and hopefully with a touch of humor here and there. And that’s exactly what you’re about to read. Or ignore. Your choice.

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts at work yesterday, NPR/Monkey See’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. I highly recommend this particular podcast to anyone who cares about pop culture analysis and/or enjoys laughing. One of this week’s topics was stunt casting, defined by tvtropes.org as “hiring of a big-name actor to play a supporting role.” In my mind, this can only go one of two ways: very, very well or very, very poorly. I don’t have the sunniest view of stunt casting in general. I think it has the potential to distract from whatever else is going on in the episode, and pretty cheaply at that. However, there are times that it works beautifully. Here are some examples of both.

The Triumphs

Jon Hamm as Andrew Baird, 30 Rock

Jon Hamm’s rise to prominence in the entertainment world is a fairly recent development, thanks entirely to his role as the irresistibly charismatic ad executive Don Draper on AMC’s Mad Men. Because of this, it can be difficult to see him outside that persona. But Hamm proved his comic chops with his turn as the ridiculously handsome but semi-idiotic Andrew Baird on 30 Rock. A great comic foil for love interest and lead Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), Hamm showed that he can be funny and has a sense of humor about his role in pop culture.

Jack Black as Buddy, Community

It’s close to impossible to think of Jack Black as anyone but Jack Black. But in Community, he was able to perfectly embody a role: Buddy, a Greendale student desperate to join the stars of the Spanish study group. This leads to an excellent cold opening, a well-crafted B-plot, and a bit of even crazier stunt casting with Owen Wilson as the leader of a cooler study group. Community’s stunt casting is generally quite good, with Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Shirley’s (Yvette Nicole Brown) ex-husband in a Cosby sweater and LeVar Burton as himself and Troy’s (Donald Glover) greatest hero. But this one was the first, and may well have been the funniest.

Garry Shandling and Tea Leoni as themselves, The X-Files

As with Community, The X-Files does well with stunt casting, whether it’s Michael McKean as a swarthy secret organization’s operative or Luke Wilson as a charming Texas ranger and vampire. But the best example comes with what might be referred to as one 42-minute stunt, the delightfully goofy “Hollywood A.D.” There’s a movie being made about FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), and Garry Shandling and Tea Leoni, playing slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, have been cast as the leads. Shandling’s eccentricity and Leoni’s crush on her real life husband Duchovny make for yet another entertaining set piece in a great bit of X-Files history.

The Mishaps

John Hodgman as Dr. Gerard, Battlestar Galactica

Make no mistake: I really appreciate John Hodgman and his contributions to geek/pseudo-intellectual culture. But I think it was a misstep on the part of BSG’s producers to recruit him for a one-off role as a neurosurgeon in “No Exit,” what is otherwise a pretty somber episode. Sam Anders (Michael Trucco) is almost completely brain dead, Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon) explains that one of the Cylon models is forever extinct, and then there’s Hodgman, yukking it up in the corner. His presence is distracting, and the people behind BSG were wise to never try something like this before or again.

Jennifer Lopez as Anita, How I Met Your Mother

HIMYM loves stunt casting. It loves it too much. And this was never more obvious than when Jennifer Lopez came around to play a relationship expert and potentially have sex with Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). “Of Course” was an episode that generally fell flat, with a bizarre song break for Ted’s (Josh Radnor) “Super Date” and the strangeness of Robin (Cobie Smulders) showing what might have been misplaced emotional vulnerability. But Lopez was the weakest part. There was nothing about her performance that didn’t shout, “Look, it’s Jennifer Lopez!” And that’s the biggest mistake a stunt casting choice can make.

Stephen Tobolowsky as Professor Sheffield, Community

What, you thought I didn’t have it in me to critique Community? I don’t think it was Tobolowsky’s fault that his appearance as a Who’s The Boss? scholar fell flat. Tobolowsky is a brilliant character actor, but in “Competitive Wine Tasting,” he was wasted (no pun intended). His was relegated to a C plot and got approximately 5 minutes on screen to be wacky and move along. Between this and Katharine McPhee, Community isn’t perfect at casting recognizable celebrities in random roles.