Favorite vs. Best and Aang vs. Korra

The first season of The Legend of Korra drew to a close today and, unsurprisingly, I loved the finale. It was frustrating at points, sure–I’ve had an issue with the mere presence of love triangles since the series began–but it was also stirring and shocking and downright beautiful.

The thing about Korra is that, for better or worse, it’s drastically darker than its predecessor. Avatar: The Last Airbender had its harrowing moments, and it had them surprisingly often for a children’s show, but The Legend of Korra takes those traces of darkness and delves deep, deeper than you ever thought anyone would go on Nickelodeon. (Apologies to Jhonen Vasquez; I love Invader Zim, but there’s some goofiness in even the darkest moments, which is nowhere to be seen in Korra’s.) In a way, this might make Korra’s story richer than Aang’s. Aang is young and innocent and idealistic. Korra is older, brasher, and pessimistic without being pragmatic. What she has to learn is substantially more emotionally complex than what Aang had to before her and, in some ways, it’s just more satisfying to see Korra’s story unfold.

This is where one of my most treasured pop culture discussion games comes in: The Favorite Versus Best Distinction. Here’s an example: I said earlier today that the first book (A Game of Thrones) in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is the best one–but I enjoyed the third, A Storm of Swords, much more. A Game of Thrones is a comparatively easy read with a tighter narrative structure and a neatly divided focus on a number of memorable characters. A Storm of Swords sometimes feels more like a series of vignettes than a novel, but all those vignettes, however disconnected, are incredible. Were I to revisit any of A Song of Ice and Fire, I’d skip the first two and jump straight to A Storm of Swords, not because it’s the best, but because it’s my favorite. (Other examples of the Favorite Versus Best Distinction include my love of Rushmore trumping my acknowledgment that The Royal Tenenbaums has a stronger script and cast and my tendency to reread Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire rather than the cleverer, briefer, and better Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban.)

So where does that leave Aang, Korra, and me? Korra’s story is fresh in my mind, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen the original Team Avatar strut their stuff, but Avatar: The Last Airbender still holds the illustrious title of Christy Admiraal’s Favorite Television Program Most Of The Time Except When She Can’t Stop Thinking About Lost, And That Really Doesn’t Happen That Often Anymore (CAFTPMOTTEWSCSTALATRDHTOA for short). Both A:TLA and The Legend of Korra begin by introducing a gorgeously animated setting, a set of unforgettable characters, and a killer soundtrack. Korra calls back to A:TLA in a way that never feels forced. Korra is a more mature series, and Korra is just as emotionally resonant as A:TLA.

But it’s not my favorite.

Avatar did it first, even if Korra sometimes does it better. Avatar established a world and a mythology, without which Korra could not exist. And Avatar leaves you with a smile on your face. Korra’s world isn’t as kid-friendly as Aang’s. That’s not a bad thing. But it’s a thing I like less than the combination of Aang’s laughter, Toph’s antagonization of Katara, Sokka’s one-liners, Appa’s battle cries, and Zuko and Iroh … well, just Zuko and Iroh. Avatar will likely never stop winning, and today, other than the way Scott’s brow furrows as he uses Illustrator to virtually arrange the furniture in our new apartment, that’s just about my favorite thing.

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.