Christina Hendricks. On Angel. Using an (admittedly terrible) Irish accent. Awesome.
Television Thunderdome: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Series Overview: Telling the story of a group of children at the center of a global war, Avatar: The Last Airbender examines some very heavy, very adult themes in ways that few works of “children’s entertainment” dare to do. (See also: Harry Potter.) Taking place in a world divided into four nations based on the classic Greek elements and influenced by anime and kung fu movies, certain people have the ability to manipulate, or “bend,” the element associated with the nation of their birth. The Avatar, the physical incarnation of the planet, can control all four elements and is tasked with maintaining the world’s balance. The series begins 100 years after the start of a horrible war that has thrown the world out of balance and threatens to result in the eradication or enslavement of the losing nations. The series follows the young Aang, the current Avatar, and his friends as they journey across the world to put an end to the war and restore balance. Along the way, they see the horrors of war. The series examines the high cost of human life in wars, nationalism, terrorism, racism, and even genocide without ever watering down these themes for children. As a result, the series is a deep, moving experience that is appropriate for children but will draw in and captivate adults.
What Makes It Worth Watching: The thematic elements of this show help tell a wonderfully engaging tale of friendship, sacrifice, and balance. But even with an excellent story, the series wouldn’t be anything without the fantastic characters. Nearly every main and recurring character has something about them that makes them compelling to watch. Also, special mention should be made about the women and the villains. The women of the Avatar universe are among the best female characters in recent television history. Unlike too many women in the medium, characters like Katara, Toph, Suki, and Azula are strong, confident, and have agency and motivations, rather than being little more than props or reflections of their male counterparts. Meanwhile, the villains are some of the most dangerous villains you’ll see in a children’s work. The heroes have to work very hard to earn their victories, because the villains are highly motivated and truly think that they are in the right. Despite being a cartoon, the villains are not cartoonishly evil for the sake of being evil. Most are fighting for their nation and, if not for the war, would probably be friendly with the protagonists. There are some who are not quite so upstanding, but they have a combination of mental issues and warped worldviews, the result of being subjected to propaganda since birth.
Finally, the combat scenes are breathtaking to behold. The creators worked with a sifu of various disciplines of Chinese martial arts, and each style of bending corresponds to a different discipline. The fight scenes are intricately choreographed and stunningly animated, providing a visceral complement to the intellectual aspects of the show.
Caveats: Like Buffy/Angel, Avatar doesn’t hit the ground running. Fortunately, it picks up quicker than Buffy and Angel do, but the earliest episodes are the least mature of the entire series. The show never loses touch with the fact that it’s a show on Nickelodeon (something that nearly prevented me from watching it), but most of the immature humor comes in the early episodes. And once again, it takes about 12 episodes or so for the characters to develop into who they will become. For example, the Sokka of the first 5 or so episodes is an insufferable moron and sexist. And then, he suddenly becomes a hilarious tactician, and the show is so much richer for it. And while the first season has many great episodes, the show is very episodic with an over-arching story in the background. But then seasons 2 and 3 kick things into high gear by bringing the over-arching story more into the foreground and raising the stakes.
Suggested Episodes If You Aren’t Immediately Sold: “Jet” (1x10), “The Storm” (1x12), “The Blue Spirit” (1x13)
Bonus: Unlike Buffy and Angel, which I pretty much view as a single show due to the fact that the crossovers between the shows enrich the viewing experience, I see Avatar: The Last Airbender as a separate show from its spin-off The Legend of Korra. Korra takes place 70 years after Avatar, so there are no concurrent crossovers. However, Korra has proven itself to be a worthy successor to Avatar, and brings Avatar’s strong thematic exploration to politics and peacetime terrorism. And the hero and current Avatar, Korra, takes “strong female character” to the next level.
Television Thunderdome: Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel
Series Overview: Two horror/fantasy series created by Joss Whedon before he was known as the man who gave us The Avengers, which use supernatural elements to tell some of the most human stories on television. Beginning as a show exposing the horrors of teenage life, Buffy expanded into an epic about what it means to be alive. The show examined first love, adapting to new settings (first when the characters transitioned from high school to college, then from college into the workforce), what it means to be family, and, in one of the most devastating hours ever committed to film, the finality of death. The spin-off series Angel, starting when the Buffy characters were in college, was the first to examine the horrors of adult life. Its first season looked at what can go wrong when buying your first house, the unpredictability of raising children, and making it through a job that wasn’t your first choice, but is something that is, for better or for worse, inescapable. From there, Angel opened up to larger themes, including the horrible things people can do to each other when they are scared, the nature of evil, and, most importantly, what constitutes redemption. Along the way, both series see their fair share of hope and heartbreak as the characters learn, grow, succeed, and, just as often, fail miserably.
What Makes It Worth Watching: Joss Whedon is a master of humor, sadness, and pivoting from one to the other without warning. The characters who populate his worlds are both very witty and have very human reactions to the events around them. The characters are the crux of a Joss Whedon show; big events happen, but it is the characters’ actions which drive the story. And, with very few exceptions, these characters are well-developed and act how you would expect them to based on what you know of them. This is not to say that their actions are always foreseeable or that they don’t grow. Many times, characters’ actions are unexpected despite being perfectly within character. Everyone on the show is flawed, and sometimes, their stronger qualities win out, while other times, they succumb to their flaws. And as for growth, no one is exactly who they were at the series’ beginnings, but the changes always make sense. In fact, Angel has a character who, at the end of the series, is almost unrecognizable from who he was when he was introduced. And yet, the changes were so gradual and organic that they are almost impossible to notice until you see a flashback to who he was and realize how much hell his trials and tribulations have put him through.
Beyond the characters, the stories told are exciting, touching, and at times, delightfully weird. Buffy especially was willing to go weird with its storytelling, featuring a musical episode, an episode that was nearly dialogue-free (and, ironically, was the only episode to be nominated for a non-make-up Emmy… in the category of Best Writing), and an episode that takes place entirely in an alternate universe, with no exposition at the top explaining why things are different.
Caveats: Together, there are 254 episodes, which is a huge commitment. And unfortunately, neither show hits the ground running. Angel’s first season is by far its weakest, and includes the two worst episodes of the series. It also has some episodes that merit mention among the series’ best, and overall, it is a good season, but the show takes a while to find it’s footing. Buffy’s first season has similar problems, but is even more awkward. The make-up and effects were laughably bad (they never become spectacular, but they at least become passable), the “high school is hell” metaphor stories are not as seamlessly integrated as they become in future seasons, and the characters are a bit rough around the edges. They are not “out of character,” but they are not as well-defined as they will come to be, as the show uses the first season to sort out everyone’s relationship.
I’m reluctant to suggest skipping episodes, as even the worst episodes have something to offer, whether it be characterization or, in the case of “She,” Angel’s worst episode, very funny moments. All I can say is that you have to go in knowing that the first few episodes are going to be silly and being ready to make a few MST3K-style quips. But stick with it, and in no time at all, the show will become one of the most rewarding and moving television experiences you will ever have.
Suggested Episodes If You Aren’t Immediately Sold: “Prophecy Girl,” (Buffy 1x12), “School Hard” (Buffy 2x03), “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Angel 1x14), “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” (Angel 2x02)
While talking on Twitter tonight, I learned that a friend is planning to start watching either Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Avatar: The Last Airbender, or Breaking Bad soon. I told her that all three (well, four) shows are incredible, but are great in very different ways. I’ve already given 140-character explanations as to their worth, but because I can’t pass up an opportunity to talk about these shows, I’m going to give fuller recommendations here.
Hopefully, a few others will decide to take the plunge into one or all of these incredible TV series.
The Legend of Korra Book 1, Episode 10: Turning the Tides
As each week passes, the threat posed by Amon becomes greater and his connection to the message of “equality” becomes more tenuous. In the third episode, he debended known criminals who actively used their bending to oppress others (including other benders). In the sixth episode, he destroyed the Pro Bending arena, a shrine dedicated to the glorification of the bending arts. Never mind that non-benders were present and enjoyed the sport. Now, he commands a fleet of airships to lay siege to Republic City. He tells Hiroshi that the destruction will lead to a change in the balance of power, but I fail to see how destroying the very place he says he wants to make safer for non-benders will achieve his goal. Like many real life despots, the more that time passes, the more we realize that Amon’s true goal is not equality but power and anarchy. He has won people to his cause through charismatic speeches promising them some measure of power in a society that holds them powerless, but at the end of the day, the only person he’ll achieve power for is himself. Even Team Avatar definitely believes that he is a much bigger threat than Tarrlok, a “crazy bloodbender” who successfully captured the Avatar and nearly took control of Republic City through “legal” means.
“Turning of the Tides” balances a story of the breakout of an all-out war with very personal stories for the main characters. Two love triangles are forced to address the issues between them, with Asami accusing Mako of having romantic feelings for Korra and Pema having to deal with Lin as her only protector while Tenzin and Team Avatar are on the mainland. Both situations would be tough under normal circumstances, but now, the characters’ lives depend on each other, and in-fighting will only make it easier for the Equalists to take them down. Fortunately for our heroes, things never get so heated that they can’t defend themselves (although Lin does get saddled with Meelo by a rather upset Pema). Lin even finds a way to cause Pema to get over any lingering romantic rivalry feelings (more on that later). Asami, Mako, and Korra on the other hand will be in for some tough times while they are hiding out together next week. Poor Bolin will probably have to be the mediator.
The best character moments, however, are directly tied in with the scenes of war. War inevitably requires sacrifice, and watching as the characters fail to defend their allies or are forced to make strategic decisions which will inevitably lead to misfortune for their friends make for incredibly compelling television. Tenzin, despite being an incredibly powerful airbender (just look at how forceful his air blasts are), and the metalbending cops ultimately failed to stop the Equalists and all were captured. Although Team Avatar was able to rescue Tenzin, the rest of the police force will likely be debended. Then, after the Equalists invade Air Temple Island, everyone is forced to evacuate. Lin and Tenzin’s kids are able to hold off the first wave, but the Equalists’ numbers are too great. The characters then have to make a choice: where do we go and what do we do to ensure a victory in the long run? They conclude that the safety of Tenzin’s family is the priority because the world can’t afford to lose the only 4 (or now possibly 5) airbenders in existence, so Lin and Tenzin’s family decide to go into hiding while Team Avatar returns to Republic City to stage guerrilla resistance strikes against Amon. But Amon’s airships pursue Tenzin, forcing Lin to make a choice. She sacrifices herself (or a part of herself) to ensure that her former lover and his family will be safe.
So with two episodes (but just one week) left, what choices will the characters of The Legend of Korra make? Will Hiroshi Sato sacrifice his daughter for his cause, or will he sacrifice his cause for his daughter? Will the non-benders of Republic City realize that their savior cares only about himself, or is the damage to their psyches from decades of oppression too deep? And is Korra ready to make the tough choices necessitated by war? Is she ready to lose everything to do what’s right, or is she still too immature to see past her own desires?
· The Legend of Korra is in many ways the Angel to Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer; it’s more “adult,” involves a cast that can’t get along more than they get along, and is ultimately darker. But the scenes of Lin and Team Avatar being forced to live together on Air Temple Island reminded me of the end of Buffy’s fourth season, when everyone, including Giles, was living in Xander’s basement. When Korra gave a speech at the beginning, I was wondering where her Yummy Sushi! pajamas were.
· On the Angel side, let me paraphrase one of Wesley’s lines from the end of Season 2: Try not to get anyone debended and you’ll end up getting everyone debended.
· Poor Fire Nation council member. She finally gets a line, only to be captured by some painfully obvious Equalists.
· “Ah! Car! Oh, we’re good.” Never change, Bolin.
· The scene of Mako holding Korra’s hand at her bedside as Asami looked on, holding back tears was just heartbreaking. As was Lin’s final scene, when I was holding back tears.
· “That lady is my hero.” “Yes, she is.”
· GENERAL IROH!