Monday (2/7/11) 9:38am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.
TV: Avatar: The Last Airbender [2x15-2x17] [spoilers]
Avatar: The Last Airbender [2x15-2x17] [spoilers]
While briefly playing hooky from watching film noir, I've seen a few more episodes of Avatar
: "The Tales of Ba Sing Se"
, "Appa's Lost Days"
, and "Lake Laogai"
After finishing "Lake Laogai", I went back to my film noir viewing. This was partly because I need to prepare for the upcoming noir show, but also, I wanted to write about these three episodes in particular before moving on -- because, to my mind, it's these three episodes that take the show from being a lovable, clever adventure story to something with the sort of crazed ambition I associate with LOST
Let's be clear: these aren't necessarily the show's best episodes (though I would make a case for "The Tales of Ba Sing Se"). I wouldn't necessarily call them the most original episodes (for reasons I'll get into in a bit). But they are serious swing-for-the-fences stories, where they set themselves tasks that just seem flat-out impossible. At the very least, you're thinking, "But TV shows just don't *do* that."
With "The Tales of Ba Sing Se", they step back from their breakneck chase across the Earth kingdom to... tell some quick character studies. There's no through-line to the episode. Katara and Toph go to a day spa. Sokka gets one scene at an impromptu poetry slam. Iroh sets up a picnic. Zuko fails miserably at dating. Even Momo, the little flying lemur, gets his own (largely wordless)
Ask yourself: who *does* this? Who puts the 'pause' button on a rollicking, serialized adventure to just chill and explore the characters just 'being' for an episode? Maybe BSG
, with "Unfinished Business"? And when you think about how categorically BSG
fandom *hates* that one, you start to see that this is the sort of episode you only put on if you're willing to risk failing, and failing massively. You're basically putting all your chips on the hope that, somewhere in the serialized adventure plot, you've set up characters that are so strong, so unique, and so empathetic, that we're willing to sit back and watch these people (and a lemur)
go about their daily lives.
It's not perfect. The day-spa story certainly means well -- it's interesting to think of how our two action heroines relate to more traditional femininity -- but it's kind of obvious and clunky in action. And you'll note that I completely forgot about Aang's zoo story in the initial description. On the other hand, Momo's story includes a heart-tugging moment worthy of Pixar (when Momo frees the cats), and Iroh's reincorporation of the traditional 'soldier-boy' song is just shattering.
And if you don't try the crazy character-based episode, you don't get to have moments like that.
For the next episode, they use a different gambit: "ratchet the story back <x> days and re-tell that whole stretch of time from the point of view of a character who's been absent." I'm sure LOST
didn't invent this trick, but it certainly showed it off with episodes like "Exposé" and "The Other Forty-Eight Days". It demonstrated all the tricks you can do with it, revealing answers to mysteries (perhaps even to mysteries that you didn't even realize were mysteries)
and putting existing events into a new context. Perhaps other TV shows played with this toy before LOST
did, but hell if I can remember where and when that happened.
So basically, I'm assuming that the showrunners behind Avatar
have watched LOST
and lifted this storytelling device from it -- only they're doing it with Appa the bison, a non-verbal character. We're going to view the last few weeks of Avatar
through the eyes of an abducted, grunting bison.
And okay, it doesn't quite work. It winds up being something of a shaggy-dog story that relies heavily on magic and coincidence to sort itself out. But again, it's exciting that they're *trying* this. When a show is willing to do that, they are operating beyond *my* meager imagination, and I genuinely don't know what they're going to try next. And it was still a cleverly-constructed episode, with Easter eggs like an explanation for where the buried sandboat came from.
Finally, there's "Lake Laogai". There's no gimmick to how this episode is put together -- on a structural level, it's just a straight-up showdown between Aang and Long Feng, AKA the ruler of Ba Sing Se. But what impressed me here is how genuinely creepy the bad guys are. Up to this point, we've had mostly Fire-Nation villains, who were mostly straightforward, aggressive bullies.
Instead, this is more 1984
territory. There's something intensely unsettling about the group of women all saying "I am Joo Dee" in unison, and it's a sort of unease that continues after you turn the TV off. "Bad guys with massive invasion fleets" feels sort of removed from my experience... but a society designed to keep people quiet and ignorant -- that feels much more like the evil that we all contend with day-to-day.
And not only that, but they killed off a recurring character. Jet, after being abandoned by his posse, falsely arrested, and brainwashed, finally tried to do one good thing by going up against Long Feng, and got mortally wounded for his trouble. Granted, I doubt this show ever gets particularly dark, and even this one had a triumphantly happy ending (Appa swoops in and saves the day!), but "Lake Laogai" demonstrates that the show can be pretty damn grim when it needs to be. It certainly wasn't a good day for Jet.
Also, I adore everything about Uncle Iroh's quest to run his own tea shop. There's something remarkably hopeful about having a character, late in life, finally figure out what he wants to do when he grows up.
I can't imagine the rest of season two delivering on the level of these three episodes, but I suppose I can hope. At the very least, I'm sure Avatar
has some more surprises in store for me.
For next time: noir noir noir! I'll keep reading Dark City
; I'll finish off Cry Danger
and pick the next noir to watch; I'll keep rehearsing for the noir show. I probably won't queue up another audiobook for at least a week or two -- for the moment I'm still catching up on a couple of months of the Sound Opinions podcast
contemplative · Music: