Spoiler ahead if you haven’t seen Book Three of The Legend of Korra
There are a couple of things that became clear after last week’s release of The Legend of Korra’s season three finale.
First, Book Three: Change was Korra’s best season thus far, and one of the best in Avatar franchise history.
Second, this season of Korra was dark. Seriously dark.
Third, Nickelodeon, the show’s network, simply couldn’t handle that, resulting in a premiere and distribution that was a disastrous embarrassment.
From the moment that MundoNick “accidentally” leaked a third of the season a few months back, it was clear that something wasn’t right at Nick HQ. Leaks happen all of the time in entertainment, and are often unavoidable. However, Nick’s refusal to even acknowledge the leak suggested that this wasn’t mere coincidence and accident. To make matters worse, Nick announced the release of Book Three a week or so after, with a premiere date that followed two weeks later. Usually a show is given months to prepare and get audiences excited for their premieres; Korra got three weeks. After a couple of double airings in the dreaded Friday night timeslot, the show was removed from network schedule completely. The remaining episodes were distributed through the Nick website and app, no reason given and almost zero notice. The show effectively vanished in thin air. For a high-profile program like The Legend of Korra, and a part of the network’s most profitable franchise since Spongebob Squarepants, this kind of treatment was inexplicable.
With completion of Book Three, it’s starting to make more sense. Not much, but enough to be begrudgingly understood.
Now to the second point: Book Three was seriously dark, and yes, it bears repeating.
The best children’s shows have always found a way to sneak in some compelling and complex elements that adults could latch onto, while still catering to the kids. Korra was particularly good at dealing with complex themes, such as politics, terrorism and spirituality. This season, especially in it’s second half, upped the ante and pushed Korra even further, up to the brink of what’s deemed appropriate for the network’s audience. It’s doubtful anyone watching will ever forget the shocking and brutal asphyxiation of the Earth Queen by Zahir. Yes, death has occurred on the show before, notably the murder/suicide of Tarlokk and Amon in Book One’s finale, but never in such an explicit and graphic manner. The Earth Queen was evil, enslaving the newly created Airbenders and all, but her demise was still disturbing. Another shocking death had P’Li’s head trapped in metal armor a second before she used her combustion-bending, effectively exploding her skull (that was shown off screen). Tenzin, in one of many epic fight scenes this season, was beaten within an inch of his life by Zahir and the Red Lotus, to the point that his death seemed imminent. Finally, Korra, the target of a season-long assassination plot, was lead poisoned, forced into the Avatar state to survive, and then brought back from near-death after confronting the spirits of all of her enemies. While she did survive, the ordeal took a hefty toll. The season finale showed an emotionally broken Korra in a wheelchair, most likely suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder. All of those moments don’t even address the show’s aforementioned themes, which were heightened and strengthened throughout the episodes.
All of this material is a bit much for a network whose flagship star is a talking sponge in square pants. The Legend of Korra, at this stage, had flown in the complete opposite direction of the network’s other offerings (which kind of suck, but that’s another post for another day). And with the show’s dwindling television ratings (which are Nickelodeon’s fault since they moved it to Friday nights, a notorious deadzone), it didn’t make much sense to keep it on the schedule anymore. If the leak wasn’t intentional (I believe it was), Nickelodeon did, at the very least, use it to their advantage so they could offload a season they either couldn’t or didn’t want to air. Sure, the process was a mess and shot the network’s credibility to hell, but it did work out in some ways. Instead of cancellation, Nickelodeon was able to finish the series online, where it received many more eyeballs than in its dismal 8pm airing time on Friday.
Still, it is a shame that it wasn’t aired on television, considering point one: this season was The Legend of Korra at its finest. Even without the “dark”, this season brought forward strong character development, quick story pacing and absolutely mesmerizing action sequences, all of which were missing last season. It was not only a spectacular season of animated television; it was a spectacular season of television in general. It is a testament to animation’s ability to tell deep, meaningful and nuanced stories that can be touched by wide audience.
It’s pretty safe to assume that Nickelodeon will not be airing Book Four on television, going for the online only model going forward. It works out for the best, really. Nickelodeon still gets to be tied to a widely popular cultural franchise while not forgoing it’s programming mission. Even better, the show’s producers are given even more freedom to push the show’s boundaries even further, which is an exciting prospect considering where we left off. The sky is truly the limit for this show.