Along with forthcoming Avatar and Korra comics from Dark Horse, it’s reasonable to expect that The Legend of Korra’s complete Blu-ray set will arrive in time for the holidays. But it is unreasonable to expect that Nickelodeon is busy creating new, original series with as much broad appeal, visual artistry, and sociopolitical and environmental conscience. Both animated series are arguably the network’s last, great original productions: Avatar: The Last Airbender routinely scooped up Annies, Emmys, and even a Peabody, while its more mature follow-up, The Legend of Korra, though not as lauded by the establishment, provided animated television with perhaps its most powerful female hero.
“I am certainly proud to add Korra to the pantheon of TV characters, which is perpetually sorely lacking in multifaceted female characters who aren’t sidekicks, subordinates or mere trophies for male characters,” Konietzko told me in 2014, right before Nickelodeon yanked The Legend of Korra’s third season off of television and offered it exclusively online, before reversing its decision for the show’s fourth and final season. “The notion that she is the most potent female character you can think of, and no other comes to mind, in a time when I hear there are more TV shows in production than ever before, is pretty depressing.”
“I do think there is probably a too-low expectation of what a children’s TV animation program can look like, and the types of stories it can tell,” DiMartino added. “We’re constantly trying to push the envelope with the sophistication and depth of both the storytelling and artwork in Korra. My hope is that people who love interesting stories and entertaining TV programs will check out the show, whether they normally watch animation or not. We’ve heard many times over the years that Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra have converted even the most skeptical of viewers.”
For their part, Nickelodeon and its creatively adrift parent corporation, Viacom, seem to have missed that animation conversion. It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at Nickelodeon’s list of programs to conclude that it has no real intention of replacing Avatar and Korra with anything as compelling — or anything with a powerful female lead, for that matter.
Ratings and reviews for its newest original series — Pig Goat Banana Cricket, Harvey Beaks, and Breadwinners, programs that have eschewed human characters in favor of animals and food — have been consistent enough to keep the network afloat, though none have ideas big enough to impact the cultural mainstream in the way that Rugrats, SpongeBob, Ren & Stimpy or Avatar did. And while it’s probably Nickelodeon’s most successful new show, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is nevertheless a reboot of an existing property, and most of its female characters are evil like Kraang Prime (Roseanne Barr) or borderline bad like Karai (Kelly Hu). Other than recurring good girl April O’Neill (Mae Whitman), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a dudebro show with dudebro heroes.
Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra convincingly shattered Nickelodeon’s tired dudebro mold, which can also be found in its longest-running original animated series, SpongeBob SquarePants. Nickelodeon’s refusal to continue Avatar and Korra’s tradition may be somewhat ameliorated when it airs the international adventure, Miraculous Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, on December 6. But that will nowhere near make up for the network’s glaring lack of animated originality, or gender equity.
Which is a shame, because Nickelodeon could rightly be celebrating its astonishing achievement. Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are two of the most ambitious and moving animated series of this still-new millennium, which is more than most networks can claim. Indeed, pound for pound, they can stand alongside most non-animated series and still hold their own — in story, in design, and in intelligence.
But the sad fact is that Nickelodeon seems to be so out of ideas — for viewers of all ages, who desperately need compelling programming — that the best it can muster is a nostalgia block like The Splat, which resuscitates its offerings from the ’90s. Sure, it’s nice to have some of those shows again, especially the surreal and hilarious Rugrats. But what really isn’t nice is to have a bunch more new shows trying to do the same old thing, decades later, when the network really should be doing something different, like now.
Perhaps there is no greater indictment of Nickelodeon’s unwillingness to push the envelope and raise audience expectations than the defection of DiMartino and Konietzko, who have respectively abandoned television for novels and comics. It’s perhaps only a matter of time before audiences call Nickelodeon to account for their cartoon redundancies. And when they do, Nickelodeon is going to need a pretty good set of excuses to keep those audiences, or else they will simply go elsewhere, because today there are more places to go than ever before.