The semester is winding down, which means that I've been spending a lot of time grading. I don't mind this too much. It's repetitive work, which is a nice change from the acrobatics of managing three hundred students' needs during classes.
I like to have something going on in the background while I'm grading. When I'm in the office, I use podcasts. When I'm grading at home, I use TV. Generally, I like to turn on something I've seen before, stuff that I'm familiar with--I've used Community, Roseanne, The Closer, Forensic Files, Snapped. This time has been a little different. Our Netflix account isn't working, and our dog ate most of the remote control for the blu ray player, so I've been making use of the Amazon Prime account. And they recently added one of my all-time favorite shows to their options.
As I've been rewatching the show, I've been trying to pin down what it is exactly that works so well for me. If I can see the parts that sell it for me, I can maybe use those tools to make my own work better. But I'm deep into season 2 on my rewatch, and my list of things that are great about this show is long.
So, I've tried to distill the key ingredients down to three main things. I had to go sort of broad strokes with this, but I think I managed to get to the three things that I want to make use of in my work.
1. The overall story.
I think by now, my stance on outlines is pretty clear (but if you've somehow missed it, I am very much pro-outline). Something about having a map for a story makes it easier for me to put the thing together. If you want to see a good story plan in action, just look at A:TLA. The main conflict, the endgame, the major players, the teen romance subplot are all laid out in the first episode. The pilot makes a very clear promise--a hero coming of age story with characters that have complicated histories, well choreographed action scenes, emotional drama, and enough goofs to make it palatable.
The only reason this works--the only reason we can get this clear promise so early on--is because the creators already know the story. Maybe not every single beat, but the benchmarks are already there.
This is also important in terms of writing for limited space. A season only gets so many episodes. A show, even one as successful as A:TLA was, is only granted so many seasons. The plan lets the creators get the most punch out of each episode. It lets them better sell their story--there's not an open-ended run; the story has a specific endpoint. And it cuts WAY DOWN on filler. One of the best things about A:TLA is that the vast majority of the episodes move the story forward. They aren't wasted. Even some of the "filler" episodes give us something--"Tales of Ba Sing Se" quickly communicates the hurry up and wait that goes on in Ba Sing Se and gives us hints as to what happened to Appa. Even "Ember Island Players" serves as a great play on the clip show trope and gives us a chance to explore some of the character relationships. (There's also "The Great Divide," but let's not get into that one).
The episodes do work, and they're able to do that work because the plan is so clear.
2. The characters.
I could go on for days about how Zuko's character arc is one of the best in animation. Or about how characters like Teo and Toph rewrite the script on how the stories that characters with disabilities can tell. Or about Iroh's role as moral center for Zuko and the questions that I have about how he got to that point. Or about Katara and Suki and the ways that women can and do balance "feminine" demands with "masculine" ones. Or Azula's downward spiral towards the end of season 3.
The characters are deep, is what I'm saying. The main cast, the villains, the recurring characters read as having full and complex lives and personalities. They exist within the plot, but they don't exist for the plot, which is a complicated thing when you consider that the plot is literally what they were created for.
It goes beyond the major characters in the story. Even the bit players shine. I'll give two examples that, with gifs alone, illustrate the personality that go into characters that only briefly appear.
At the end of the day, A:TLA is a story about a war--a war that's been going on for a hundred years. The world the show takes place in, in spite of its magic and bright colors, is a dark place. And the show doesn't conceal that--at least, not to the degree that you might expect in a show geared towards children. We see wounded soldiers. We hear about or see implied deaths in combat. We see the extreme measures taken by both sides.
And that's just the main arc conflict. We get subplots surrounding Aang's guilt at running away (essentially leaving his people to die and ensuring that the war would continue), Sokka and Katara's truncated childhoods and the loss of their mother, Toph's complicated relationship with her parents and with her class position. We see the complicated family politics and the straight up abuse that happened within the Fire Nation royal family (and we get a glimpse of the different tactics Ozai uses on his children and their different coping mechanisms). We get examinations of colonialism and cultural appropriation.
This is, again, at the end of the day a coming-of-age hero story that is geared towards children. But it does so much and in such a way that it doesn't feel like a sermon and doesn't underestimate its audience. That's a fine line to walk under the best of circumstances. And let's remember, because it's easy to forget when you're binging a show that's been off the air for almost ten years, the creators were beholden not only to the network itself, but to advertisers. Imagine telling a toy company that you'll be airing their ads during a show that going to depict, on screen, the brainwashing and murder of a child. Sounds like a tough sell, yeah?
There are a million things I could say about this show, but these three are the most impressive bits to me. It's hard to tell a good, complete story. It's harder to do that with a set of characters that, down to the last, live and breath beyond their story purpose. And it's even harder to balance that story with the complexities that would accompany it in reality. And then to succeed in the business end and sell the complete thing.
A:TLA isn't a novel, but it's definitely a master class in storytelling. I'm not getting things graded as quickly as I might have planned, but I'm so glad I decided to rewatch it. I can only hope that I've learned at least a little of what it has to offer.