Category Archives: TV Shows

Avatar: The Last Airbender

I don’t like things that are for children. I don’t like cartoons, especially not anime-style cartoons. But for some reason I liked this American anime cartoon series called Avatar: The Last Airbender.

This is a high-concept fantasy series. Because it is an anime-style cartoon, the civilizations in this fantasy world are heavily based on aspects of Asian culture and spirituality. Its story is set in a fantasy world, complete with a map that appears during the opening title sequence.  In this world, people called “benders” have the ability to manipulate the elements around them. You don’t need to know much more about the backstory other than the little bit of exposition that comes with the titles. That goes something like this:

“Water, earth, fire air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone But I believe Aang can save the world.”

This bit of dialog is spoken by Katara, a waterbender girl who, as she said, discovered the Avatar named Aang with her brother Sokka. The three of them, along with a flying Bison named Appa and a winged Lemur named Momo—yes, this show is weird—embark on a journey together with the mission of training Aang in the ability to bend all four elements and to defeat the fire nation. They get sidetracked a lot along the way.

In a lot of ways, Aang is like Caine from Kung Fu. He’s bald, and a martial art expert. He travels from place to place, meets people, gets into adventures. The difference is that he has two friends and two strange animals who accompany him. And he also has a sense of humor.

Aang’s travel buddies, Katara and Sokka, both serve important narrative roles. Katara is a waterbender, so she can teach Aang how to waterbend. She’s also hot in a Lolita kind of way, so she serves as Aang’s primary love interest. Sokka is powerless, brave, and stupid, so he mostly serves as comic relief.

What’s impressive is how well these characters are developed. At the start of the series, they’re children who cannot fully grasp the importance of their deeds, who never stop laughing and playing games. By the end, they’re teenagers who fully understand that they’re at war. Along the way, they befriend a badass earthbender who is also a little girl named Toph. They also deal with the kinds of issues that young viewers might relate to, like the difficult courtship of young love, and familial strife.

Even the villains are fully realized characters who grow and evolve. One of the chief antagonists is a Fire Nation prince named Zuko. He starts out as a whiny bitch who must hunt the avatar to regain his honor for reasons that at first seem trite and cliché; later, he settles into the role of an outcast anti-hero, and his motivations become apparent. That’s good writing.

The show is divided into three seasons—or “books”—named after the elements Aang has to learn—water, earth and fire. The first season is mostly episodic, and the second tells a more mature ongoing story. The third season takes a little while to get up to steam, and contains a number of filler episodes, but it finishes with an astounding climax.

What else is there to say? This cartoon is extremely well animated. I’m someone who doesn’t watch many cartoons, but I recall the animated shows from the 90s where a layer of simple animation would be layered over a backdrop. You could always tell which door was going to open, or which item the hero was going to interact with, because it was less detailed than everything around it. But Avatar has a surprising level of details, both in its characters and the amount of the background that’s animated. More often than not, everything on the screen is fully animated. And the animators even used shadows and shading to give the idea of detail.

I don’t know much about animation, so I’m probably wrong about the specifics of why the animation is done well. But I do know that the action scenes in Avatar: The Last Airbender look really cool. It’s just a well produced show.

There is one problem. Because this was a show for children produced for the children’s network Nickelodeon, the producers couldn’t or wouldn’t depict or even talk about death. They could show mass acts of violence as long as it was clear that nobody was actually killed. In some ways, this played into the show’s moral message; Aang was a pacifist, and he spoke of non-violence and spiritual balance more often than he beat people up.

Often, the show skirted its mandate against violence by showing the Avatar literally launching enemy soldiers into the atmosphere; but it only got so far with this nonsense when depicting a war. There are moments where the mandate against depicting violence lessened the dramatic stakes of the show. Katara and Sokka’s mother was killed by a Fire Nation soldier, but the actual act of her death couldn’t be shown. Several other important deaths happened off screen.

These sorts of things made me aware that I was watching a kid’s show, that I wasn’t part of the target audience. It made me wish this show had been made fore a more mature audience.

But it’s still better than the bad movie that was based on it.

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Lie to Me

Lie to Me is an enjoyably mediocre show about Tim Roth yelling at people in a cockney accent.

It’s a lot like that other enjoyably mediocre show House you probably watch in that it’s about a quirky genius with a team of minions who solves mysteries. This character, cleverly named Cal Lightman—because he sheds light on truths—is not a medical doctor. Rather, he’s a genius who can use science to tell when people are lying. Like Doctor House, Lightman is played by a British actor; unlike Hugh Laurie, Tim Roth doesn’t try to mask his accent in this show. If anything, he hams it up.

Every episode centers around Lightman puzzling his way through some mystery. Usually these mysteries are cliché TV plots. In one, he has to discover the identity of a corrupt cop in a police force. In another, he has to determine if a beautiful trophy wife murdered her husband, or if she really loved him (spoiler: she loved him, but jumped Lightman’s bones immediately after he croaked). Stuff like that.

Lightman is aided and abetted by a team of minions. He has Dr. Gillian Foster, a psychologist; Ria Torres, a hot Hispanic chick; Eli Loker, a guy who has a crush on said hot Hispanic chick; and Ben Reynolds, an FBI agent whom Lightman can use to legally beat people up. Their characters are so uninteresting I had to use Wikipedia to look up their names just now.

Cal Lightman also has a daughter, Emily. His relationship with her is genuinely sweet, endearing and protective. Emily is spunky and cute, and dates boys Cal doesn’t approve of. His scrutiny of the boys she dates provides moments of humor. His love for her gives the show a heart it desperately needs. Their relationship works onscreen mostly because Tim Roth seems to enjoy working with young actress Hayley McFarland.

The show is stupid. It is mired with cliché TV plots and cliché TV characters who act poorly. It tries to be interesting by making its detective character, Lightman, a scientist. But his science of detecting lies based on twitches in his subjects’ facial muscles is absurd, even if it is based on true science in the way that Titanic was based on a true story.

There has been relatively little progression in terms of plot or character development over the show’s two seasons. Lie to Me is purely episodic. Watching episodes back-to-back will give you a headache. The only noticeable change over the course of the sow is that Tim Roth has become more accustomed to becoming Cal Lightman, and the writers have increasingly written the role to accommodate Roth’s mannerisms.

And Tim Roth is engaging enough of an actor that I’d be entertained watching him recite the alphabet. This show plays to his strengths. His character is British, aggressive, and smart. Roth enjoys chewing up screentime as Cal Lightman. He slouches, he presses his face into his palms, and when he’s feeling aggressive he snarls.

He, unlike everyone else in the cast, knows he’s in a bad show. And he makes the most of it.

Me, I’m willing to watch Tim Roth work to pay his bills. It’s less boring than other things.

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Justified

In Justified, Timothy Olyphant plays a cool, quiet Gary Cooper character. He is Raylan Givens, a US Marshall. Olyphant’s Raylan is tough. He doesn’t back down when bigger men talk tough at him, and he’s good at pulling out his gun and shooting people with it. He says things like, “If I pull, I’ll put you down.”

Raylan is forced to work in his Kentucky hometown because that causes the plot to have personal ramifications for him. Of course, he has to confront his father in one episode. Also, the plot dictates that there must be action, so in every episode Raylan pursues a fugitive, or something. That’s how shows like this work.

What’s interesting, though, is the level of character development that has occurred over the seven episodes that have aired so far. Almost all of Raylan’s cases have some ties to his past, whether they be related to his childhood in Kentucky or past cases he worked on as a Marshall. The writers of the show do well to avoid keeping the episodic characters’ connections to Raylan from becoming too cheesy.

Olyphant does a good job of playing Raylan as a soft-spoken tough guy with a few complications. He’s tough enough that men respect enough and kind enough that women like to smile at him. In early episodes, he falls for a woman (Joelle Carter) who is the only witness to a shooting he committed in her kitchen. This causes plot complications, but the two actors are talented and have enough chemistry that their romance is believable.

The same can’t be said for all of the guest actors who appear in each episode. The best episode of the series so far was the fourth, “Long in the Tooth.” It opened with a dentist ripping a man’s molars out in a parking lot and got more interesting from there. But the dentist’s girlfriend, played by Michele Nordin, was given a number of witty, dimensional lines by the writers, but failed to use them. She played her role flatly, and the episode suffered for it.

The show is worth watching if only for Timothy Olyphant, who is engaging and fun to watch. He’s a convincing tough guy, plays a complex character, and he’s good looking to boot. His Raylan also has a dry sense of wit because the show is based on Elmore Leonard stories, and Elmore Leonard produced. The other regular characters are all pretty good too, and have personality.

Justified is a show worth watching. Occasionally, the cinematography, acting, and writing are all excellent. When they’re not, at least Timothy Olyphant says wry things and shoots people.

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