Netflix Ruined ‘Avatar’ — What’s Next?

Premature cancellations and production problems signal a worrying trend.

‘Avatar: The Last Airbender”, Netflix.com

Before the new live-action Avatar series had a chance to live, it died.

On August 13th, the co-creators of the beloved cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender announced they were no longer involved with the upcoming live-action remake of their original series — which is generally upheld as not just one of the best kid’s shows ever made, but one of the best TV narratives ever.

So why the untimely death? In a heartbreaking open letter, co-creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko explain that their vision for the series hadn’t been upheld by the Netflix executives.

“Netflix said that it was committed to honoring our vision for this retelling and to supporting us on creating the series. Unfortunately, things did not go as we had hoped. . .whatever version ends up on-screen, it will not be what Bryan and I had envisioned or intended to make.” — Michael Dante DiMartino

Bryan Konietzko went even further, saying that “there was no follow-through” on the promise to support the creators’ vision. The specific production problem remains unclear. Tone? Characters? Number of episodes? Casting? Budgets? All of the above?

Whatever the conflict — it’s clear that this new version of the Avatar universe is likely to disappoint fans, especially life-long fans like myself. Netflix had a potential juggernaut on their hands, both critically and commercially. This had the possibility to set in motion a new expanded universe a la Harry Potter. Now it’s likely to become a painfully average remake that comes and goes without fanfare.

But this isn’t just disappointing to fans, it’s the latest in a string of Netflix blunders: prioritizing the bottom line over the silver screen. To see the problem, let’s first dive into the streaming giant’s TV history.

Netflix launched on the scene back in 2013 with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. These shows were surprising — full of inventive storytelling choices like Orange’s decision to focus on a new prisoner every episode, Lost-style, not to mention a diverse line-up of characters.

Critics and audiences ate them up. Both shows ended up with multiple sprawling seasons (thirteen between them), with House only haphazardly axed after the Kevin Spacey allegations came to light. In short — their showrunners had plenty of time to stretch their storytelling legs.

But think — how many recent Netflix shows have lasted that long?

The mysticism of the OA? The beautiful empathy of Sense8? The bizarre humor of American Vandal? Any single one of the Marvel shows — Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage? One Day At a Time? AJ and the Queen?

Axed. Every single one.

Besides possibly BoJack Horseman and Grace and Frankie, every single Netflix show died a premature death, far before the creators ran out of creative juice. This despite some of these shows being true gems, like the criminally underrated American Vandal or the fan-favorite Sense8. Quality just didn’t seem to matter.

This isn’t an accident. A show’s audience tends to fade out after season 2, which is when Netflix typically cancels shows. They also don’t promote shows longer than ten episodes, as ten is considered optimal for binge-viewing.

Everything is designed to add more subscriptions. Not engage long-time, passionate viewership.

“Netflix’s strategy to grow subscription base is focused on introducing new series all the time. . .fans of some of the canceled series would be disappointed by their demise but not upset enough to drop Netflix as there is new product coming out all the time that catches their attention.” — TV writer Nellie Andreeva

Netflix has the appearance of valuing diverse storytelling: its endless cycle of new shows in the queue has something for literally everyone. But it cancels projects just for the sake of money. It wants to grow a viewership that bounces from binge to binge — not one that invests in the storytelling.

To their credit, Netflix does have some surprisingly creative projects that have emerged in the last few years. Russian Doll, an absolutely bizarre and fantastic watch, came out swinging in early 2019. Same with Paul Rudd’s Living With Yourself. Both were high-concept shows with a mix of genres and creative risk-taking. Both, in my eyes, stuck the landing.

Please, do yourself a favor and go watch ‘Russin Doll’ | Image courtesy of Netflix

But here’s the thing — neither series was intended to be a hit. They were both destined to another icon in their rotating catalog of queued movies. Both series will likely not last beyond two seasons. Netflix rarely gives viewers the chance to invest in narratives longer than a binge.

Which brings us back to Avatar. The original cartoon gave Netflix a bonafide hit when it launched on the platform earlier this year, landing in the Top 10 shows for 100 days straight. New audiences were delighted by its mix of humor, action, and surprisingly profound morality.

It’s likely that Netflix wants this show to be as big a hit as possible. They may skimp out on what made the original so unique: a delicate balance of Eastern and Inuit cultures, long-form storytelling, a mix of humor and seriousness, or its focus on morality. These features may put off more casual viewers.

Unlike many art forms, TV and movies are a constant push and pull (Tui and La as Aang would say) between money and vision. The studios call the shots to make a buck — cutting budgets, pulling shows, and creating marketing plans. The creators — a broad term including producers, directors, screenwriters, actors, and more — are primarily interested in artistic expression.

Of course, while not every studio executive is money-hungry, and not every director is artistic, this battle is useful for examining the trends of pop culture.

Netflix’s recent decisions reflect a worrying trend towards increasingly commercialized entertainment, a push towards the money, instead of the vision. A world where risks are only okay when they don’t affect the bottom line. Where subscriptions matter more than engagement.

At the end of the day, the fact that the co-creators of Avatar are no longer involved is not a travesty. We didn’t really need a live-action version anyway — the original is as good today as it was back in 2006, maybe even better.

But behind-the-scenes conflict is a worrisome trend is what’s poised to be the dominant TV giant of the 2020s. Can Netflix manage to still support artistic expression and maintain their subscribers? Or will it cancel any show that threatens to break its mainstream mold?

A queer, herbivorous, leftist Viking. I write about society, justice, and popular media. UChicago grad. Based in Iceland.

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