Category Archives: Nattering About Television

Sokka vs Xander as Comic Sidekicks

Earlier this week I finished watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I was struck by how much the character of Sokka reminded me of Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both Sokka and Xander are comedy sidekicks who, over the course of the series, evolved into a more serious role. They were normal guys in a group of people with supernatural powers, all of whom kept leveling up and getting more powerful. Many episodes involved their romantic interests. The big difference between them is that Sokka’s character arc was handled much better than Xander’s. Sokka had a clearer role, was given more interesting things to do, and became a strong contributor to the group’s overall success.

(By the way, I’m going to spoil both Buffy and Avatar. I’m also focusing on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and not its continuation in comic books.)

Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Xander Harris was the everyman to Buffy’s super-powered slayer. He was goofy and jokey. He often got the worst from monsters and magic, from an insectoid teacher who planned to mate with him and then kill him, to a love spell that went awry and caused all the women in Sunnydale to chase after him. As part of the Scooby Gang, he remained in his regular-guy role throughout the series. The Scoobies began as the comparatively ordinary friends who helped Buffy, but as time went on that shifted. Willow learned magic, as did her girlfriend Tara. Buffy dated a vampire, a highly-trained soldier, and another vampire. Newcomers to the group had supernatural powers and connections to the supernatural world, like Oz the werewolf and Anya the ex-vengeance demon. Only Xander remained without either.

The writers never seemed sure what Xander’s true role was, despite him helping defeat several of the series’ big bads, the major villians of each season. In season four he was the “heart” component in a spell to defeat Adam, that season’s big bad. In season six, his love for Willow stopped her from destroying the world. He was variously identified as having heart, as seeing truly, and as having courage, but those characteristics shifted throughout the series and left him without a well-defined role. He spent most battles on the sideline. He provided moral support, not insight or fighting prowess or knowledge.

The other Scoobies were also unclear about Xander’s role, something made explicit in the Xander-centric episode “The Zeppo”. In it, everyone but Xander was occupied fighting some world-ending terror. Xander was left to fetch donuts and fret about not being cool. During the episode he manages to lose his virginity to the slayer Faith, pal around with a psychotic undead student, and stop that student from blowing up Sunnydale High. This gives him new-found confidence, but none of the others learned what he’d been up to, or even really noticed his absence. Only the audience sees what has happened, and also gets to see how melodramatic and over-the-top the Scooby Gang’s efforts are without Xander’s leavening humor.

Sokka from Avatar the Last Airbender

Sokka has a lot of similarities to Xander. Everyone in his group has crazy strong elemental bending powers: Aang the Avatar and Airbender, Toph the Earthbender, and his sister Katara the Waterbender. Their enemies are similarly powerful benders. Sokka provides comic relief, spending many of the early episodes grumbling about not having enough meat to eat, making sarcastic asides, and often being the butt of slapstick events.

Sokka diverged from Xander in how he developed skills and talents that gave him a very specific and needed role in the Avatar’s group. Sokka’s inventiveness and native curiosity led him to create several useful weapons. His planning made him the group’s tactician.

Like Xander, Sokka had his own soul-searching episode, “Sokka’s Master”. In the third season Sokka felt that he wasn’t contributing to the group, and so ended up studying with a renowned swordmaster. He trained with the master and became a credible swordsman, even creating his own sword out of metal found in a meteorite. In his absence while he trained, Sokka’s friends noticed he was gone, in marked contrast to Xander’s. The group discovered that they needed his planning and missed his joking.

Nowhere is the difference between Xander and Sokka more pronounced than in the Avatar series finale. Sokka contributes directly and importantly to the fight to stop the Fire Nation. His plan brings down the airships raining fire on the Earth Kingdom. Towards the end he stops two Firebenders from killing him and Toph by throwing his boomerang at one and his meteorite-metal sword at the other in a striking display of martial prowess.

Sokka also maintained his comedic role throughout the series, even as his serious contributions increased. Xander became more mature as Buffy went on at a cost to his comedic impact. Sokka, however, was both comedic and serious. In the finale, at the climax of his plot, he knocked a Firebender off of an airship by throwing his sword at him. As he watched his sword tumble to the forest below, he plaintively cried out, “Bye, space sword!”

Sokka was a much more satisfying character than Xander. He evolved and became a more deeply-realized person throughout the series without downplaying his sense of humor. He contributed directly to battles, making Sokka more of an equal to his companions than Xander was to his. Avatar’s structure undoubtedly made this easier: the series had a definite end, allowing the writers to craft a satisfying character arc for Sokka without having to deal with an open-ended series. The character of Xander points out some of the pitfalls of taking a sidekick known more for comedy and putting him or her in a more serious role; the character of Sokka shows how it can be done.

My crochet habit and my Doctor Who habit collide

This is without a doubt my favorite thing I’ve crocheted so far. I worked on him while in the UK, so I think he is sufficiently British. Blessed even.

The cuddly Doctor is going to Alana over the Fourth of July weekend and I will be so sad to see him go. I think I’ll start another one for myself…while I’m watching Doctor Who.

Many thanks go to Nyss at Pixelated Mushroom for the lovely free pattern and lots of coaching while I was completing the coat!

An Alternate Ending to Battlestar Galactica

After some five years, Battlestar Galactica ended with a giant two-hour episode. I enjoyed it, though I felt that, in the end, it undermined one of the series’s core themes: it’s individual’s decisions that matter, and those decisions, even if made for what seem like the right reasons, can turn out badly. The road to anywhere is paved with good intentions.

It didn’t have to be that way. I think a few changes to the final episode would have reinforced the theme of people’s individual choices.

Continue reading An Alternate Ending to Battlestar Galactica

I Love Leverage

If ever there was a television show created specifically for me, Leverage is it. The TNT show is about a team of con artists, thieves, and one ex-insurance investigator who scam corporations and organizations who are up to no good. It’s fun, it’s got sharp writing, and it was written just for me, though I’ll let you enjoy it as well. I’m magnanimous like that.

See, when I was young, my dad had me watch The Sting, and I imprinted on it like goslings on boots. Ever since, I’ve loved movies and TV shows about cons. I have a copy of the Soderbergh remake of Ocean’s Eleven. I even watched Players back in the 1990s.

Even if you’re not quite as crazy about these kinds of shows as I am, you should still give Leverage a try. It’s way funny, as should be expected from a John Rogers show. I first found out about him when I saw the pilot for his version of Global Frequency, and I enjoyed his work on the Blue Beetle comic book, as I might have mentioned. He’s got an ear for funny dialog that’s not too contrived, and excels at tight plotting.

TNT’s got full episodes online, or you can get it through iTunes. Go see what you think.

Pushing Past Dora and Diego to the Better Stuff

Due to Stephen’s LOLprowess, our site now has enough Diggs or Technorati gold stars in heaven to rate us being approached by marketing firms. The first couple of times we got emails, I was like, “Huh? They want to do what? What’s the catch?” The catch is that these companies want to send us free stuff in exchange for us giving them shout outs about their products or services. Apparently this phenomenon has a name: “Word of Mom.”

The nice part of the deal is that they send us free stuff but we don’t have to talk about it unless we like it, mostly, I’m guessing, because they don’t want the bad word from us moms. But it takes the pressure off of me because I don’t feel obligated in any way. I can pick and choose what is interesting to me and talk about only those things. Isn’t the internet a powerful thing?

Most of the email traffic has come from the PR firm representing the Turner TV channels. The first round of swag was disappointing, mostly because I didn’t read the email carefully enough. I thought she was sending me new shows of Saving Grace and The Closer. I was having puppies over the prospect of new episodes (and early, no less) because I love those two shows. In actuality she was sending me the greatest hits collections of those shows and a few others in the hopes that I might be interested in them and willing to plug them on the blog. Oops, I think I played right into their hands there, didn’t I?

The second round of swag was a book called The Best Old Movies for Families. This book is very cool. It’s funny and well written, and it’s made me want to further my own movie education as well as introduce my kids to a whole range of movies that don’t involve Dora, Diego and the dreaded Disney princesses.

In the intro, Ty Burr suggests to use the book as reference material to get you started introducing your kids to old movies. But I found the book so readable, I was well into the fourth chapter before I thought to get the remote and set up the TiVo to record some of these shows coming on TCM this summer.

I’m excited about watching some of these shows (most of which I’ve never seen) with Eli. Especially the musicals, because I have a feeling he’s going to love those. And it’s always pleasant to think Dora and Diego aren’t the only options.

Weekend Media Entertainment

Friday night, Battlestar Galactica returned. Baltar got smacked upside the face with theodicy, and everyone was paranoid and broken.

Saturday night, Kansas beat UNC, and did so convincingly despite letting UNC get to within three points after being up 40 to 12. It’s nice to see Roy Williams’s team fall to the school he left, and did so in a way that left a lot of hard feelings.

If three new episodes of Pushing Daisies show up tonight, it will have been the perfect weekend of TV entertainment for me.

Note to Racists: At Least Be Funny, Part 2

Does racism eat away at the part of your brain responsible for being funny? I’m beginning to think it might, in which case I’m clearly beginning a never-ending series of posts. This time around, it’s SalesGenie’s “Ramesh the Indian salesman” ad that aired during the first quarter of the Super Bowl.

Perhaps you missed that Ramesh Chakrapani, an Indian with an Apu-like accent, has seven kids. Don’t worry! There’s the shot at the end with Mrs. Chakrapani and the seven small Chakrapanis to refresh your memory.

The ad’s defenders have trotted out the usual litany of excuses: it’s humor! You’re just being politically correct! And besides, it’s not really racist!

Let’s do a quick experiment. Swap Ramesh out for a black man and give him over-the-top dialogue.

Hank: DeShawn! You’re my worst salesman! If you don’t double your sales, you’re outta here!
DeShawn: Dawg, I gots seven moufs to feed!

Still feel good about that ad? But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because the ad, written by Vin Gupta, CEO of the company that owns SalesGenie, just isn’t funny.

Vin, one danger in comedy is coming up with a concept but forgetting to make it funny. That’s this ad’s main comedic sin. Where are the punchlines? What, exactly, is supposed to be funny in this ad?

Comedy in part arises from the unexpected. There are only two things in this ad that are unexpected and not generic set-pieces: the boss’s name and Ramesh’s being an Indian with seven kids. The boss’s name, Hank Bulleymonger, is komedy. It’s not real humor, it’s humor lite. It’s a concept without a joke, and is lazy writing.

Then there’s Ramesh. You counter-sink the “he has lots of kids!” non-joke by referencing it twice, and worst of all, you have the wrong stereotype! Everyone knows that Indians work at call centers or Quik-E-Marts, not as widget salesmen! “Has a lot of kids” is the generic stereotype for poor people, especially minorities, as a whole. It’s not the specific marker for Indian — witness how I was able to swap out “generic Indian” for “generic black man” above without changing the thrust of the commercial.

I’m hoping you’re not unteachable, Vin. I’m guessing this is a one-off mistake that you won’t make again.

Wait, you wrote a second ad for the Super Bowl?

Whoops. Never mind.