November 30, 2022

Dear Hollywood: Stop Using Diversity as a Shield

Y'all. *rubs temples*

Let me start by saying I don't even like cartoons that much anymore; I prefer my media live action. So how ironic is it that a cartoon is my last straw?

I first started watching The Dragon Prince some time during 2020, which worked in my favor seeing as there was about a three-year gap between Seasons 3 and 4, and Season 4 finally dropped on Netflix this month.

Some spoilers to follow.

What first drew me to the show was the fact one of the creators also helped create Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I guess I was looking for a fix. The cast is insanely diverse, with different types of humans and elves, different skin tones, and even queer couples. And while I initially appreciated that aspect of the show, I found the writing and overall world-building deeply underwhelming...until Aaravos.

Aaravos made his formal debut in Season 2, and boy...what a debut. He immediately struck me as one the most compelling villains in a very long time (shout-out to actor Erik Dellums for a phenomenal performance, whose voice alone had fans questioning their sexuality). Season 3 left us on a nail-biting cliffhanger for three years and when we returned, we got...nothing. Despite the season actually being subtitled Mystery of Aaravos, the character gets ONE speaking scene in the whole season. He's discussed in a few other scenes, wedged between filler displays of melanin, queer love, and kumbaya speeches that don't really do anything for the story. In short, after a whole new season, we're still left with all the questions we had from the first three.

And after that long-ass wait, I lost it.

First, it was special effects. When Hollywood started dropping an inordinate amount of duds, we were encouraged to support them anyway on account of this technological breakthrough, or that new special effect. Story would be trash, acting would be lackluster, but hey..."Can't you just enjoy the special effects?"

When the masses finally started to catch on, special effects were then joined by an increase in sex scenes and over-the-top violence, and sometimes sexual violence (usually against women, of course). Stories went from trash, to highly problematic, to practically non-existent, as we were bombarded with images of graphic torture, rape, and murder, and copious amounts of pointless sex and nudity that got old and cringey really fast.

And now, it's diversity.

Diversity is Hollywood's new favorite attempt to distract us from the fact that too many writers simply cannot write. The use of queer and melanated characters--often in unflattering and/or nonsensical ways, mind you--is merely "insurance", a flimsy shield to ward off anyone who might dare criticize the writing. And now it's taken a certain demographic a very long time to finally hold mediocre, notably white writers accountable, instead of harassing notably non-white actors who are just trying to make a living. Because when we said we wanted representation, this isn't what we meant.

I also want to point out that a lot of melanated and/or queer characters who are randomly trotted out...die. They're killed off (or otherwise "removed") almost as soon as they're introduced (The Dragon Prince ironically has examples of both; the Black king is assassinated at the very beginning, and later on, a lead character's queer parents are imprisoned in coins. They're still imprisoned at the end of Season 4).

When I was growing up in the 1990s--the Golden Age of TV, if we're being honest here--tropes and gimmicks like cliffhangers, time travel, or love triangles were a big deal because they were sparingly used in actual storytelling. Now they're the standard. Cliffhangers in particular are wantonly abused in the name of "serialized storytelling" which, by the by, worked better back when writers used serial subplots (think Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Writers use them often to stall for time when they clearly have nothing of value to contribute.

The entire Season 4 of The Dragon Prince felt like a stall for time, which is disturbing when you think of how long they took to get it out. Let's be clear once and for all: you can use filler as a scene. Just a scene. For a few minutes in a complete, well-balanced, well-written episode, you're allowed a few moments of filler if need be, but just for a scene.

Not only has Hollywood normalized filler episodes, its now trying to sell us on filler seasons.

Euphemistically dubbed as "setup" seasons, they serve as a reminder that literally nobody wants a setup season. We want a satisfying season, especially since we live in an era where we're not always certain if/when we'll even get another season.

Every scene might not count, but every episode has to. In Rings of Power, for example, the writers kept telling us to "wait" for episodes 7 and 8, alluding to the action-packed nature of those episodes. First off, the action was subpar. Secondly, don't tell your audience to "wait" for 6 episodes. That is profoundly shitty writing and marketing. Because en route to the action episode(s), we still need the cerebral episode, the emotional episode, the individual backstory episode(s), the over-arching lore episode, and so on, and so forth. Each one has to stand on its own as a complete work of art. This was both the challenge and the appeal of episodic television.

The Dragon Prince is expected to return some time towards the end of 2023, but my enthusiasm is pretty much shot at this point. This series had one last saving grace, and the writers blew it. Which is a shame, because Aaravos really did deserve better.

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