Avatar: The Last Airbender is an American-made anime-inspired cartoon that originally aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008 to both critical and commercial success. It’s about a group of preteens who traverse a fantasy world based on Asian mythologies in an attempt to master “element bending”, which is the practice of using martial arts to telekinetically manipulate the four classical elements. People have been telling me to watch it for years and I declined for reasons I still don’t quite understand. I’m an open-minded nerd and I can enjoy children’s entertainment, I guess, but for some reason I felt like Avatar was too kid-oriented for me. Maybe it’s because I just read Harry Potter and was less than blown away. Or maybe it’s because I quietly gave up on peer-hyped kids shows like The Misadventures of Flapjack and the first season of Adventure Time. (Though I did end up coming back to the latter in season 2, what a great show that turned out to be!)
I’ve been taking cartoon recommendations from nerd friends with a few more grains of salt in recent years, but I finally decided to watch it when it was recommended to me by a non-nerd co-worker. Most of our previous TV conversations have focused on “adult” shows and she told me, “I don’t care about anime or whatever, but Avatar is really good.” So I decided to watch Avatar on Netflix Instant, mostly because I couldn’t imagine this person sitting down to watch a cartoon about a bunch of magical 13-year-old kids and I needed to figure out what about this show she found so appealing.
And man, I’m so glad I watched it! I was instantly hooked! I watched the entire first season on a Friday night, killed off season two that weekend, and scrambled to the finish line by Tuesday. The overall storyline of Avatar has this great classic mythological feel to it, a lot like the original Star Wars trilogy. The show is divided into three twenty-episode seasons, called “books”, each one featuring a radically different storyline. Book one is about The Avatar, Aang (basically the Dalai Lama but with super powers) and two Water Tribe (Inuit) siblings on the run from the Fire Nation (Nazis), book two features all of the characters living in a big refugee city, and book three features the group acting on the offensive against the Fire Nation.
What makes Avatar stand out is it’s sophisticated sense of humor, it’s surprisingly deep characters, cultural authenticity, and the thoughtfulness of it’s story lines. All of these things combine to form something that feels not-quite like a kid’s show; it really feels like some individuals got to make the show they wanted to make, and the fact that it was being backed by a children’s television network seems to only have a minor impact on the story. One of the most noticeable things about children’s television is that there are different guidelines for how you can display things like sex and death. Avatar smartly side-steps these issues often enough so that sex and death don’t seem mysteriously absent from the universe. They make sure to show named characters dying in battle early on so that death feels like a real possibility as the action intensifies later in the series.
And, surprisingly, there are enough subtle sexual references to make me believe that some of these young teens might actually be having sex off-camera. It’s not just like how Brock from Pokemon will get heart-eyes for Nurse Joy; you’ll actually see characters sneaking into tents with each other late at night. At one point a 14-year-old girl announces to the group “I have a surprise for everyone!” and someone makes a pretty shocking joke that implies she’s about to announce that she’s been knocked up. It’s not a big part of the show, but it’s just enough to make the fictional universe feel real and grounded and not weighed down by the rules of children’s television. Not to mention it helps you connect with the romantic side-plots.
But what really makes the show great is it’s humor. There’s at least one big laugh in every episode, and most of the time those laughs are accompanied by disbelief that the show was able to “pull off” that style of humor. A lot of the jokes hinge on weird body language and feel like they’d be more appropriate on a live action show. Apparently the writers will film themselves acting out scenes and then animate on top of it. They also do this for the combat scenes, which are clearly drawn on top of footage of professional martial artists – but, to me, the fact that they do it for visual gags is more impressive. I think most of my favorite moments on the show aren’t jokes per se, but weird gestures and faces that accompany the delivery of certain lines.
And it doesn’t hurt that the casting is perfect. Did I mention the female lead, Katara, is played by Mae Fucking Whitman?
Another applaudable aspect of the show is it’s deliberate attempt to buck pretty much every unfortunate trend in American entertainment. It’s very decidedly neither anglocentric nor androcentric. Half of the main characters are female, and the female characters are often the most badass. And very few – possibly none? – of the main characters are white. Individual plots deal with sexism and xenophobia, and issues with ablism are often brought up through a blind girl who joins the main cast midway through the series. All of this awesomeness makes the all-white casting in the M. Night Shaymalan movie “The Last Airbender in 3D” all the more offensive. But that movie is awful and you should pretend it doesn’t exist.
There are just so many wonderful moments in the show that I’m having a hard time writing this post without giving away anything good. I’ll give away one thing: The episode that made me realize I was watching a good show was called The Great Divide. In it, two villages are fighting over a century-long feud that is truly irreconcilable. The job of the Avatar is to bring peace, so Aang ends the feud by uncovering a piece of information that conveniently shows both villages that the original source of their conflict was just a big misunderstanding. It’s then revealed that this was a lie; it wasn’t actually a misunderstanding, but by lying about it Aang was able to end the conflict. The show is peppered with these slightly skewed morality stories, such as the heroes stealing from the innocent for the greater good, or the heroes torturing their enemies for information. The moral landscape of the show is so practical and specific that the series finale’s Big Question feels very poignant and satisfying.
Also, if you have anything against watching old shows, get this: Avatar is being rebooted right now. The series ended in 2008, but a new series called The Legend of Korra, which is set 70 years after the Avatar finale, just premiered. It focuses on the next reincarnation of the Avatar, a thick teenage Inuit girl named Korra who rides a polar bear and fights gangsters in a big city based on 1920s NYC. And it’s awesome! While Avatar draws inspiration from Japanese anime, The Legend of Korra draws inspiration from American super hero stories like The X-Men and Spider-Man. Check out the trailer:
Avatar is great, accessible, and not “just for kids” at all. I honestly couldn’t imagine anyone not liking this show, especially once they get to book two where it really hits its stride. The entire series is on Netflix Instant, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. In fact, I’d recommend watching it with your significant other – a lot of my friends told me they watched it this way. It features a strong continuity and very solid season finale and mid-season finale “checkpoints” that would make it a fun nightly ritual. It’s definitely an entertaining and enriching experience that you won’t regret.