Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my favorite TV shows of all time.
Of all time, people. It is, hands-down, my favorite animated series produced in English, and it has some of the best plotting and characterization that I have ever seen on TV.
Yeah. A Nickelodeon show. Who knew? (OK, a lot of people knew. It has a large and devoted fan-base.)
I’m not going to bother summarizing the basic plot and premise, because the opening sequence of the show has already done that for us. Tidily.
The opening sequence:
KATARA’S VOICE: 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. [Transcript taken from the Avatar wiki, here.]
The above narration plays over the opening animation of just about every episode, reiterating the series’ premise. I assume that this narration is primarily for the benefit of new viewers, so that people catching it out-of-order on air still have a chance to understand what’s going on. However, it also serves to remind regular viewers of the core premise of the series. Basically, everything in the show somehow connects with or boils down to the quest outlined above.
The thing about Avatar is: all its characters are good. (As in well-written.) Not just “It has sympathetic villains” or “Its heroes are good role models” or “It has strong female leads,” but all of that. It’s one of those shows where I can’t pick my favorite character because they are. All. So. Good. And so well-developed. Pretty much everyone in the central cast has at least one character arc in which they change and grow over time. Most of them have more than one.
Now, I’m not going to argue that every single episode is gold-pressed latinum, or anything. It has its hits and misses. But even the episodes I found difficult to get through the first time (due to cheese or silliness or what-have-you) still have something going for them. And the show’s retrospective episode–in which the characters watch a staged play of their own adventures–is the single best retrospective episode I have ever seen of anything. Seriously. Do not skip the retrospective.
The thing I find most compelling about Avatar as a series is its setting. And I don’t mean the fantasy universe with Inuit-inspired ice villages and East-Asia-inspired city designs. (Though that’s cool too, and it makes a nice change-up from kids’ shows which assume that “fantasy” means “it has a European castle somewhere.” Not that I have anything against European castles. Honestly, I’d like to see more children’s fantasy TV of every stripe.) The thing that really resonates with me in Avatar, and which is vital to the series from the first episode on, is that it takes place in a world ravaged by war. “Everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked,” remember?
Here is one of my favorite lines from the first episode:
KATARA: Aang, this is the entire village. [Gestures to entire village.] Entire village, Aang.
And I find this line so significant–significant enough that I put it all by itself in a block quote–because the “entire village” consists of nine women and ten children. And one dog. Twelve children if you add Katara and Sokka, whom Aang has already met.
This moment is played as cute and funny–a kind of “Katara’s village is so small that …” joke–but it delivers important information. There are no men in Katara’s village. There are no men because the men are at war.
Also from the first episode:
SOKKA: Now men, it’s important that you show no fear when you face a firebender. In the Water Tribe, we fight to the last man standing. For without courage, how can we call ourselves men?
[Cut to an audience of six wide-eyed little boys]
Boy: [raises hand] I gotta pee!
SOKKA: Listen! Until your fathers return from the war, they’re counting on you to be the men of this tribe. And that means no potty breaks.
Boy: But I really gotta go.
SOKKA: [sighs] OK. Who else has to go?
[They all raise their hands.]
Sokka, the oldest male human left in the village, is trying to take on a more adult role by training the village’s next generation of “warriors”–who are at this point all still little kids. This is another moment played for laughs, and yet it brings home the trauma that is integral to the entire series.
I really like this central conceit–of the world of a children’s show being at war–from a narrative standpoint, because it provides a reason for the world’s heroes to be children. The adults are busy–either fighting battles or recovering from their aftermaths. So it’s time for a team of kids to step up and save the world.
Over the course of the series, it is established that most of its main characters (almost all children) are haunted by trauma of one kind or another, much of it either a direct or indirect result of the war that it takes the three seasons of Avatar to resolve. I won’t give you the backstories now, however, because many of them are revealed gradually, and that would be some major spoilage.
More review, some minor SPOILERS and a brief discussion of The Legend of Korra under the cut:
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