Disclaimer: “How do I frame this entry?” was something I had to ask myself over and over as I wrote it. Eventually, it became a love letter to Avatar, not exactly a review. That said, there are no Avatar spoilers. But there are some for BSG, Buffy, Lost, and The West Wing, because that’s just how this kind of thing works.
Until I began watching the series, all I knew about Avatar: The Last Airbender was the following. Avatar was an inexplicably brilliant cartoon produced by Nickelodeon. It focused on a smallish bald child with a staff, his two wacky animal companions, and some attractively animated supporting characters. It had a rabid fan base, and at least two people whose opinions I value loved the series.
This was just enough to convince me to watch the pilot. But before I go into why the show stands as one of my favorite pieces of media, television or otherwise, let’s get some background set in place.
Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a world with four nations: the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Each nation is associated with one basic element, and select members of each nation possess a kind of magic stemming from that association: the ability to bend, or manipulate, water, earth, fire, or air. At the beginning of the series, we learn that while these nations and their people once co-existed peacefully, the world became a radically different place after an attack by the Fire Nation.
Only one person can possibly restore balance: the Avatar. Uniquely equipped with the ability to bend all four elements, the Avatar is reincarnated throughout centuries and held responsible for settling scores throughout the world. But 100 years prior to when we jump into the story, the newest Avatar disappeared. Now, in the present day, the world is on the brink of disaster.
The smallish bald child with a staff is Aang, an Airbender who was stuck in an iceberg for a century before two Water Tribe members, siblings Sokka and Katara, discover him near their home in the South Pole. As it turns out, Aang is the Avatar, 112 years old and still coming of age. See, having mastered the art of Airbending before getting stuck in the iceberg with his six-legged flying bison Appa, Aang never had the time to attempt Waterbending, Earthbending, or Firebending. And, as you may have already guessed, the series focuses on Aang and his new companions’ journey toward facing the Fire Nation and restoring that balance their world so badly needs.
When I began watching the show, the soundtrack and the animation were the first two things I really loved. The characters, the story arc, and the cast and crew’s passion and ambition to make this series incredible came later–but not that much later at all. It was the 12th episode, “The Storm,” that sucked me in for good. It offers an explanation for Aang’s 100-year absence from the world. It works as both a well-crafted origin story and the first major step forward in the series’ overarching mythology.
My criteria for great drama series is fairly simple. I like themes that carry through beginning to end so seamlessly you hardly notice they’re happening till it’s over. I like characters that are so far from caricatures that the word would never even come to mind. And I like heart, the sincerity of emotions established through dialogue and action. All my favorite shows provide countless examples: President Jed Bartlet cursing God in Latin. Admiral William Adama and President Laura Roslin kissing as Adama’s son Lee and other onlookers try to avert their eyes. Xander Harris talking Willow Rosenberg down from destroying the world. Jack Shephard explaining to Hugo Reyes that now, Hugo is like him.
Avatar: The Last Airbender has that kind of resonance, and with frequency. When you first meet Aang, Katara, and Sokka, you have no conception of how much these characters will do, how much they’ll grow, and how many more enemies and friends they’ll make by series’ end. Aang may be the show’s namesake, but the Avatar crew understands what an ensemble drama should look like. Every character is memorable, no matter how minor, from the cabbage vendor that just won’t go away and the backwoods, toothless Swampbenders to the near-unspeakably evil Fire Lord and his disgraced son, Zuko, so desperate to gain back his honor.
Restoration, honor, the end of the world as Team Avatar knows it: these aren’t easy themes to tackle and would never be, no matter what the intended audience or the setting. Co-creators Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the writers, the animators, and all the rest of their staff knew that going in. Still, they took on the daunting task of creating something with cross-generational appeal, something memorable and genuine and unique in the world of children’s television and television on a whole.
They accomplished that task.
That’s Avatar. And that’s why, if you haven’t watched it, it would probably be a good time to start.