Title: Avatar:The Last Airbender
Dates Aired: 2005-2008
This was, I think, a brilliant children's TV show. But you may not know how brilliant it is. There are probably two reasons for this: First, unfortunately for the show James Cameron decided to make a move entitled “Avatar” in 2009 which effectively wreaked havoc with any google-search attempt to find the TV show. Now, anyone trying to find the TV show has to know the full title (including the sub-title after the colon) in order to get what they are looking for. Second, and arguably more damning, is the live-action film adaptation of the TV show that came out in 2010 under the title The Last Airbender. This film really did not do the story justice. If your first exposure to the characters, world, and storyline of Avatar came from this film, then no one would blame you for failing to be curious about the TV show.
But really, you should encourage your kids to see this show. Hell, even if you don't have kids, you should check out this show. Let me tell you why:
Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a world where there are magic wielders known as 'benders'. These benders can control, or bend, one of the four elements: earth, water, fire or air. Each of these elements also represents a group of people, the Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes, Fire Nation and Air Nomads. However, the Avatar (of which there is only one in every generation) can bend all four elements, and also has mystical connections to the spirit realm. The fantasy world is heavily influenced by Eastern religious and philosophical practices, and even the motions carried out by benders were modeled on different styles of martial arts. A lot of thought, care and planning went into creating this world. Each of the four groups of people has unique clothing, hair styles, food preferences, and bending styles, leading to a real sense that we are dealing with four different cultures here. In addition, the religious beliefs and the mythology surrounding the Avatar are well crafted and explained. This is a surprisingly rich fantasy world to find in a children's TV show.
The story centers on Aang, who you may have guessed from the title is the 'last airbender'. The Fire Nation, we are told, started a war against the other nations over a hundred years ago. Their first act of war was to wipe out the Air Nomads because they knew the Avatar was among them (and he is obviously their biggest threat to victory). However, Aang was not captured and instead wound up at the South Pole frozen in a block of ice for a hundred years, only to be discovered by Water Tribe brother and sister, Sokka and Katara. From here, these three children set out to teach Aang how to wield the awesome power and control the daunting responsibility of being the Avatar, while also seeking a way to stop the Fire Nation's slow rise towards world domination.
We see Aang as a twelve-year-old boy who wants to be reckless and have fun, but doesn't want to shoulder the responsibility he has inherited by virtue of his birth. He struggles against his calling, even running away at times. He is not simply a 'little adult' but really is a child asked to take on more than he thinks he can manage. Because he is twelve, Katara is fourteen, and Sokka is only fifteen, this show begins as a bit of an irritant for an adult audience. I won't lie, I found some of Sokka's jokes to be extremely lame and annoying, and at times I was irritated with the children for acting so irresponsibility. I may have even literally yelled at the screen a few times during episodes where the kids are off having fun and playing games. I think I said something to the effect of:
“Hello, guys? There's a WAR going on, remember? How is eating iced mango fruit juice, or going to see a play going to help here? Come on! Focus!”
But, they are children. The show is written for children. And, oddly, throughout the show's three seasons, I came to know and like them all, even Sokka.
The relationship between Sokka and Katara reminded me of my own relationship with my brother. We might poke fun at each other, call each other names, and find ways to gross each other out, but at bottom we love each other. (I know, that's not something siblings are supposed to admit, so if you're reading, Kiddo, just skim over this sentence and pretend I didn't say it!) That same sibling rivalry is found here. Sokka teases Katara mercilessly, raising her to anger as no one else in the ever-expanding group of supporting cast can, but it is always shown that he cares about her, and that she cares about him too. The main characters are real, believable and fully three-dimensional, a rare thing in a children's cartoon show.
Don't get me wrong, I love the Power Puff Girls, Danny Phantom and The Fairly Odd Parents, but there isn't a lot of depth there! Even shows like Teen Titan which show more depth and character development often slide into the easy way to deliver depth: angst-filled depression where every character has this horrible back-story that they must overcome. Sure, it brings depth. But at the cost of copious amounts of black eye-liner.
In fact, surprisingly, all the characters in Avatar are believable, including the enemy. (Unlike, say, Aku from Samurai Jack. What exactly is his motivation other than evil=fun? Not saying I didn't enjoy Samurai Jack, its just refreshing to see an 'evil' character that isn't one-dimensional. Actually, scratch that. Aku makes a valid point; evil is fun.)
Zuko, exiled prince of the fire nation, set with the task of capturing Aang in order to regain his honor, starts the series as a typical 'bad guy'. He's brooding, angry, inflammatory (get it, fire-nation prince? Groan.), and doggedly pursuing Aang with a vengeance. However, over time we begin to see why Zuko is like this. We also learn, especially in the third season, that the members of the Fire Nation are humans. They are not just plain evil for the sake of being evil. In addition, we learn early on that members of the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes have their flaws. The message is clear. No one is a stereotype. Every culture houses both good and bad people, and every person has their virtues and their faults. This is a pretty sophisticated idea. In fact, I know a fair number of adults who haven't grasped this. (What, enemies are people too?!)
Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, this show does not treat children like idiots. Often children's shows are so simplistic that you know how the plot will end shortly after the opening credits roll. And your kids know it too. Because, lets face it, kids aren't idiots. Nope, kids are probably the ones teaching most of us how to use the bewildering technology in our homes, like a tiny army of domestic IT specialists. This show respects that fact and kept the surprises coming. Not all the plot-twists were surprising, but enough came out of the blue to keep me guessing.
So I recommend Avatar: The Last Airbender for exhibiting careful world-building with attention to detail, for having deep and realistic character development and for encouraging all its viewers to think instead of just being spoon-fed. Great little gem of a show.
Besides, you have to get caught up on the back-story, because Nickelodeon has just aired the sequel The Legend of Korra this year! It wrapped on June 23rd with a 2-hour season finale. And once you've realized how awesome Avatar is, get ready to squeal like a Power Puff Girl because the sequel is set in a steampunk world. Squee!!!