In 2005, Nickelodeon began airing Avatar: The Last Airbender, a cartoon series which would run for three seasons, and would eventually warrant a sequel, The Legend of Korra, which is going into it's own fourth and final season next week. Avatar: The Last Airbender is also my favorite show of all time. Here's why.*Some spoilers, mostly vague or early on, to follow.*
I only caught a few episodes here and there of Avatar when it was originally on, and to be honest, I didn't like it. I specifically remember catching "The Desert," an episode smack in the middle of the show, and not really "getting it." Part of that, to be fair, probably had to do with the fact that the only person I knew who watched it at the time it was on was someone whom I didn't like very much, and while he told me all the time that I should watch the show, he was also a big fan of Naruto, which I don't like at all. As a result, between not really enjoying the assorted episodes I caught here and there, and not really liking where the praise for the show was coming from, for a long time I lumped Avatar in with Naruto, and utterly dismissed it.
A few years passed, and the show concluded. I remember hearing rumbles about it around the finale, but once the show ended, I pretty much forgot about it until I started frequenting io9. Now, people around here really like the show, and I wanted to know why. Eventually, I asked the right person, and while I don't remember specifically who it was, or what they said, I remember them telling me, quite specifically, that the show had better character development than most shows "for adults."
Between that and the urgings of another friend (one whose taste in television does mirror mine a lot more closely) to watch the show from the beginning, I reluctantly sat down with the complete series in mid 2010, put my preconceptions aside, and gave the show another look.
To be honest, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a bit of a slow build. While I don't think any one episode ofAvatar is truly bad, the first few aren't especially good either. While the pilot set up an incredibly cool world, it didn't grab me then, and doesn't even really grab me now. The characters, at first, fell pretty flat for me, and seemed to be little more than stereotypes. Aang is introduced as a goofy, immature kid, who needs to learn to face his responsibilities. Sokka is introduced as a kid who's suspicious of Aang, and serious-minded (having been left in charge of his tribe, trying to fill shoes that are too big for him). Katara, at first, basically seems to be the moral heart of the group. And, on the other side of things, our villain Zuko starts off brash and angry, with a seemingly one-minded obsession with finding the Avatar. None of these things are awful, but the archetypal writing felt, at first, to be much more in line with what I expected out of a Nickelodeon cartoon.
A funny thing happens, though. These characters develop, and quickly, from one-dimensional cutouts into, for lack of a better word, people. Sokka is a great example. He's a character who should have fallen completely flat, but instead he actually quickly warms up to Aang, and becomes a really funny character, albeit one with real depth. Beyond even that, as the only non-bender of our main cast, he could easily have wound up being nothing more than comic relief, but instead Sokka is a valuable member of the team. He's an idea guy, and he's got his trusty boomerang, and while he might not be able to face off one-to-one against Zuko or the like, he's still a member of the team, not a sidekick. That seems like it should be impossible to pull off, and yet they manage it.
The show really picks up in season two, though. While I don't think there are any truly bad episodes ofAvatar, the first season has some pretty noticeable pacing problems, and the real main villain of the season winds up not being Zuko, but a character I lovingly refer to as "General McBadGuy" due to his memorable nature, season two's pacing hits perfectly, and it introduces two of my favorite characters in television history, Toph Beifong, and Azula.
Azula is, in all seriousness, one of my favorite villains from anything, ever. I would put her, without a trace of irony, alongside Darth Vader or The Joker on a list of my favorite villains. She's also a 14 year old girl. They managed to make a character who is not only memorable, but frightening. She's sadistic, she's cold, she's manipulative, she easily outclasses nearly every other character on the show in combat, and she's just extremely fun to watch.
Toph, on the other hand, is another character who is just incredibly fun to watch. Diversity is something Avatar really manages to excel at, without ever feeling preachy, and Toph is a great addition to the core team later on in the show. Much like Azula, she's an incredibly powerful bender, a fun character to watch... And also a 12 year old blind girl.
Zuko's progression from straight up villain to something much, much more is also incredible to see. One of the best episodes of the show is titled "Zuko Alone," and literally features none of the other main characters of the show, simply focusing on Zuko, and giving you some serious insight into who he is as a character. I wish I could say more, but seriously, Zuko's arc over all three seasons is incredible, and heartbreaking, and wonderful.
Although I love the characters, that's far from the only reason I love Avatar. I love almost every aspect of the show. Another example is the creativity of the world the show builds. I've heard Avatar described as Anime-lite, and while those influences are certainly there, I feel it goes a lot deeper than that.
There are so many cartoons that feature western culture, obviously, since that's where they were made, but the eastern elements go far beyond animation and surface level aesthetics in Avatar. It's not just "the Fire Nation is Japan, the Earth Kingdom is China" (although, yeah). It delves into real philosophies, ones which the western world (and especially kids) wouldn't have heard of, and it's clear that the creators really cared about making something good, rather than making something that they knew would be palatable to western audiences. Luckily, it turns out that western audiences have liked it quite a bit.
The story of Avatar is amazing too, filled with twists, turns, conspiracies, mysteries, wars, histories and, perhaps the thing I like the most about it, it's a show that can deal with serious and adult subject matter without ever feeling like it's trying too hard to be dark, or feeling like it's talking down to kids. It's a show that deals with big ideas, like the idea that even in a war there are good people and bad people on both sides of a conflict. Where a lot of shows (including shows I like a lot!) have clear good guys and bad guys, Avatar is a show which spends a good chunk of episodes pointing out that there are really nasty people in the Earth Kingdom (the "good guys" of the show), and that there are perfectly good people in the Fire Nation (the "bad guys" of the show). It's a show that spends time saying "hey, look, the Fire Nation is bad news, but even this awful 100-year war was started with, quite honestly, the best of intentions." It's a show, a show for children, which deals with absolutely massive ideas, and doesn't back down from them.
Even crazier, it never feels out of place. I can enjoy shows like Adventure Time for their shockingly dark elements, but it often feels clunky and sudden when an episode is about unearthing ancient evils in that show, since the previous episode was, I don't know, a fart war or something. When Avatar deals with ideas like genocide, or a parent losing his child, and it doesn't feel like the show has suddenly decided to become dark, it feels natural. At the same time, while I like something like Game of Thrones, I like that theAvatar world is a place where happiness exists. It's a show that knows exactly when to be happy and colorful, and when to be serious. When it wants to pull the heartstrings though, it can do it, and it feels like it's earned it. You're scared when the characters are scared, because you've connected with them. You're sad when the characters are sad, because you've come to care about them. Evidence of this is easy to find, all you have to do is say "leaves from the vine" in front of an Avatar fan, and you'll have them misty-eyed in moments.
Part of what helps sell the show, as well, is the fact that there are some really great performances in the show. The ones people always jump to are Zuko and his Uncle Iroh, as Zuko's actor, Dante Basco is probably most well known for being Rufio in the well-regarded Robin Williams movie Hook, while the actor who played Iroh for the first two seasons, Mako Iwamatsu, was known for both live action roles (including a role in Conan the Barbarian) and animation work (Aku, from Samurai Jack). Those roles are both incredible, but the casting and voice work is great across the board. Part of what sells Azula is Grey DeLisle's amazing and nuanced performance. The main four characters too all give wonderful, nuanced performances, and the actor who plays Aang, Zach Tyler Eisen, was even cast age-appropriately. The amount of depth he manages to convey is impressive for any actor, but for someone who was twelve at the time, it'sstaggering. Plus, we get to hear the always great Mark Hamill as our ultimate big bad, Fire Lord Ozai.
I spoke about diversity a little bit before, but that's another really cool thing about The Last Airbender. It's not only that it's a show where the cast isn't all Caucasian males all the time, it's the fact that it's a show where the cast is almost exclusively not Caucasian males. It's a show which says that women can be just as powerful as men not by making long winded speeches about it, but just by showing women kicking butt and taking names, and then not making a big deal about it (most of the time, with an exception or two in season one). That's just how things work in this world, and (again, with an exception or two in the first season) It's not the thing that makes the show for me, but it's another cool little thing that makes me like it more.
And, yeah, it's a cool action show. The bending is cool, they use it in fun and creative ways that make the world feel like a real place, the action scenes are well animated and exciting, and it's just a generally gorgeous show (with the animation taking it up even another level in Korra, I swear every episode of that show looks like a Ghibli movie).
So, in my opinion, Avatar is sort of a show with something for everyone. Like characters? It's got those in spades, and they're all so well developed there's probably someone you'll identify with, if not more than one person. Like story? It's an epic I'd hold up with any other popular fantasy story that's popular right now. Like world building? The world of The Last Airbender world feels like a place you could step into. Like animation? It's gorgeous. Like comedy? It's hilarious when it wants to be. Like tears? It's one of only two television series that have ever made me cry, and it's done it more than once (yes, one of them is the obvious, leaves from the vine and all that). There's a scene in the finale I still can't watch without getting choked up. Like action? It's got some of the best action sequences ever put on screen. It's just a really great show across the board. It's not perfect, but it's close, and while it can be a bit slow to get into, it's an experience unlike anything else I've ever seen in television history.