Here we are. This is it. The last one of its kind, the final Weekly Word Working Assignment of 2017. I had to pick a high point to go out on and they don’t get much higher than this, one of the greatest televised animated stories of all time.
What is it?
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a three-season, 61-episode animated series produced by and aired on the Nickelodeon cable television network. It spawned comic books, video games, a sequel series (The Legend of Korra), and… I’ve been told there was a live-action movie adaptation but let’s ignore that for now. (Or forever, really.)
What kind of story is it?
A powerful young boy hides away from the terrible things happening in his world, inadvertently entering suspended animation for an entire century. He’s found and awakened by a pair of siblings, and thus begins an epic journey of danger, excitement, wonderment, intrigue, personal growth, and basically saving the world.
Why do you like it?
Much like its similar-in-length closest contender for “the show I want this year’s project to go out on,” Fullmetal Alchemist, this show has it all. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll jump for joy, you’ll fear for the lives and sanity of these kids who have chosen to take on an seemingly impossible series of tasks. I mean, you will if you’re anything like me, which is admittedly up for debate.
Let’s dig in.
Do you like characters who interact in believable ways? Good. Do you like characters who face their demons, own up to their failings, and try to do better? Good. Do you like clever banter? Oh, excellent. No, seriously, do you like laugh-out-loud bits of witty dialog? Rock on.
Do you like well-designed, interesting, properly lived-in worlds for the characters to inhabit? Good. Do you like the idea of a consistent set of martial arts disciplines applied to an ostensibly “magic” powers system? Sweet. Do you like complex backstories and exploration of moral shadings beyond simply Good Guys Versus Bad Guys? Okay then.
Speaking of martial arts, do you like inventive combat sequences and creative uses of the powers established? Great!
Do you like sprawling epics told from the perspectives of different key players over the course of several years? You’re in luck.
Do you think you can avoid crying over a lost, lonely, flying bison? You may think you can. You can’t. Trust me.
I could go on. I really, really could.
Let’s go on.
I’ve railed against the trend toward “grimdark” storytelling from time to time. Grimdark is what you get when your readership decides that “mature, realistic, and sophisticated” means “put your characters through hell,” then writers and publishers answer that demand. I get why people like that sort of thing, I really do. I admire, for instance, the storytelling craftsmanship which went into Joe Abercrombie’s “The First Law” trilogy. The ending nearly made me throw the last book right at the wall, but it is a masterpiece. I can’t argue that.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is not grimdark. It’s exactly the kind of tale I like best. It mixes a found-family aesthetic with a strong story arc where the good guys learn to work together to defeat the bad guys, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. It’s a satisfying heroic story. But it’s not simplistic! All of these kids, and they are kids, are flawed in various ways. They’re nowhere near ready at first and they’re only mostly-kind-of ready at the end. To paraphrase the opening narration, they have a lot to learn before they’re ready to save the world.
One of the best things I like about this show? It gives you so many opportunities to cheer when a character does something really, really awesome. And it’s earned, because what makes most of the moments awesome is a combination of training and effort paying off, and the character choosing in that moment to do the right thing with their abilities. The further the show gets into its main plot arc, the more chances you get to pump your fist in the air and shout, “YES!”
Of course, sometimes the antagonists pull off truly stunning displays of wicked prowess as well, just to keep things interesting…
What might one not like about it?
It started life as a kids show, and as such it spends some of its runtime being a bit cutesy and ham-handed with the Aesop endings on occasion. A bit like another slow-burn show with an epic story arc, Babylon 5, the first season has its share of clunky episodes. Yes, this is another of those “just stick with it” situations.
To a certain extent, the baddest of the bad guys are basically bad because they’re bad and want more power. The motivations of several major antagonists are… lacking complexity. Luckily the best of the antagonists, while still simple in motive, are supremely fun to watch nonetheless.
Other thoughts about it?
One character who seems like an ineffectual buffoon early on will end up making you bawl your eyes out at one point, in an otherwise quiet moment of reflection.
One character who seems like the token “normal” early on will end up being seen as one of the primary threats by one of the most adept antagonists, for good reason.
A strong theme which runs through the show is the idea of overcoming challenges and limitations. Sometimes this means genuine actual handicaps, such as the boy stuck in a wheelchair (who wants to fly) and the blind little rich girl (who wants to… well, you’ll meet her in the second season). It also often means self-imposed limitations, such as self-doubt and self-deception. A lot of it isn’t terribly subtle, since it’s ostensibly a kids show, but that’s not a bad thing really. There are worse lessons to weave into your magic-martial-arts adventure story than “try to do better, and help others however you can.” Right?
You will take away from this any number of quotable quotes. “That’s rough, buddy.” “Boomerang! You always do come back!” “The Boulder’s over his conflicted feelings.” “You’re awfully cute, but unfortunately for you, you’re made of meat.” “Meh, if you’ve seen nothing once, you’ve seen it a thousand times.” “My cabbages!”
It’s been argued that A:TLA is as close as an American-produced animation project can get to being anime without actually being made by a Japanese studio. I don’t know if I’d go that far, because “anime” becomes a heavily loaded word once you start trying to pin down what it is and isn’t in a conversation. (I keep it simple, personally: Anime is animation made in Japan.) With that said, I think the show has as much of the Wuxia tradition in its DNA as it does of anime.
Oh hey, that Legend of Korra thing. I think it’s worth seeing, but that’s a very… qualified… recommendation. In short: It starts well, devolves into utterly unnecessary love triangles and similar terrible interpersonal crap, goes through a grim and maudlin stretch, then finishes very strongly. Korra (the character, the next Avatar after Aang) exhibits a profound inability to select healthy mentoring figures for most of the show’s run. It ends well enough that I’m mostly willing to forgive a lot of its failings, but I can’t give a 100% enthusiastic endorsement. Make of that what you will.
And yes, I couldn’t limit myself to the standard four screenshots this time. Go out with a bang, right? Right.
Where can I watch it?
Amazon Video and Google Play are among the streaming options, albeit for a price. Or you can pick up the DVD boxed sets.