I have no idea how or what to write about Avatar:The Last Airbender.  That shows how much I adore this series.

I feel compelled to write something about it since today is the tenth anniversary of the show’s premiere on Nickelodeon, a fact that has startled me more than last fall’s tenth anniversary of my own high school freshman year.  (I wager the upcoming decennial of my beginning college will also be a lesser shock.)  Avatar reshaped my idea of what television could be over the course of its 2005-2008 run, and it has become my personal favorite TV series.

And it absolutely floors and delights me that my engagement in it was entirely accidental.

I barely knew about it for the first few months of its run, and from the occasional commercial or brief glimpse while channel-hopping, I assumed it was some straight-laced anime rip-off without the parody and/or satire of something like Teen Titans.  I finally gave it a chance during a bout of laziness, and if memory serves correctly, that episode was “Imprisoned,” which snared me with its intriguing characters and some sublimely silly humor.

(This became the first of several lessons I learned from the show: never underestimate the value of boredom.)

The more I watched the series, the more apparent it became that I had not seen anything like it before on TV.  As a kid, I was aware of darker or serialized animated shows like Batman and Gargoyles, but they did not hold my interest the way zippy comedies like Rocko’s Modern Life did.  When Avatar began, I was finally starting to get into shows with real continuity, albeit ones that were only intermittently serialized like Kim Possible and Danny PhantomAvatar was the first time I watched a show that was explicitly based on developing one story over the course of multiple seasons.  It is a show where only one or two episodes out of 61 can be argued as doing nothing to broaden the story’s world and its conflicts or to further our understanding of the characters.

For those who haven’t seen the series, Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko’s Avatar is set in a world where people can control the elements of water, earth, fire and air, and four nations exist based around their own element.  One person, called the Avatar, is able to control all four elements, but after his mysterious disappearance, the Fire Nation begins a war with the other nations that lasts for 100 years.  The Avatar returns in the form of Aang, a Airbending pacifist who must master the elements and defeat the Fire Nation before they secure their final victory.

When you see the early episodes of a series after watching the show through to completion, there is an inevitable moment where you realize just how inexperienced the characters are compared to what they will soon go through.  Avatar provokes that feeling in me much more strongly than any other show.  The characters’ evolution is so rich and multidimensional that I never fail to feel astonished when I am reminded of where they begin.

After the prologue in the first episode, “The Boy in the Iceberg,” our first view of the heroes is of the Water Tribe siblings Sokka and Katara as they fish in the middle of the South Pole.  Sokka is nothing more here than a wannabe warrior and Katara is barely self-trained in Waterbending.  There is nothing here to suggest that Sokka will become a great strategist or that Katara will be one of the most awesome fighters in the whole series.

A few minutes later, after the siblings unwittingly find the iceberg containing Aang’s frozen body, we first see Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, the show’s beginning villain.  He sees the light emanating from the iceberg and believes it to be the Avatar.  He thinks finding the Avatar is the path to his destiny.  We repeat viewers know it is, but not in any of the ways he expects it to be.  None of these three characters has any idea of what’s coming, and it makes us excited to once again experience the surprising, heartbreaking and liberating events in store for them.

Alongside the marvelous art direction and the authentic use of martial arts & Eastern philosophies, the greatest of this series’ riches is the characters.  In addition to being funny and providing pleasant company, each has a set of flaws and contradictions that make them dramatically involving and lovably relatable.  Katara’s maternal strength is so comforting that it becomes gripping when certain crises drive her toward her least mature instincts.  Zuko’s uncle Iroh has all the wisdom of a stock mentor figure, but even he is prone to hilariously poor judgment.  These characters are equally capable of great drama and great humor.  In fact, while most other shows feature only a couple of characters I wish I could meet, Avatar supplies me with at least a dozen.

If there are characters I would not want to meet, it would likely be because they are among the most effective villains ever created for family television.  Chief among them is Princess Azula, Zuko’s sister and the main villain of Season Two.  Prior to this series, only Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter books inspired anything close to the hatred I felt over her.  Picture Joffrey from Game of Thrones with military intelligence and prodigious combat skills.  You would have Azula, who is about as smug, cruel, manipulative, nationalistic-to-the-point-of-racism, ambitious and dangerous a villain as you can imagine.  Watching Azula in her horrible prime is the only thing I don’t look forward to whenever I revisit this show.

But you know what?  No matter how much I want to see her get her comeuppance, the way it finally happens always makes me feel sorry for her.  That also happens to me with a few other villains throughout the story.  They are allowed to do utterly vile things, but they are also given plenty of groundwork to let viewers understand why they are what they are.  Sometimes they even behave more admirably than the heroes.  DiMartino & Konietzko did not ration out their empathy with the characters, and it shows in how these villains can provoke both scorn and compassion.

This attitude toward the characters is an extension of one of the series’ fundamental lessons.  The conflict I've described sounds like one of good vs. evil, but events and characters reveal it to be more complicated than that.  The Fire Nation aims to control the world, yet it is shown to be more open-minded than other parts of the globe.  The Earth Kingdom is the force that stands a chance at beating the Firebenders, but many of its citizens are opportunists who either use the war to strengthen their own power or seek the most desperate and treacherous ways to secure any victory.  The Avatar can be seen as a symbol of hope for the Fire Nation as well as for the peoples being oppressed.  Avatar commits to the message that neither side of any conflict is exclusively right or wrong.  As far as I know, this was the first piece of media I saw to firmly express it, and I think it does so better than many adult-oriented war stories.

To paraphrase Uncle Iroh (my favorite character), it is the combination of the big and the subtle that makes Avatar so powerful to me.  Learning about the different nations through their fighting styles is absolutely thrilling, but it’s just as affecting to pause and hear Iroh sing one of this world’s folk songs.  Character touches that are almost unnoticeable (Aang and Azula speak to each other in only two of their six encounters, which clues us in to who her real nemesis is) are no less strong than the ones we recognize immediately (Zuko’s sense of humor improving over the final ten episodes).  Learning the tragedy of a character’s past can be more shattering than any defeat in combat.  Avatar finds the perfect balance between huge & exciting and delicate & introspective.

For better or worse, Avatar has changed my outlook on entertainment, particularly television.  The story’s optimism and relatively gentle humor helped make me less responsive to dark and cynical material, both new (Archer and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and old (certain episodes of Seinfeld and The Simpsons are harder for me to watch now than they were years ago).  The satisfaction of seeing things from earlier episodes pay off reopened me to the exhilaration of serialized storytelling and led me back to those shows I brushed off in my youth.

Perhaps its largest imprint is the way I prioritize character when evaluating a TV show.  When you devote hours or days to a trip, a work project, or even just hanging out, you want to be sure the person going with you is somebody you get along with well.  I feel the same way about watching a TV show.  A series could consume my attention for weeks, and I would generally rather spend that much time watching characters I empathize with rather than ones I am supposed to observe and remain detached from (the House of Cards cast, for instance).  Watching the Avatar characters felt like gaining new friends and supporting them through their successes and failures, and the bulk of my post-Avatar TV experience has consisted of trying to relive that same wonderful feeling.

That feeling never dimmed once in the ten years I have loved Avatar: The Last Airbender.  It pervades me during the greatest war victories and the most intimate conversations.  The series has given me uproarious entertainment, awe-inspiring spectacle, stimulating philosophy and comforting humanity.  It remains in a class above all I watched before it and all I have watched since.

All screencaps are from Piandao.org.


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