Another piece entirely by my drift partner, as I am one of the sad souls still uninitiate to this wonder (which we intend to remedy).
I’m not sure that most people would think about animated shows when they talk about the best shows of the last 20 years. Maybe The Simpsons would get a mention. Most people definitely wouldn’t think of a fantasy cartoon on Nickelodeon aimed at 8-14 year olds. But I’d like to propose that in terms of narrative, writing, character development, and general quality, Avatar: The Last Airbender is objectively one of the greatest shows in the last 20 years of television.
The show presents a fairly simple story: Four nations, centered around the elements of water, earth, fire, and air, coexist in harmony and balance, with certain citizens from each nation having the ability to “bend” or manipulate their respective elements. One person, the Avatar, is reborn every generation with the ability to bend all four elements and presides as an ambassador amongst the four nations. This balance is shattered when the Fire Nation begin a war against the other nations, and the current Avatar, a young Air Nomad named Aang, is apparently killed along with the rest of the Air Nomads. However, he was merely frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years (think Captain America), and he awakes one hundred years later to find his world in chaos. Along with his newfound Water Tribe companions, he must learn the other elements and restore balance to the world before it’s too late.
It’s a pretty standard Chosen One narrative, or at least it seems that way on the surface. But here are five reasons why I think this show is one of the greatest shows in recent memory.
The show is inspired by a variety of East and South Asian cultures (Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Korean, Indian, Inuit) while being respectful and celebratory of its influences rather than appropriative. The show was created by two white men, Bryan Konietzko and Mike DiMartino, but from the beginning they were very careful to show the proper respect for the Asian cultures they were taking inspiration from. For example, they hired martial arts expert Sifu Kisu to develop different techniques for each nation’s bending – waterbenders use Tai Chi forms, while Ba Gua is the basis of firebending. Cultural consultant Dr. Siu-Leung Lee translated all of the Chinese writing featured in the show, and every bit of it is readable if one knows the language. Many concepts, such as chakra opening and meditation, are based on or inspired by actual religious or cultural elements of a particular country or region. This show is an excellent example of how to pay homage to a particular culture or cultures without crossing the line into appropriation.
To continue with that thread, every single character in the series is a person of color. Every single one. Some of them are “coded” to fit anime conventions (i.e. Aang has large eyes because in anime, large eyes are meant to represent innocence, and that in no way detracts from the fact that he and the rest of the Air Nomads are meant to be Tibetan monks), but they are all meant to be Asian and Inuit. The Water Tribe, for example, is clearly based off of Inuit culture, while the Fire Nation tends Japanese/Chinese and the Earth Kingdom is most likely Korean. There are a variety of skin tones and hair colors – largely symbolic, as the Water Tribe people have blue eyes and the Fire Nation mostly gold – but there are no blond-haired blue-eyed Europeans to be found here. It’s refreshing, since I can’t recall the last time I saw a fantasy show on TV with a majority POC cast, let alone without any white people at all. (American Dragon: Jake Long? But that had a white girl as a lead, I think.) It’s an anomaly of a show, and a beautiful one.
The popular trend on TV right now, especially with adult shows but in some cases children’s media too, is to go Darker and Edgier and portray a world in which everything is horrible and most of the characters are terrible people. This is done for ~realism~, I think, but it’s wearying. Avatar staunchly refuses to let go of the idea that there is goodness and beauty and hope to be found even in the worst of situations. Which is not to say that the show is a nonstop parade of cloying positivity – the characters do feel sadness, anger, even despair. But underneath there is an optimism, a stubborn belief that kindness and love will prevail over anger and hate. Aang, as mentioned, is a monk and was raised to be pacifist and always, always use words and defensive measures. This comes into sharp contrast with the militaristic Fire Nation culture and especially the first season antagonist Commander Zhao, who is willing to stop at nothing to achieve his goals of capturing the Avatar. And later, Aang has to face the reality that if he wants to save the world, he has to kill the Fire Lord. This knowledge tears at him, because it’s the opposite of the way his people taught, but he can’t see another way to end the war. And…well, I won’t spoil, but I think the series finale is a beautiful illustration of the unending hopefulness of the series.
Which actually brings me to my next point: the “villains” are not all cartoon villains who kick puppies and laugh maniacally. When we’re introduced to the Fire Nation, we see cruelty and ruthlessness, and in the case of the outcast Prince Zuko, a singlehanded determination. Zuko is a very angry character: angry at his father for scarring and then banishing him, angry at his sister for being their father’s favorite, and most of all, angry at himself for not being good enough. Contrasted with Aang’s quest, we have Zuko’s, as his father has promised him that he can return home if he can capture the lost Avatar. At first, he doesn’t seem terribly sympathetic, but as the story moves forward we see that Zuko is lonely, hurting, and desperately wants to win his father’s approval. By the end of the first season, he has ceased to be an antagonist and is more of an anti-hero, sympathetic and compelling in his own right.
And on the other side, we have his sister Azula, who has grown up being her father’s princess, but knowing that her mother is frightened of her. Azula takes after her father; she is calculating, lacking in empathy, and manipulative, but she is also clearly a very lost, frightened person deep down. Zuko and Azula are set up as each others’ foils: Zuko slowly moves toward the side of good, Azula only becomes more and more entrenched in her father’s teachings. And yet, she has what she would deem as weaknesses. She’s unable to shake off the notion that her mother thought of her as a monster, and she’s able to command an army through fear but her best friends will ultimately turn on her. She’s probably the best female villain I’ve ever seen in anything, and she’s only fourteen. (You forget while you’re watching, but everyone in the show basically ends up being forced to become a child soldier. It’s a surprisingly deep kid’s show.)
Finally, the female characters are some of the best I’ve ever seen, hands down. You want a girl who’s compassionate and empathetic, but takes no shit from people who try to tell her she’s not good enough? Katara singlehandedly takes down a waterbending master because he told her girls weren’t allowed to learn fighting techniques. You want a girl who’s tiny, tough, loud, opinionated, and also disabled? Toph Bei Fong is blind but takes down men for times her size and invents an entirely new kind of bending. You want a girl who can’t do magic, but commands an army of female warriors? Suki is the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, and also climbed up a brick wall one time just using her hands and feet. You want a girl who’s kindhearted, devoted to her people, and not a skilled fighter but an entirely different kind of badass? Yue is only there for a few episodes of season 1, but what she does is so important that she affects what happens for the next two books. You want a girl who throws knives and is bored of everything, making an exception only for one special person? Mai is one of Azula’s friends, basically joins her because she’s bored, and ends up having one of the best moments in the whole series, in my opinion. You want a girl who’s relentlessly perky and bouncy, but who clings to that as an identity because she didn’t have one for most of her life? Ty Lee is Azula’s…gal pal, let’s say, and seems a bit of an airhead but is a brilliant fighter and wants more than anything to be special and different. And of course I already mentioned Azula. The women of Avatar (I didn’t even mention some of the adults!) are complex, interesting characters with their own arcs, stories, and motivations. After season 1 (in which Katara is the only girl, alas, but it more than makes up for it later), they make up half of the main and supporting cast and the narrative treats them like people, rather than love interests or props. This isn’t to say that the male characters aren’t written incredibly well too (shoutout to Zuko and Sokka in particular), but I feel it’s important to talk about the female characters in particular, because outside of maybe My Little Pony, I can’t think of another children’s cartoon that has such a variety of girls who get to be their own people. Hell, I can’t even think of a lot of adult shows that have that, and certainly not very many where they’re all women of color. So that’s a huge deal, to me.
Granted, the first season is a bit rough. There’s a lot of kiddie jokes, and a few episodes that are just plain awful. But overall, the show is a stellar example of what animation can be, and just really good storytelling. Anybody who hasn’t seen it is really missing out.