Over the last week or so I’ve been binging AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, a show I’ve heard accolades and seen snippets of for years but haven’t had the chance to sit down and watch myself.
Coming out from the other side of the binge I’ve gotta say as far as intended kid’s series go—it really holds up to the hype.
The term ‘best ever’ in any medium isn’t one that I can use lightly. For me— to earn that title the book or show (and rarely movie) has to fundamentally change my opinion on its medium in a profound way. Give me that ‘dayum’ moment- strike me hard in the feels.
The set up for AVATAR is fairly stock. An evil force/empire is out to take over the world, and only the chosen one can stop it and restore balance. It’s not an original story-plot by any means, but what AVATAR does with that is what lends me to say its not the best but is definitely among the top ten. The show takes that basic premise and refines it incredibly well for what can be named a ‘kids show’.
AVATAR’s animation is some of the smoothest on TV, still holding up despite the series ending in 2008. Every fights scene’s a spectacle. Every design interesting and colourful.
Beyond the visuals, the writing is some of the best I’ve encountered—animated series or otherwise. I couldn’t find any bad episodes in all three series—only ones a little weaker set by the standards of the show itself.
AVATAR’s story with a deeply grounded mythos is legitimately educational, entertaining and enlightening. Beautifully framed by East-Asian philosophy, it teaches morals and spiritual understanding—reinforcing a philosophy of balance, something important for anyone of any age.
What’s brilliant about this and from more recent shows is that more and more animators, creators, writers are taking this lead.
Outside of the beauty of Disney’s Pixar (ZOOTOPIA, INSIDE OUT), Studio Ghibli (SPIRITED AWAY, NAUSSICA VALLEY OF THE WIND) and other TV shows (GAME OF THRONES, DAREDEVIL, STRANGER THINGS), animated TV for both kids and older has gotten so good I’d argue its doing a better job than most movies.
Issues you didn’t even realise could be explored in such a classically ‘kids’ medium are now the norm. In the last couple of years, creators have been pushing the boundaries of what’s normally expected of cartoon programming. People are going the extra mile to produce content that’s relevant to kids and adults whilst also entertaining.
A favourite animated show of mine STEVEN UNIVERSE gives a deep and surprisingly complex look into identity and sexuality (also with stunning visuals). Shows like ADVENTURE TIME and GRAVITY FALLS also deal with themes of identity, relationships and how each relate to social norms.
In environments where anything can happen, creators are starting to see the possibilities of the medium and how far they can push that. They’re experimentation more and more, raising the metaphorical bar that they hold their work and ideas to.
And its not just animation traditionally aimed at kids. While shows like THE SIMPSONS have always had a strong social and political undercurrent—todays programs that seems like utter nonsense are proving to be smarter than they look.
BOJACK HORSEMAN probably the oddest thing I’ve watched in years, between talking animals and a literal horse protagonist- takes a harsh and even dramatic look into the reality of being in the public eye. Undeniably fucked up; RICK AND MORTY has a deep rooting in philosophy and science, drawing upon Lovecraftian horror to pose serious and even unanswerable questions about society and existence. Even SOUTHPARK—one of the great controversial social commentators has taken a risk with its most recent season acting as one big allegory for neoliberalism and PC culture.
More than ever before shows that seem like mindless nonsense, just for kids or relying on shock humour are proving themselves as something deep, funny but also really thoughtful. Taking the frameworks of animation and subtext within hand to use to their full advantage.
Again, with the kids shows in particular, animation with traditionally simple story structures and characters are given surprising innovation in their motivations and identity. Probably why I think that the biggest strength of these shows and in particular AVATAR is their characters.
In AVATAR just about everyone, hero, villain, or somewhere in-between is fleshed out.
Aang is one of the most likeable characters to ever be drawn. He's a good-natured kid, but he's also flawed and just that a kid, with a huge responsibility on his shoulders. As the series unfolds he goes through inner turmoil trying to deal with who he is and all the work and responsibility that’s required of him. Also, he had to learn the techniques required of being the Avatar instead of just having them from the beginning. It was great seeing him go through so much development, still retaining his core values despite having to make the tough choices.
Katara is just as equally awesome. She's kind, motherly but also has her limits and will gladly stick up for herself when she needs to. And while her water-bending techniques are pretty spectacular to see there’s a darker side to her that’s ferocious in it’s intensity, coming out as a desire for revenge for all she has lost in the war, and in a horror story ability known as blood-bending.
Sokka, while somewhat annoying in the beginning episodes, probably went through the best development later on in the series. Transforming from full-time comedic relief, to insecure young man, to badass warrior and wise leader who could still be funny and goofy but cares very deeply about all those under him.
As for ‘villains’ I use quotations because very rarely is villain an accurate term in the Avatar series. The buildup to Fire Lord Ozai's reveal was perfect. He was perceived as a huge threat for the first two seasons, and when he was finally revealed, he did not disappoint. This guy was evil but also human, looking very much like his son Zuko that by that time in the series we’d grown attached to. His fight with Aang in the final episodes of the third season is among one of the greatest fights I've ever seen in any animated show.
As for Zuko, for much of the series caught somewhere in the middle of bad and good, we fall into a spiral of complexity, self identity and grey-morality. Moving from him as the primary antagonist, to a heartbreaking slow reveal of his past and motivations to a conflicted soul on the wrong side of the battle. He both is and grows from someone of great pain to an awkwardly funny young man of great strength and honor, knowing what’s right deep down and acting on it even toward his own sacrifice.
The writing of the show from this cast to their story is timeless and really just good writing.
As a whole the show’s fun, insightful, silly, Artistic and smart. Something that you begin to realise in watching has a plan, and intends to leave an impact.
You feel particularly in the final episodes of the first season and the rest of the way throughout that you’re watching something massive and important. Neither going too long or ending on a bad note—staying just as long as it needed to for the story to work and end on the best note possible.
And the best thing is, shows like this are no longer the rarity—their intelligent, funny, thought-provoking and increasingly abundant.
Hopefully THE LEGEND OF KORRA, AVATAR's sister series, is just as good.