In Which Everything Changed When the Fire Nation Attacked
Making a good pilot is hard, making a good pilot for a high concept genre show is next to impossible. For the start of such a program, whether fantasy, sci-fi, or horror must bare out as much as possible to get the viewer onboard without leadening every line of dialog with expository intent. In a too short runtime the pieces must be placed, the stakes prepared, the world built, and the characters defined. This is the basis that a long running story will be constructed from, and a shaky foundation means trouble.
A daunting task would set the head spinning for any first time showrunners, but for the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender (Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who in tandem will now be referred to as Bryke) they have another hurdle to jump. This is an epic fantasy tale, but also a show for kids. Something that a ten year old could easily plop down and follow. So a balance must be struck, lay out the continuing plot of what must come down the road, and continually entertain in the moment.
Under such pressures it’s shocking that the series premiere of Avatar doesn’t collapse under the burden of everything to come. Instead the two part “Boy in the Iceberg” and “Avatar Returns” does a shockingly efficient job of situating the viewer in a whole new world with the core cast of characters front and center. Thus the pilot of the show is an effective raising of the curtain. It’s by no means an excellent piece of storytelling in itself (and certainly falters in comparison to classic genre pilots like Alias, Lost, and Game of Thrones) but it painlessly presents the frame for a grand experience.
As will be said many times throughout this series, Bryke and the writing staff smartly pull from Star Wars for their setup. We are greeted with an opening crawl in the form of a voice over giving enough backstory to contextualize what’s happening (there’s a war, the messianic figure of the world disappeared right when he was needed, and he’s either gone for good or hiding somewhere). The story of monstrous conflict is presented to us from the perspective of seemingly low status characters. And an ancient and mysterious power is introduced to us: in Star Wars it’s the force and lightsabers, here it’s bending and avatars.
With this low-key perspective locked into place the writers and director Dave Filoni (who would go on to be the king of televised Star Wars) go about putting in place all of the character dynamics of the show. This table setting is where the first two episodes impress the most. While there are certainly moments of writerly contrivance in establishing our heroes and villains, there’s also remarkable tact and efficiency with which the dynamics are put into play. Most of our cast begin as fairly expected archetypes, but are knocked just off enough to prove more interesting than first anticipated.
Aang is the classical kid who refuses the call. A child with too much weight placed upon his shoulders. He’s exuberant and playful, attributes that can be useful in times of stress, but here he shows that he has a wiliness to deceive and sneak his way through situations. He cares about important situations, but he’s always trying to break away. It’s almost a paradox that such an adolescent could contain extraordinary power.
Sokka and Katara almost act as what on would expect as the leads from the world of juvenile fiction that Avatar plays. The diametrically opposed, quasi-orphaned siblings, whose relationship friction propels them and the plot forward. Katara is the girl who needs to prove her worth beyond societal expectations. She has a gift, the ability to Waterbend, that no one in her immediate community does. Yet she cannot hone her skills as she is shackled to the responsibilities of domestic life, chastised to do chores and look after the village. Sokka is the well intentioned chauvinist, tasked with the too great burden of protecting his town from the encroachment of attackers. He’s sarcastic and withering, but only out of a fear of failure. Dreading the disappointment of his deployed dad or deceased mother.
Zuko is then seen as the stereotypical kid’s cartoon antagonist. Powerful and motivated enough to cause trouble for our plucky group of heroes, but obviously flawed. He’s temperamental and singleminded, unable to consider how his actions will impact others. His unyielding focus on capturing the Avatar (for uncertain purposes as of right now) makes him both a dangerous and easily bested foil. And Iroh, what to make of Iroh. He’s the tutor to our explosive antagonist, and seems to function mostly as a comedic counterpoint, But there’s anger and wisdom and understanding there.
With the cast in place Bryke and Filoni give us careful context for the world that these people inhabit. Quickly they establish that bending is an ability not a magic (from minute one the dynamic of Sokka being the only non-bender in a group of near superheroes is fascinating.) Each form of elemental martial arts is introduced in its own part in order. We first see Katara control the water, than Aang whizz through the air, than Zuko practice his fighting. Each given a moment to display their power and purpose before they are put into conflict with one another.
Thus the audience can begin to grasp the thrill of the kind of “magic” that makes this world special. And Filoni gives it a bump by producing a few dynamic action scenes. A slide down with the penguins, a whole village confronting Zuko, and Aang’s escape from the ship show a considered understanding of what these powers can and will be used for. The world is just opening up to our characters and the audience, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible, just as our crew are set on a path to learn and hone our skills.
So when Aang glows up and unleashes an unearthly torrent of water on his enemies, or Katara sleds with the Avatar to an abandoned ship it feels like there’s so much more to be learned and understood. That the world is more than the ice flows presented in the show’s opening salvo. After all what would that glorious map in the introduction be for if not to set us up to see the globe.
And so the quest is settled. Aang will journey to learn waterbending at the North Pole with Katara, Sokka will aid them in there adventure, and Zuko and Iroh will pursue. There’s so much to do, and so much to see.
Odds and Ends
- So much to say that I barely mentioned Appa. A wonderful beast that is almost like if Totoro became a beloved beast of burden.
- One thing that definitely gets smoothed out as the series goes along is the animation. While better than the standard Nick fare here, it feels stiff and uncertain at times. An issue that will mostly pass by the end of the season.
- A sneaky bit of symmetry is the parallel editing of Zuko and Sokka preparing to confront each other. It’s loaded with unspoken portent that becomes quite meaningful as the show goes along.
- The comedy is a mite to broad for me now, but the delivery of, “This is my flying” and “I’m just a guy with a boomerang” still crack me up.
- Sokka is presented as mostly an ineffectual warrior, but I do appreciate that his tools do come of use in battle, even this early on.
- The shipwreck is a great piece of foreshadowing towards the very end of the show for series highlights “The Puppet Master” and “The Southern Raiders”
- Interesting that it won’t be till next week that we actually see what Zuko’s place is in the Fire Nation army. Right now it’s unclear.
- We will see those giant koi fish pretty darn soon.