Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week, Dramus18 watches Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, which originally ran from February of 2005 through July of 2008.
This article contains spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender
The year is 2006. Flavor of Love thrilled audiences with the possibility of seeing international playboy Flavor Flav find true love. CSI Miami had just entered syndication. And a 13-year-old Dramus was ready to discard silly shows for children and Become a Man.
On the whole I wasn’t missing much. The latter half of the 00s was a dire time for American kid’s cartoons. The overriding sensibility is charitably described as “loud”. If you want a vision of the era, imagine this song stamping on a human face – forever.
But, there’s one massive exception: Avatar: The Last Airbender. Avatar is one of the most acclaimed kid’s shows of all time. Strong characters, a rich world, serialized plotlines. In an era of obnoxious and gross Avatar stood out.
But as compelling as Avatar is, it couldn’t stand up to a teenager’s desire to prove to himself his own maturity. I had even seen and liked the first season in the Before Times, but I was a man now. I had X-Play to watch. So, I gave it up. Even as more and more of my high school friends got into it, even as I began to see it everywhere on TVTropes (listen, I didn’t make good choices), I held steadfast. Eventually, I would actually, literally become an adult, and freed from my burden would return to watching cartoons.
But I never did get around to revisiting Avatar. Until now!
And…it turns out it’s pretty good! Avatar is efficient, which I mean as great praise. It spends a couple episodes setting up the basics (the show’s famous opening credits sequence sums it up pretty well)
It also establishes its stakes pretty early on; Aang must learn to master all four elements before next summer, or else the Fire Nation will use the power of a passing comet to annihilate all resistance and conquer the world. Even so-called “filler” episodes usually wind up having some impact. Fans may grouse about “The Great Divide”, but there’s nothing here as empty as, say, Steven Universe’s “Onion Gang”.
The show’s also got some great characters. I loved Toph, the snarky earthbending prodigy who joins the group in the second season and trains Aang. Azula’s a great villain; she knows she’s evil and she (mostly) doesn’t mind, which is always fun. Sokka is just the right mix of “super-smart strategist” and “absolute goofball dumbass”. Uncle Iroh’s whole “is he wise or is he just lazy?” deal is honestly inspiring.
And the show’s world-building is rightly legendary. Bending arose from a practical concern; how do you make a martial arts show fit the confines of a Y7-FV rating? Adding elemental powers means you can have characters punching and kicking at each other without physically connecting, satisfying the Helen Lovejoys of the world. But the show does so much more with the concept. Earthbenders powering giant transport slides in Omashu. Firebenders fueling a steam-powered navy. Waterbenders straight-up possessing people (after all, what is blood but glorified water?). Plus there’s a bunch of history and shit that people tend to like in fantasy stories. I generally don’t, but it’s neat that it’s there. Avatar gets a lot right. It’s absolutely a classic, it deserves its reputation, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
I have to admit…I didn’t really care? Which sounds way harsher than I mean it. But watching Avatar was something of an intellectual exercise of me. I saw and understood why it was so beloved. I noted some of the interesting differences between it and the 2010s Golden Age shows I’m more familiar with (Nickelodeon Standards and Practices sure had a stick up their butt when it came to acknowledging death huh?). I’d read why people love the show, and their arguments would make sense, and I wouldn’t even disagree. But I just didn’t have the same investment. The final season of She-Ra hit Netflix the same day as Avatar. I watched it all in a weekend, then immediately watched it all again. And all throughout the ~2 weeks I watched Avatar, I kinda just wanted to watch that season a third time. This isn’t to say that Avatar is worse than She-Ra (I like my hot takes, but even I have limits), but I sure as hell cared a lot more about it than I did Avatar.
And ultimately I think this is a result of having waited so long to watch Avatar. There were almost no surprises for me by the time I got around to it. Zuko’s redemption arc meant so much to so many viewers, but it left me ice cold. The entire time, I knew for a fact he was gonna join the gaang. So for an unspoiled viewer, him choosing to betray Iroh and Team Avatar at the end of season 2 was probably harrowing, but for me it felt like a waste of time. It’s not even a bad storytelling decision! I totally get why Zuko, when offered everything he always thought he wanted, would succumb to temptation, and why it’s interesting to watch him get it but remain unfulfilled. But “Zuko’s a good kid, I bet he pulls through” and “I’ve been hearing about how great Zuko’s redemption arc is for 10 years, I literally know how this ends” aren’t quite the same. Zuko yelling “I’m angry at myself” at the end of “The Beach” goes from being cathartic to “yeah no shit”. There’s been some Discourse in recent years about how “spoiler culture” has gone too far, about how good stories can’t be spoiled because they work even when you know what’s coming. I can now say for certain that’s not true, at lest not universally. Being spoiled on Avatar absolutely made it worse for me.
So, ultimately, my experience with Avatar was bittersweet. I could see why people love it, I could see why I myself might have loved it in another timeline, but ultimately I didn’t, and never will. My juvenile posturing wound up costing me something I might have enjoyed a great deal. I feel like there’s a lesson there.