Perhaps due to the fact that I grew up in an era when most cartoons for children were little more than 30 minute commercials (with commercial breaks) for toys I have long been of the mind that there is little redeeming value in cartoon shows for children. They have long been, in my opinion, cheap, ugly, and only enjoyable if you were 8 years old and so for years I largely avoided cartoons that were marketed towards children.
All of this started to change after I had a child of my own and was once more exposed to children’s television. While there still were shows that primarily existed to sell something to children there were also shows that were clearly trying to do more than that and across the board the writing and story-telling had improved since the 1980s. Why even shows clearly designed for small children like Peppa Pig would toss in a joke or two per episode that was clearly intended for the parents that were being made to watch the show by their offspring. It was an eye opening revolation to say the least and so, with this newfound understanding of what a cartoon show for children could be I have decided to watch some of the children’s programming I paid no attention to when it was first airing on account of neither being a child myself nor living with children at the time. If the title of this post and the header image haven’t already clued you in, I have elected to start with the 2005 series, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Why Did I Pick This?
Out of all the cartoon shows for children that adults also say are good in the world, why did I pick this particular cartoon show for children? Well dear reader, for starters I’ve actually seen some of the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, due to living with a small girl child who has watched every single show about a girl with magical powers battling the forces of evil available on Netflix: Ladybug, She-Ra, Korra, Secret Juju, Sailor Moon…I’ve seen ’em all. The handful of episodes of Korra I saw were pretty good and I want to watch that show in its entirety at some point but figured I’d probably have a deeper appreciation for it if I were to watch the show that begat it first. Also someone told me that it was basically the cartoon version of those Shaw Brothers martial arts fantasy movies like Holy Flame of the Martial World, Buddha’s Palm, or Battle Wizard all of which are very much my shit so I figured I’d give it a go.
What’s It About?
For people like me who have never seen the show before there’s a convenient bit of voice-over in the opening credits of each episode of this cartoon that gives you all the pertinent information about the world you’re about to be entering. It reminded me a lot of the little spiel He-Man would give in the beginning of each episode of He-Man and The Masters of Universe about how “fabulous secret powers” were revealed to him and honestly I think it’s a pretty good way to get everyone up to speed on the basic world building stuff since you never know what episode of a cartoon show for children is going to be the first episode they tune in for.
Just so everyone is up to speed on what this particular show is about I’ve transcribed the bit of narration from the show’s opening in case anyone else here is unfamiliar with the premise of it:
Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world.– Avatar: The Last Airbender Opening Theme Song
Got that? Fire Nation are the bad guys. Aang the Avatar is the good guy who has to go on a Joseph Campbell Brand® Hero’s Journey to stop them and return balance to the world. I think the only thing I’d add is that there are people in each of these four nations who can control their nation’s respective element via a process known as “bending.” Bending is pretty much just kung fu but when the bender does it they cause rocks to shoot out of the ground or can throw fireballs while also doing flying side kicks. Up to the point I’ve seen of the series only the aforementioned Avatar is able to bend more than one element but maybe that’s something other folks can do too. Also large swaths of the population seem to possess zero skill at any sort of bending.
How Was It?
To be honest, the first couple episodes had me questioning what I’d gotten myself into as early on I found most of the primary characters kind of unlikeable. Aang, the titular Avatar, was too much of a cartoon boy in an adventure cartoon for children from the 2000s which meant that he was loud and prone to a lot of antics that an 8 year old kid would probably find hilarious but that I, as a 40 year old, found to be annoying.
Similarly, Sokka, one of two Water tribe children that discovers Aang in the first episode, comes across as kind of a self-centered dick in the first episode and Zuko, a disgraced Fire Nation prince in exile, is an angsty teen who is a pretty one note cartoon villain in the early going of the show.
To be honest the only two characters I liked in the early going of the show were Katara, the other of the two Water Tribe children who finds Aang in the first episode (and Sokka’s younger sister), and Prince Zuko’s uncle Iroh who is probably the most chill character in the entire series.
That being said the primary characters very quickly become likeable and even Prince Zuko becomes a lot less one note. There’s a reason he’s so surly and there’s some nuance to him that is revealed as the first season progresses. Again compared to the shows I grew up with where Cobra Commander was just evil because GI Joe needed someone to shoot lasers and didn’t show any growth or development except for that one time he teamed up with GI Joe to fight drug dealers because it was the 80s and the only thing scarier than international terrorist organizations were cartoonish drug dealers, the amount of nuance present in all these characters is kind of amazing.
Sure Aang’s the chosen one hero of the show but he’s also childish and prone to jealousy. There are episodes where he gets mad when he doesn’t get his way and a couple instances where he pretty much Hulks out and uses magic powers to murder Fire Nation goons that have threatened his friends. It’s honestly kind of great since all these flaws and shortcomings make him come across as more of a real person than he would have had he just been presented as this perfectly flawless person.
Similarly Zuko might be a surly teen who wants to capture Aang to regain his father’s approval, over the course of the first season it becomes clear that he’s not as one-note as he initially comes across. The reason he’s exiled is because he questioned a general’s plans that would have cost a lot of rank and file Fire Nation soldiers their lives thus bringing shame upon himself in the eyes of his father, the Fire Lord. Though he’s still firmly an antagonist at the end of the first season it is clear that he has become far more conflicted over the course of action undertaken by his nation in order to win the war.
Again this impressed the heck out of me as someone who grew up with He-Man and Challenge of the Gobots since nearly all of the cartoons that I watched as a child would reset back to the status quo at the end of each episode so that no one ever grew or learned or developed. Everything was in constant stasis until I stopped watching the show or it was cancelled, whichever came first.
Another thing I was a big fan of was the fact that outside of a few clearly delineated two part episodes every episode more or less stands alone and tells a complete story that you don’t need any knowledge of earlier episodes to understand. Sure there’s an overarching storyline and little callbacks to earlier episodes but it’s mostly an Adventure of the Day style show and that’s awesome. I am not a huge fan of being beholden to watching every goddamn episode of a show in order to understand what’s going on in any given episode. In a way it reminded me of X-Files with how it mixed some Lore episodes in with standalone Adventure of the Day episodes. It’s something I wish more shows did and the fact that more shows don’t is a big part of the reason why I don’t watch more TV shows in these, our modern times.
Similarly the subject matter covered on the show is way more mature than anything I really recall existing on any of the shows I watched as a child. The show is subtitled The Last Airbender because Aang is literally the last of his people since the Fire Nation committed genocide on the rest of them. The show does not shy away from this fact or really beat around the bush much beyond using phrases like “wiped them all out” instead of “committed genocide against.” The show also deals with refugees and insurgents and arrests of dissidents and forced labor, and all the other unglamorous stuff about war and global conflict that usually gets overlooked, especially in media for children. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone far more knowledgeable than I about geopolitics and this particular cartoon has written a well-researched academic treatise about how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan influenced this show.
All this is not to say that the show is an unimpeachable program without a single miss because it most certainly is not. Out of the 20 episodes that comprised the first season there were a handful of episodes that were pretty bad. The Great Divide (S01E11), was the first one that showed up and reminded me, “Oh yeah I’m watching a stupid cartoon show for elementary school aged children.”
There were instances in other episodes where a joke or some brief scene would make me think the same thing but this episode alone was unique in that there wasn’t ever anything that made it rise above the level of your standard issue Slobs vs. Preppies episode that every show for children was mandated to feature at least once. I think the other thing that bummed me out about this particular episode was the fact that it came after this really tremendous run of episodes that steered clear of the goofy bullshit.
Unfortunately The Great Divide was not the only miss this season as a few episodes later we got The Fortune-Teller (S01E14), another mediocre episode, this time one about a town that believes everything a Fortune-Teller says and has completely given up on critical thinking often to their own detriment. Would I have hated this episode as much if I wasn’t watching it in 2021 where a not insignificant percentage percentage of the population believes that COVID is a hoax so that Bill Gates can put magnets in us and turn us into 5G transmitters or some such nonsense all because some online grifters made such claims? It’s hard to say but based on what contemporary reviews of the episode said of it, probably not.
But these misses were few and far between and compared to other first season shows their hit to miss ratio is very good indeed. A lot of shows, including shows I love will have first seasons that fans will advise newcomers to more or less outright avoid since shows take awhile to really get into their groove and those early episodes can be a slog because of this fact. This was certainly not the case with Avatar.
When I signed up for this I only signed up for the first season. There were two reasons for this. The first is that I have pretty limited free time and worried that I wouldn’t get through the entire show in the two months between the day I signed up and the day I agreed to post this thing. The second, and more important was that I was worried that I was going to hate it and didn’t want to lock myself into spending 30+ hours with something I loathed. Both these were unfounded as I finished watching the first season with weeks to spare and enjoyed it so much that I have already started in on the later seasons.
In conclusion, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a land of contrasts and if like me you have put off watching this show for whatever reason it’s not too late to check it out. If you like Joseph Campbell Brand® Hero’s Journeys, Shaw Bros. style fantasy kung fu action, and can tolerate the stray joke that would have slayed on a playground full of 9 year olds you owe it to yourself to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender.