American cartoons will always hold a particular place in my heart. They defined my world when I was a kid, for better or worse, and instilled in me a penchant for good stories.
I didn’t follow any cartoon regularly; I sort of tuned in to whatever was airing and considered each episode as a standalone experience. This tended to define my impression of a given show.
Most of my television consumption occurred in the latter half of the 2000’s, and much of it was of reruns of older shows. The ones I remember most vividly included contemporary shows like Codename: Kids Next Door and Code: Lyoko as well as classics from the 1990’s such as Hey, Arnold and Ed, Edd, ‘n’ Eddy. But one show always set itself above the rest thanks to its continuous story and sheer emotional grip: Avatar: The Last Airbender. And following a chance encounter with some quotes from show, I decided to rewatch it this summer.
It was just as good as I remembered. In fact, I had an even greater appreciation for the show’s writing and production values, and of course, I was a more informed viewer.
Avatar was such a huge cultural phenomenon that I feel a summary or premise would be redundant. So I’ll jump immediately to my thoughts.
Season one opens with a strong, charming introduction that, right away, draws us into the Avatar world and its characters. We meet Katara, the compassionate idealist; Sokka, the level-headed and pragmatic yet humorously bombastic leader figure; and Aang, the fun-loving, if slightly naive, long-lost avatar. Immediately the show comes across as something special. It lacks the toilet humor and juvenile, over-the-top writing that characterizes so many cartoons. It’s refreshingly down-to-earth and genuinely entertaining.
A good cartoon features great characters, an interesting world, and clever writing. All of which Avatar has. But there’s one particular trait that makes the show so special, and that’s humanity. I struggle to define it precisely – I think realism would also fit. It’s the fact that the characters and their behaviors and actions are so plausible and relatable, and we can’t help but become attached to them. As Mark Twain put it so well in his critique of Fenimore Cooper’s romanticism:
They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
Conversation and interaction in cartoons is too often mutilated beyond relatability – humanity – for the sake of plot or for laughs. It’s a real shame, but it’s happily averted in the surprisingly intelligent dialog of Avatar. From the opening episodes, two exchanges struck me in particular:
Prince Zuko: I’ve spent years preparing for this encounter. Training, meditating. You’re just a child!
Avatar Aang: (confused) Well, you’re just a teenager.
(Zuko growls and prepares to attack Aang.)
I love this conversation because it exemplifies the show’s clever writing and humor. We immediately get a good characterization of Zuko and Aang. Zuko, the hot-headed prince who’s a little too in over his head, and Aang, the good-natured, innocent boy who just woke up from a hundred-year hibernation. It’s smart, charming, and hilarious, unlike what usually passes for “humor” in television.
Grandmother Kanna: It’s been so long since I’ve had hope. But you brought it back to life, my little waterbender.
(She hugs Katara, then turns to Sokka.)
Kanna: And you, my brave warrior – be nice to your sister.
Sokka: (hugging Kanna) Yeah, okay Gran.
(He smiles broadly.)
This one is emotional, natural, and sweet, but it also adds depth to Sokka, the bombastic “brave warrior.” He’s not just a one-dimensional cartoon character for comic relief; he has feelings and a heart. He’s human.
A lesser show would not have included this scene in the first place, for we are all too familiar with the “useless adults” trope; can’t have them getting in the way of the action. Or it would not have shown Sokka smiling, that little touch that brings his character to life. Avatar may be a children’s show with light-hearted humor, but it sure knows when and how to take itself seriously.
From then, season one takes off. The world we see is just as expansive as the premise, that the kids are on a journey to the other side of the world to teach Aang and Katara the art of waterbending, suggests. Abandoned air temples, ordinary working villages, Fire Nation military bases, and a metaphysical “spirit world” are all here, delightfully mixed with a dash of East Asian culture. The characters are all great, the humor stays smart, and each episode contains a masterful balance of dialog, build-up, suspense, and action.
It is true that the show is clearly aimed at children. It has slapstick humor and tends to have a self-contained premise for each episode rather than focusing on an overall plot. But if you accept Avatar for the intelligently put together children’s show that it is, then its genius is clear. It succeeds because of the sheer fun, charm, and imagination that goes into every aspect of the show. You’ll laugh, cheer, and appreciate the intelligence of the writing, if you don’t expect an adult-oriented drama.
Season one closes with an astounding finale in which the kids defend the northern water tribe from a Fire Nation invasion.
Season two begins with their continued adventures throughout the earth kingdom to find Aang an earthbending teacher. This arrives in a new character named Toph, a blind girl. At this point the show becomes more plot driven and emotionally gripping. The desperation of being stranded in a desert, the earth kingdom capital as a beacon of hope, the political intrigue of the crowded city, and the high-stakes conclusion in which everything goes wrong – all these scenes are truly unforgettable. Yet Avatar never loses the charm and intelligence it displayed in season one. Season two succeeds in shifting the show’s emphasis toward plot without degrading its other aspects. It built on the success of season one, including some of Avatar’s best moments, and possibly some of the best in animated television.
Season three is the show’s weakest. It’s still very good, but not as tightly written as seasons one and two. The characters become somewhat flanderized and the humor is less subtle and realistic. For the season that devoted an entire episode to Sokka in “Sokka’s Master,” it sure does use him as pure comic relief rather than the pragmatic straight man who humorously plays off of Aang and Katara’s idealism in season one.
It is also less creative. The kids spend their entire time in the fire nation venturing through nondescript village after village, with only the invasion of the capital city to break the monotony. And the capital is merely a generic palace city. It simply isn’t as impressive or unique as the northern water tribe in season one or the earth kingdom capital in season two. Season one took us around the world and season two showed us every corner of the earth kingdom. Season three lacks this variety and sense of wonder. And notably, season three is the only one that does not venture into the spirit world.
I recall the anime parodies in “Nightmares and Daydreams” and the action-adventure parodies in “The Firebending Masters.” They were hilarious, but they were also unoriginal. I realize I don’t want to see Avatar parody Dragonball Z and Indiana Jones. I want to see Avatar be Avatar.
The second half of season three also shifts the show’s focus significantly toward plot and action, and by this time the size of the original cast had doubled. It was all good, but I found myself wishing for the freshness and simplicity of season one. Some character development also took a backseat to laughs. I was especially marred by a cruel joke played at Toph’s expense in “The Phoenix King.” The four-part series finale has an uneven start, but the conclusion is epic and satisfying.
The progression of Avatar thus resembles that of the Star Wars trilogy. The first part is an amazing display of creativity, charm, and wonder. The second successfully expands on the themes of the first and lends greater depth to the story. The third is the slightly inferior, but still very much enjoyable, final act.
Whether you loved science fiction or not, you had to admit that the original Star Wars trilogy was a very good series. In the same spirit, you have to admit that Avatar: The Last Airbender was a very good children’s cartoon.
I plan to watch the sequel, Legend of Korra, and eventually do a similar writeup.
And yes, I put off my other projects to watch cartoons. Shame on me.