Tue
Mar 9 2010 11:19am

Avatar: The Last Airbender Re-Watch: Prelude to the Endeavor

Avatar: The Last Airbender is an animated epic fantasy series that originally aired on Nickelodeon. It is the story of Aang, the eponymous Avatar and last airbender, who must restore balance to the world and save it from the evil Fire Nation. 

It’s also one of the best pieces of entertainment you’ll ever see on a television screen. We’re going to re-watch it and analyze why that is for Tor.com. But first, we’re going to tell you why. 

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.

—Katara, from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Matt London

It’s kind of funny how quickly this all came about.

A friend of a friend told my friend “You have to watch this show. It was on Nickelodeon, and it’s great.”

Then my friend told me.

I told Jordan.

Jordan told John.

John told Pablo.

And now we’re doing a re-watch. Only weeks have passed since I first saw Sokka and Katara chilling in their canoe, but I’m already one of this show’s biggest fans. And if you’re not already, soon you will be.

It’s hard to believe that a perfectly executed television series (perhaps the only one to maintain such a high level of quality from beginning to end) has flown under the radar (like a Sky Bison) for so long. But creators DiMartino and Konitzko managed to conceal what the show really is, hiding in the guise of a series of 21-minute cartoons on a cable network for children. No longer. Widespread critical  acclaim, packed auditoriums at Comic-Con, and M. Night Shyamalan’s campaign to direct a trilogy of films based on the series are but a few of the hints that this is more than just a cartoon for kids.

This show is so good, it is in the absolute highest echelon of television, up there with The Sopranos, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost (or pick your favorite show—I won’t judge), but each of these shows have their own weaknesses. Lost had its clunky and disjointed third season, Tony and Starbuck both suffered from controversial endings, and The Wire? Does Ziggy ring any bells? Even great animated series like Cowboy Bebop have “filler” episodes that don’t contribute to the overall plot of the show. Avatar has filler episodes too, but they always show character growth or inform some aspect of the character the audience hasn’t seen before, and are often the most thought-provoking and heartbreaking episodes.

Which is why Airbender is TV’s Star Wars. It’s The Lord of the Rings. If there is TV in the spirit world, I guarantee Homer, Luo Guanzhong, and Joseph Campbell are crowded around a big flat screen watching Aang and his friends right now.

So let’s get started.

What makes this show so good is that it draws from such a wide variety of sources for inspiration. The reference material for the backgrounds alone could fill a National Geographic catalogue. Then there’s the integration of real martial arts into the physical motions that make up bending, and the distinct architecture, food, fashion, and culture of the four nations. The characters fall into distinct classical archetypes, and yet retain youthful personas that keep them fresh.

I don’t want to go too deeply into all of these aspects of the show now, but hold onto them. We will revisit them soon enough.

Next stop: The south pole!

 

 

Jordan Hamessley

Hello, my name is Jordan and I’m an Earthbender.

Like Matt, I also feel that it is one of the strongest television series I have ever watched. I think that my opinion of the series was shaped by a good friend’s description of the show: “Watching this show helps you deal with all of the things that went wrong in your childhood. Friendships, crushes, betrayal, etc.” So I think that I started watching Avatar jokingly thinking of it as a way to fondly remember my middle school years and see how I should have dealt with my issues. That being said, I think that at times throughout this rewatch, I will provide you with a tear-o-meter, letting you know how emotional the episode is and giving short commentary on what issue I took from it as a 20-something looking back on my early teens. The emotional response.

Obviously, if you have children, watch along with them. I think this show is a great way to open up conversation. It’s not Degrassi or anything, I promise you Katara doesn’t have an unexpected pregnancy, and when it comes to drugs... well there is that one cactus juice episode...

Ultimately, for me, this is a show about friendship and family. Sure, there are some amazing fight sequences, but the relationships drive this show and make you care. I worry that the upcoming film will turn that idea on its head and be a movie full of fight sequences and lose the love and humor of the show. We’ll see what M. Night has in store for us in a few months.

One other thing about me as a Last Airbender fan. I adore Appa and Momo. If you take issue with them, you are taking issue with me.

Let’s get started!

 

John Joseph Adams

It’s hard to evaluate a TV show’s place in history immediately after you finish watching it, but there are shows that are really good and then there are those that are just transcendent, and this is one of those. This series is a TV show, an animated series, and a fantasy epic—and in any of those contexts, it certainly must be mentioned in any discussion of the best ever. 

Probably the thing I love most about the show—or the thing that stands out to me most about the show compared to others of its kind anyway—is that the magic system is so well thought out and compelling. In this world, certain people known as “benders” can manipulate the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—to do their bidding. So earthbenders can open a doorway in a wall of solid rock or fire deadly stone missiles. Airbenders can ride around on balls of air or knock down their enemies with powerful hurricane force blasts. Waterbenders can freeze water into daggers of ice or just walk on top of it. Firebenders can hurl fireballs or even just heat up a cup of tepid tea.

This provides such a magnificent sense of wonder, it sets my mind racing thinking about what else they might be able to do with these powers. Could an airbender suck all the air out of a person’s lungs? Since humans are, on a molecular level, mostly water, could a waterbender suck all the water out of a body? But no matter how many of these things I wondered about, the show continued to surprise and delight me with the new bending techniques the characters come up with. 

And at a more basic level, the action is simply incredible. As the show is about a boy—the Avatar—who has to save the world, there’s necessarily a lot of fighting. But the show has some of the finest action sequences I’ve ever seen. Martial arts is awesome enough to behold even without enabling the combatants with super human abilities, but when you add in the ability to hurl fire or earth at your opponents, and they can do the same thing, that makes for some very inventive and jaw-dropping battle sequences. 

So that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what I like about the show, and I didn’t even mention the wonderful characterization or intelligent and emotive storytelling that Matt and Jordan refer to above. 

Man, what a show! I envy any of you who will only now be watching it for the first time.

 

Our rewatch will start next Monday (March 15), so if you’d like to watch along with us and contribute to the discussion, make arrangements to do so now. If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you can currently watch the entire first season via their “Watch It Instantly” streaming video service. Digital downloads are also available (for a fee) from Amazon Video on Demand and iTunes, and all three seasons of the show are available on DVD. If you want to follow along, all posts related to the rewatch will be tagged “Avatar: The Last Airbender Rewatch” to make it easy to keep track. You can also bookmark the Avatar Rewatch index page, where you'll find a list of episodes and links to the rewatch discussion for each. 


Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, and a columnist for Tor.com. His fiction is forthcoming in the anthology The Living Dead 2. He holds a BFA in Film Production from New York University.

Jordan Hamessley is a children’s book editor at Penguin Books for Young Readers where she edits the Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Chaotic publishing programs, as well as developing original series. She is also an assistant editor for Lightspeed Magazine. She can be found on twitter as @thejordache.

John Joseph Adams (www.johnjosephadams.com) is an anthologist, a writer, and a geek. He is the editor of the anthologies By Blood We Live, Federations, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), Seeds of Change, and Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. He is also currently the fiction editor of Lightspeed Magazine, which launches in June 2010, and the co-host of Tor.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. 

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42 comments
Jason Denzel
1. JasonDenzel
Fantastic. I can't wait to follow this re-watch. (I even pitched this idea to Pablo a year ago and he said it was "too soon". Bah!)

I whole-heartedly agree that this show rivals the finest epics of our day: LotR, the original Star Wars trilogy, Battlestar, etc. It's just. that. good.

Let's hope M Night does the series justice. I'm excited by the movie trailers, and I think he'll do a great job with it.

Yip Yip!
Andrew Willett
2. AndrewWillett
This is a tremendous idea, and I'm so very in. Admirers of strong worldbuilding who haven't seen this show are in for a real treat -- there's so much good stuff in here, and it's a shining example of how to treat your cultural source material with exquisite care and respect.
Jaymee Goh
3. Jha
Neat.

What I find most fascinating about the series is its blend of Asian and American values, into one seamless whole. It's deeply educational for children, entertaining for adults. Many other PoC and I are delighted by this representation of ourselves which blends both our originating cultures with the values one grows up with in North America.

Those of us working in anti-racist activism tend to be strongly opposed towards the new M. Night movie (see racebending.com if you're not aware of this issue), but it's great to see more people understanding why A:TLA is awesome.
mirana
4. mirana
Well said! Avatar is all these things you claim and more.

It piqued my interest when I first heard about the show in development and I thought for sure it would be terrible. Then I saw the first commercial prior to the premiere and immediately hunted down all my fantasy and animation loving friends to tell them it was a MUST WATCH. Everyone was as skeptical as I had been, but not after we watched the first ep.

I got my entire department to watch it. When season 2 came out, some visiting ex-coworkers from another state stayed in town and up ALL NIGHT to finish the episodes. I'd lend out the first disc, and the next day people would demand to have all of them because waiting a day to see me and get the next disc was TOO LONG (and yes, they all bought their own copies--some b/c my discs weren't available, haha).

It's a sickness. A fantastic, amazing sickness. I know a lot of people on here probably think, "I have no interest in a kiddie show..." but it really is not like any other show. It's highly developed and pitch-perfect on just about every level. Check out the first episode and see if you don't change your mind. I've never had anyone dislike it.
John Joseph Adams
5. johnjosephadams
Aw, man. I wish I had thought to end my little essay with "Yip Yip!"
mirana
7. Confusador
My name is Matthew, and I'm a Waterbender.
Seriously, this made my day. I started watching in the middle of season 2 on Nick.com (unfortunately they only show 6 episodes at a time now, and are in the middle of season 2), and I remember poring over each episode waiting for the next. The wait for season 3 was unbearable. And The Crossroads of Destiny remains one of the best hours of television I've ever seen.

All of which is to say "I'm in!" I bet I can coordinate with a bunch of guys to do the rewatch, too, so I'm curious about scheduling. Are you planning to do a post every Monday?
Phil Frederick
8. flosofl
Ok, after hearing everyone rave about this show over the last couple of weeks, I bit the bullet and just bought the first season on iTunes. If it's even half as good as everyone says, I'll probably end up getting seasons 2 and 3 in short order.

I'm not too worried. I bought the 1st (and alas, only) season of Middleman based on the writeups here on Tor and ended up loving it.
John Joseph Adams
10. johnjosephadams
Regarding the schedule, we're planning to post rewatches twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.
Pablo Defendini
11. pablodefendini
Water Tribe represent!

I discovered this show at the end of when season two was airing, and fondly remember sitting though a marathon session of catching up. The wait for the third and final season was unbearable. I'm really, really looking forward to this!
Luke M
12. lmelior
Wow, I've been meaning to watch this for some time. Now I have a firm deadline to start and gushing praise from trustworthy people to boot! I am also very pleased to find that my library has the DVDs...here's hoping I can snag them before the rewatch gets too far in.
mirana
13. ChrisG
Wonderful, I'm looking forward to it. I completely agree with all the positive comments above about this story. It is spectacularly well done. By far the best animated series ever, in my opinion, and a joy for both kids and adults.
Maggie M
14. Eswana
OMG SQUEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!

I love Airbender. I love the character development, great stories, and beautiful animation. Definitely one of my favorite TV shows ever, nevermind it's a "kid's show."

This is gonna be totally awesome.
Kate Nepveu
15. katenepveu
The series actually does better on rewatch, because a lot of what looks like filler in the first season turns out to have been character introduction.

I love the animation and the worldbuilding, for all that I was frustrated by some of the ending.

And Chateau Steelypips proudly boasts a plushie Appa who gets used as a constant size reference in our weekly baby/toddler blogging, such as this post from a few weeks ago.
John Fitzingo
16. Xandar01
This is a great show. I loved watching it while it was on. (Another fun one that seems to get missed alot is Samurai Jack.)

My family enjoyed the show immensely; we always were there to watch the big premiers when the came out. Makes me glad that I had kids that were watching Nick all the time.
mirana
17. mirana
Did I mention I went back to my hotel room in the middle of a business trip to watch the Season 3 premiere? And dragged a couple of friends who'd never seen it? Yeah, it's that good.
Jordan Hamessley
18. Jordache
My life will be complete when I own an Appa plush doll.
Dot Lin
19. fangirl
As the proud owner of an Appa plush ... I have to agree with you.
mirana
20. zenspinner
Oh, I do love this show! And so does my son. So far there's only two shows we really share the same love of, for the same reasons - one is Doctor Who and the other is Avatar. (He's kinda getting into Babylon 5, but the slow episodes with no Kosh tend to lose his interest.) Compared with the rest of the kid fare out there...well, there is no comparison. Avatar has no flat characters, no bad acting, the art is always perfect, and the plot is compelling. What more could you want?

I'm in for this for sure! Thanks for letting us all share.
Leigh Butler
21. leighdb
Excellent plan, I am in favor of it.

I stumbled across the Avatar series pretty much at random, had no idea what I was looking at, and got hooked anyway, and subsequently hunted down the entire series in my copious spare time. Truly an excellent demonstration of how much attention to detail, research, and forethought can dramatically increase the quality of a work. Who'da thunk it.

Also, Kate @15: ZOMG SteelyKid is GINORMOUS. Your plans for world domination will soon be complete!
Madeline Ferwerda
22. MadelineF
Huzz-ah! I love A:tLA. We watched it as a group on TV night, weekly for months, discussing where it was going afterwards...

The first season was IMO the best; the callbacks (term for when they introduce something and then go back to it in a later episode?) were elegant and abundant and made the season woven... Starting from a few episodes in, it was all As and Bs.

Shout out to the music, which was great stuff. Also I'm glad I bought the DVD sets because the extras on the DVDs were great, particularly the interview with the guy who does the voice of Momo. Amazing ability.

I do wish Shamalayan hadn't done such a insulting job of casting his movie version.
Chris Meadows
23. Robotech_Master
For people watching the show for the first time, I cannot emphasize this enough:

DO NOT WATCH THE "PREVIOUSLY ON AVATAR" RECAPS that start showing up in Season 2. They are spoiler recaps. If a recap suddenly shows scenes from a "filler" episode a dozen eps back, it completely spoils the surprise that characters from that episode will be reappearing without warning in the current one.

In fact, the folks doing the rewatch might do a considerable service to fans if they posted as part of their reviews the time point where the "previously…" segment ends for each episode so people could just skip directly to that point.

(Oh, and in my opinion the last 3 eps of Season 1 and the second half of season 2 are where the show is at its best.)
YouDont NeedToKnow
26. necrosage2005
I love this show and can't wait to see the live action movie that will be comming out later this year.
Eugene Myers
27. ecmyers
Good timing! I just started watching this a few weeks ago and I'm loving it so far. I'll try to keep up with all of you. Anyone else think that Appa looks like a cross between Totoro and a Cat Bus?
mirana
28. jedifreac
Are you guys aware of the casting controversy surrounding the film adaptation, where the ethnicities of the characters were erased and a glass ceiling was implemented in casting? There's more info at racebending.com...
Matt London
29. MattLondon
@27 Eugene -- there's a great interview with Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, and M. Night Shyamalan in the special features on the Season 2 dvds where they talk specifically about Miyazaki's influence on the series. Appa, the elephant koi of Kyoshi Island, Koh the face stealer,and Hei Bai the panda spirit all have Miyazaki's fingerprints on them. Like Shyamalan and Avatar's creators, I'm a huge fan of Miyazaki's work. As we get deeper into the series, and start to explore the spirit world and the relationship between nature and technology, you can bet I'll be talking about this connection a lot more.
René Walling
30. cybernetic_nomad
I've already watched all three seasons three times...guess I can go for a fourth one.

Looking forward to this
mirana
31. Skyweir
Heh, I was just thinking about rewatching this.
I just hope I have the time to keep up with you.
Looking forward to the discussion, this show have some acctual layers.

Also, I think I might be a Firebender. All power to the Firelord!
René Walling
32. cybernetic_nomad
I forgot to ask: will you include the Chibi shorts in your re-watch list?
mirana
33. jim trafficant
Saw the trailer for the new Airbender movie, and t sucks balls. like watching some disney channel crap starring the cast from the wizards of waverly place set in your retarded cousins idea of anceint china.
mirana
35. ATurnipforVespasian
Airbender here,


So much yes! The first time I watched Avatar I caught one of the more 'kiddish' moments and it turned me off for a while. I'm so glad I gave it a second chance as its now one of my two favorite shows. For those of you who are embarking on this journey for the first time, make sure you give it a real chance.

The plot, the characters, the themes, music, setting, world - each one is incredible by itself, and together a masterpiece.
Mitchell Downs
36. Beamish
Avatar was easily one of the Top 5 TV shows of the 2000's - I wish it had run longer than 3 seasons, yet the those three seasons tell an excellently paced and complete story.

It is rare for a "children's show" to have a story that deep and that mature yet completely accessible by it's target audience. I expect many a parent watched this show with their kids and loved every second of it.

I have watched the whole series at least 4 times.

I so fear for the movie...
Jordan Hamessley
37. Jordache
@cybernetic_nomad We are planning on doing mini-posts on the dvd features. The Chibi shorts are at the top of my list. I like to call them "Lil' Avatar".
mirana
40. wandering-dreamer
Oh boy, I caught Avatar the very first time it premiered way back in 2005 and my little 8th grade self had never seen anything like it. Imagine, a cartoon with a continuous storyline! So worried about the movie since I loved the show so much but I've still got my fingers crossed.
And one guy mentioned if airbenders could suck the air out of people's lungs and such, the show actually does discuss the implications of what exactly benders can do if the conditions are right. Creepy as heck and it shows that Bryke put tons of thought into the background of this show.
Dangit, you guys are making me miss my 3 foot long Appa plushie! Wish my dorm room had the room for it...
Chris Meadows
41. Robotech_Master
I find it interesting that Cowboy Bebop and The Last Airbender are getting rewatches at exactly the same time, given that BryKe acknowledged Cowboy Bebop as a major influence on The Last Airbender (and even threw in a few homages here and there).
mirana
42. LaShawn M. Wanak
Oh boy! I started watching Avatar when it was on Nick a long time ago, but fell off watching it when I had my son. Been wanting to get back into it for a while now. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on this one.

And what's this about the Cowboy Bebop rewatch? I'd love to see that!
Chris Meadows
43. Robotech_Master
LaShawn, just go to the tor.com main page and look at the right sidebar.
mirana
44. proud papa
Funny, I just watched most episodes with my three year old and when Spring weather came she went out to the little "rollar coaster" we have in our backyard (perilous two feet high and 10 feet long with a doozy of a hump in the middle) She climbed atop the car and said "Yip yip." before rolling down. What a delight.
Chris Meadows
46. Robotech_Master
So, any chance of this picking up again? You're almost 2/3 of the way through the series and all. Seems a shame not to finish it. Maybe someone else could take over if you guys aren't up for it anymore?

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