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
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!
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.