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By Dana Cadey
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a universally beloved animated series that is frequently hailed as one of the best television shows ever made. At least, this is what I’ve heard about the show as someone who grew up with the internet and a love of animation. Yet, despite my constant awareness of “Avatar’s” high esteem, I never put aside the time to watch it myself.
Two important factors contributed to changing this, however: an insufferably long quarantine period – resulting in me stuck inside with nothing better to do than catch up on media from decades ago – and Netflix’s decision to put the entirety of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” on its streaming platform. If I needed a final push to watch this iconic series, this was it. And wow, am I glad that I hit play.
With all of the hype that I had internalized about “Avatar” over the years, I definitely had high standards going into my viewing. I knew that there were legions of fans who believed with all their hearts that the show has some of the best pacing, characterization, and twists of all time (I already knew that a certain villainous character would be redeemed long before I started watching “Avatar”…there was no escaping that spoiler). So, I must admit, I was a little biased. This didn’t hamper my experience, though; if anything, it made me pay more attention to the characters that I knew were so cherished, and I could watch their development play out in front of me with the expectation that it would be executed well.
I had barely gotten halfway through the first season when I realized that all the accolades “Avatar” has received, even years after its end in 2008, are all accurate: it really is that good. With three seasons of excellent storytelling, humor, and heart, “Avatar” easily deserves a place among the greatest TV shows of all time.
I am very fond of animation, so the thing that probably struck me the most about “Avatar” when I first watched it was its unique art style. “Avatar” is often called an anime, which simply isn’t true; anime refers exclusively to animated content made in Japan, and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is an American cartoon created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.
Still, as someone who’s decently familiar with anime, I can clearly see multiple homages to the medium in “Avatar.” The art style of faces (and eyes especially) in the show, for instance, mirror those of characters from an array of popular Shounen anime. It’s clear that the creators of “Avatar” wanted to harness the feeling of anime while still making something distinctly different, which fits the pseudo-Asian fantasy world that the show takes place in. Hand-drawn animation is such a rare gem nowadays, especially executed with the passion and finesse that the animators of “Avatar” accomplished. Hopefully, the “Avatar”renaissance going on right now rekindles people’s appreciation for the seemingly forgotten magic of 2D animation.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is also funny. Genuinely funny. I tend to be a bit wary of the humorous potential of shows aimed at kids – not that it’s impossible for them to be funny, but more often than not I find myself cringing at over-the-top gags and bad jokes that were clearly not written for anyone over the age of eight. But the jokes in “Avatar” are well-written, well-placed, and subtle.
I think that a lot of the strength in the show’s humor can be attributed to the strength of its characters. Take Sokka: Of the three core protagonists, he’s probably the closest to fall into the “comic relief” trope. But Sokka becomes so fleshed-out over the course of the show that his entire character is raised above the one-dimensional goofball that he easily could have remained. He cracks jokes because it’s a thing that he likes doing, but there’s more to him than his foolishness, and the audience knows that because his other personality traits get developed with such sincerity and care.
In fact, “Avatar” is one of the few shows where the characters significantly elevate the story. It’s not that the plot isn’t interesting by itself: a setting where people can literally control elements will probably be pretty entertaining regardless of the characters featured in it. But “Avatar” puts engaging, nuanced protagonists and antagonists in the spotlight, which truly sets it apart from the shows that have a strong premise but ultimately uninteresting characters. Every character struggles with their own sense of right and wrong over the course of their individual journeys, which leads to a lot more moral contemplation than you would expect from a show rated TV-Y7.
Additionally, I was really struck by the variety among the characters, even within a show where Asian ethnology is the dominant influence. For example, the Water Tribe is heavily based on Inuit culture, which is reflected in the wardrobes and darker skin tones of central characters like Katara and Sokka. There’s also a tough-as-nails female character who perfectly showcases what it means to not be hindered by a physical disability. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a “kids’ show” that isn’t afraid to put such blatantly diverse characters front and center.
If, like me, you’ve been waiting for an excuse to watch (or rewatch) this classic series, now is absolutely the best time to do so. It has been a joy to watch the “Avatar” fandom spring to life once more – a combination of old and new devotees that finally have a reason to sing endless praises about this show to anyone willing to listen. While “Avatar” was initially just another show to cross off my “to watch” checklist during quarantine, I could barely bring myself to start the final episode and say goodbye to the characters and world of which I had grown so fond. The finale is epic and deeply rewarding, though, so I don’t regret it one bit; and I highly doubt you would regret giving this masterpiece of an animated series a chance, either.