I have a very peculiar taste when it comes to television. You won’t see me catching up on the latest Riverdale or binge-watching The Office. I pass the teen drama aisle, skip the usual laugh-and-chuckle, feet-on-the-couch sitcom, and maybe linger on the pretty cover of a new superhero series before moving on. I’m either on the edge of my seat sobbing over a dog on Game of Thrones or sitting in the dark contemplating my existence in Westworld. However, there is a third option.
Before the era of Netflix, before era of endless binge-watching until 5AM in the morning, I would sprint back home from the bus stop every day, fling my backpack over the couch, and replay the VCR recording of my favorite TV show, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
To break a few misconceptions: the movie adaption does not exist. We do not speak of it. The crime of turning such a beloved animated series into a dull and offensive live-action hogwash has left a lasting stain on the reputation and ingenuity of the original creation. While Avatar: The Last Airbender (which I will refer to as ATLA from now on) is a Nickelodeon show (first aired in 2004), it is nothing, nothing, like any of the programs you’d expect from the same network that gave us Spongebob, Rugrats, and the very questionable The Fairly Odd Parents. ATLA is an unparalleled, sadly underrated fantasy series. Initially targeted towards children, it resonates with a much wider audience and, in my humble opinion, sits alongside classics such as Harry Potter and Narnia.
I re-watched the series again recently, and other than a few filler episodes in Season One and a handful of cheesy scenes (which are, frankly, one the show’s most endearing aspects), ATLA is still as brilliant, enjoyable, and meaningful as ever.
ATLA follows a happy-go-lucky 12-year old monk named Aang on his quest to manipulate, or “bend,” the four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. He must defeat the Fire Nation and bring balance to the four nations, with the help of his friends, spiritual beings, past lives, animal companions, and the adventures he encounters along the way. The immersive world-building takes us to a universe inspired by and based on various Asian cultures, combining Chinese martial arts with the magic of elemental bending, Eastern philosophies with ancient mythologies, and
Japanese anime-inspired art style with uniquely “Avatar” characteristics. The show respects its source materials and integrates them into an original and engaging world, proving that it is, indeed, possible to fuse non-Western cultures and our modern understanding of fantasy without attracting a horde of offended netizens.
There is a reason why after all these years, I still come back to this show. I enjoyed it as a kid, but I cherish it even more as an adult, if that’s even possible. Looking back, I realized how much ALTA respects its targeted demographic. The show has its goofy moments; the characters have their moments of fun, forgiving stupidity, and teenage angst. No one is given the backseat, and through the span of three seasons, we delve into each character’s fleshed-out personality and backstory, neither of which ever seem out-of-touch with reality or diverge from the main plot. Most importantly, each character’s conflict and motivation are thoroughly explored: we feel for Aang’s internal strife as a kid who just wants to be a normal 12-year old, but is, instead, burdened with the responsibility of saving the world. ATLA takes deliberate steps to make sure that we as the audience care for the characters, and not just the protagonists either. Arguably, ATLA has produced one of the greatest redemption arcs in television, possibly even cinematic, history, turning its front cover villain into one of the series’ most endearing characters. It’s hard to forgive someone who’s done so many wrongs, but ATLA does such an exhaustive and introspective job at recognizing character flaws, internal conflict, self-awareness, self-acceptance, and recovery. It treats its characters as, well, people, and we can’t help but fall helplessly in love with them.
As cheesy as it sounds, watching ATLA as a toothless elementary schooler influenced the way I look at the world, its people, its philosophies. The show never takes a step back, never assumes that its audience is too childish to understand the mature topics that it handles with so much grace and care. It tackles war, genocide, sexism, classism, brainwashing, propaganda, and discrimination, just to name a few. While the show never explicitly mentions these topics, the seamless integration of these issues into the immersive world of Avatar reflects understanding, compassion, and world-consciousness without hitting its audience over the head with sappy preachiness. ATLA’s adherence to Eastern philosophy, which emphasizes a world of balance and harmony, provides a strict moral compass that the world of Avatar and its characters revolve around. Sometimes, you forget that it’s a kid’s show, but you never feel that the content is overly mature or silly for its audience – it finds a soft spot in-between. And many years later, the same heartfelt and sincere feeling will leave you smiling from head to toe.
If you haven’t yet seen the show because you think it’s “for kids” or whatever, I urge you to think twice. Avatar: The Last Airbender deserves to be exalted as a fantasy classic alongside Harry Potter, Narnia, and The Hobbit. It is one of those series that leaves a child bouncing and beaming, wishing that they could live with the magic for years to come.