A touchstone kids cartoon of the 21st century, the series blends comedy and action better than most adult shows
Why binge Avatar: The Last Airbender?
Chances are that as an entertainment consumer, you either fall into one of two categories when it comes to this animated show; either you’ve never even heard of it at all, or you’ve seen the abysmal life-action movie adaptation made by M Night Shyamalan in 2010, universally regarded as one of the worst films in his long career of turkeys and currently rated as 6% on RottenTomatoes. Which is why the trickiest thing about getting wary viewers to give Avatar a go is simply convincing them just to actually start watching.
It’s not the only challenge, after all this is a Nickelodeon cartoon, pitched at and made for children to consume. But anyone who gives Avatar: The Last Airbender a chance cannot but be utterly charmed and thrilled by what is one of the most exciting and rewarding adventure stories made on TV in the 21st century.
The story takes place in a fictional world divided between four warring geo-political groups, the Water Tribe, the Air Nomads, the Earth Kingdom, and the Fire Nation. Within each are men and women, nominally known as ‘benders’ (no laughing down the back), who are able to control the element of the place they are from. In order to keep these powers in check, the Avatar, a sole person imbued with the power of all four elements, travels around, keeping the peace, reincarnated each time he or she dies into a new one in a never ending and never changing succession of the four groups. But when the Fire Nation expands and seeks to conquer the world, the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang, disappears, launching the most fun show about genocide you’re ever likely to watch with your kids.
How long will it take to binge?
It’s an easy binge, considering each episode runs for roughly 20 minutes apiece. Despite the show being only 61 episodes across three seasons, the story arcs it covers are engaging, profound, and moving. It takes just more than one full day to watch the show, meaning a reasonable binge will have you dedicate about three weeks, in which a tale of duty, loss, love, friendship, and cabbages will have you gripped more than you ever would have expected a kids cartoon could.
Where can you find it?
The show is also known as The Legend of Aang in the UK, where it airs every night on Nicktoons on a number of digital television platforms. The entire series used to be available on Irish Netflix, but has since been dropped, despite winning a Primetime Emmy and a Peabody Award in its time. The entire boxset will set you back €15, which seems to be much cheaper than second-hand copies on eBay.
Any hurdles to overcome?
Attitudinal, mostly. While we are going through a golden age of scripted television, there is a far less aware audience of viewers willing to expand their horizons to what’s going on in the animated world, particularly when it comes to kids TV. There have been a number of breakout shows that have crossed that divide, with Cartoon Network understanding better than anyone else how it can be done (see: Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Gravity Falls). So the biggest problem might just be finding a comfy place in the closet from which to binge a show of which one of its major claims to fame was receiving high ratings outside its 6-to-11-year-olds demographic.
Aside from that, there’s no denying that the first four episodes won’t go particularly far in convincing cautious and casual viewers to carry on. The opening one, 20 minutes of world building, is tonally completely different from the finale, which might be one of the most exciting episodes of television you’re ever likely to watch. Persevere, it is worth it.
Who steals the show?
The most famous person in the cast is Mae Whitman, best known as the character who pops up in everything, from Parenthood to Arrested Development, where she plays George Michael’s girlfriend Ann Veal/Her? – although Mark Hamill does pop up every now and again. The truth is, while the characters and voice actors all work together to brilliantly realise the story, there’s no single stand out one. If anything, it’s not a who but a what that steals the show – the gorgeous animation style.
The show borrows extensively from East Asian art and classical representations of the four elements, incorporating philosophy and incredible warmth into the show. It is at times stunning to behold, but cuts through the seriousness with comic elements taken straight from the anime playbook. And it’s ably backed by action scenes so well conceived that they execute the show’s premise to the finest possible outcome.
A scene to sample:
A prime example of the brilliant choreography of the show’s action sequences. In this episode, from the third season, Aang is learning to firebend and coming up against a school bully...
What to follow it up with?
Not the movie, anyway.
The series got a spin-off show in the shape of The Legend of Korra, a slightly more mature three-season show that builds on everything Avatar did and expands the universe in clever ways – well worth seeking out. Apart from that, consider Avatar: The Last Airbender as an introduction to the kids TV channels you’ve been ignoring but paying for; you’ll be surprised how good some of the stuff on there actually is.