Avatar: The Last Airbender, more than any other show, earned my respect and then some. I felt too old for this show when it debuted in 2005 (I was 14). I considered watching it, but ultimately passed on it as I felt manipulating Earth/Fire/Air/Water couldn’t be done better than Captain Planet and I was getting a too old for cartoons. Though she practically had to force me to, my sister got me to watch a few episodes and I was soon hooked.
The premise is that in this world, a certain minority of people called benders can “bend” one of the four elements. Benders of one type tend to live together (along with non-benders) and hence the four nations called the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. However, the Avatar is a special individual capable of bending all four of the elements. The show begins in the middle of a war that has waged for 100 years, in which the fire nation has tried to expand their boarders. Many had hoped that the Avatar would use his power to stop the Fire Nation but near the beginning of the war, he disappeared and has not been seen since.
Avatar is one of the few TV shows that was clearly pitched and written for a set number of seasons (in this case 3) rather than being padded out until its cancellation is announced. The result is that the plot is flawlessly tied up in a neat bow and the show does not overstay its welcome, create huge plot holes, or have lapses in quality. Above all else, the ending isn’t a disappointment like with Lost and Battlestar Galactica.
The fantasy world of Avatar is really quite imaginative but even more importantly, detailed. Clearly a lot of thought went into the history of the world, the politics and culture of the individual nations, and even the geography. It’s one of those few worlds that rich enough to live in. I actually can’t think of another TV show that even comes close to such a diverse fantasy setting.
Avatar has an incredibly strong cast of characters and they are very well developed. All of them have interesting backstories that are revealed throughout the show and as the plot progresses, the characters complete realistic and compelling arcs. Even the villains have believable motivations and never feel like they’re evil just because someone has to be.
The show also deals with surprisingly mature themes given its primary audience. Without ever being monotonous or preachy, the show contains subtle political and social commentary. It also deals with more abstract themes such as duality, especially between good and evil, as well as destiny and free will. These themes are masterfully integrated into the plot and characters and really add to the show.
The series is not perfect however. In some cases, my instincts about being too old for the show were correct. The humor occasionally feels juvenile (though never cringe worthy) and certain parts of the plot feel like they should be darker but were softened up for the kids. Also, the first season (and especially the first episode) is not quite as good as the rest of the show. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get a few episodes in before disregarding the series because it would be easy to conclude the show is not that good from the first episode or two. These flaws are very minor and the biggest issue you’re likely to face is being a bit too proud to watch a “children’s show”.
It took a long time before I was willing to admit this, but Avatar is probably my favorite TV show ever. The setting is amazing, the characters are compelling, and the plot is moving, but most importantly, everything in the show fits together perfectly. A lot of love went into this series and it really shows. Avatar is currently (8/29/2011) available for steaming on Netflix and I recommend it to everyone.