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Why Avatar: The Last Airbender is One of the Greatest TV Shows Ever Made

In Fantasy, Television on June 22, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Some time ago, I made a go of watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. I was in Japan at the time, and watching more anime than was probably good for me. The only Avatar episodes I could find, though, were in English. I was displeased- I didn’t want a dubbed version of Avatar. I wanted it in the original Japanese, so I could maybe actually learn something from it. I looked and looked and couldn’t find any non-dubbed versions of Avatar. It was all in English. I watched Full Metal Alchemist instead.

Later on, much to my chagrin and humiliation, I found out that was because Avatar is, in fact, an American cartoon and was recorded in English.

Earlier this month I finally watched the last episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I loved it. I know that the show has been off the air since 2008 and I’m very late to the party about this, but whatever. I feel the need to enthusiastically yell at the Internet about why I enjoyed it so much. If I had to only briefly summarize why I enjoyed it so much, I’d say that Avatar does not traffic in cliches, and is utterly original. In more detail, though:

Avatar nicely demonstrates that “fantasy” truly is limitless.

There is a depressing sameness to fantasy novels/movies/shows/games/etc. If you go to bookstore a peruse the sci-fi/fantasy aisle, you’ll most of the fantastical novels are all about medieval psuedo-Europe. Oftentimes, there are magical swords, wizards, and elves or dwarves or whatever. You know. Tolkien stuff. That stuff is fine, but it’s been played out. The very word “fantasy” implies that a book or show could be about any given thing. It could be about talking ducks or sentient rocks. It could be about a very excitable trees or pan-dimensional toasters. Anything. It’s a fantasy. The writers could go anywhere. Instead, the genre just comes back to the same magic sword stuff, and tosses some elves in there. As much as I enjoyed, for example Dragon Age, I was highly disappointed that it just recycled fantasy conventions. It was great- but it all felt a little stale. Fantasy, lots of creators seem to think, means emulating Tolkien.

Avatar gleefully says “fuck that.” It is a fantasy show, yes, but it’s a fantasy show that’s not about elf-y/dwarf-y stuff. Instead, it’s about Kung Fu. Except the Kung Fu is on fire and there are also people who can make tidal waves by using Tai Chi. One of the principal characters is a six-legged flying bison, because, well, why the hell not? Of course bison can fly. This is a fantasy world and bison can just do that. There are giant lion turtles the size of islands, multi-winged penguins, and immense badger moles who can teach you how to punch mountains. Avatar is a fantasy in that you get the impression that the creators actually, you know fantasized. It is like you are seeing someone’s immensely creative daydream on screen, rather than any kind of adherence to conventions.

What’s more, the show dispenses with both the middle ages and with pseudo-Europe. The technology level of the show seems to be around the late mid 1800s- an industrial revolution has certainly started, but it’s not so widespread that the world is completely mechanized. There are things like trains, ironclad ships, zepplins, and tanks, though they exist alongside with less developed setting elements as well.

The setting evokes Asia more than anything else, though two of the principal characters come from a culture that strongly resembles that of Native Americans. Avatar does for Asian and Native American society what fantasy has done for Europe over and over again- it stylizes it and showcases it as something adventurous and inspiring. What’s more, the Asiatic elements are not just window dressing or some kind of exotic other intruding upon a European setting- instead, the Asian and Native American elements are the setting.

(By the way- I think it’s immensely fantastic that the Avatar showcases nonwhite characters. I don’t ever want to see the live action adaptation of the show, but after watching it I can definitely understand the disappointment of fans who saw characters they loved get whitewashed. The fantasy genre has done a lot to make pseudo-Europe seem kind of badass. And, that’s fine. That’s good. Avatar, though, gave the same kind of wide-eyed fantastical treatment to other cultures, and the world’s a richer place for it. Speaking of which…)

Kung Fu!

Lots of movies and TV shows have terrible fights scenes. I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with martial arts. I took fencing and Aikido in college, and learned how to handle a bokken (i.e., a wooden katana) passably well. I spent about a year, once, getting the crap beaten out of me via Pikiti-Tirisia Kali, a Filipino martial art. While I’m by no means a skilled fighter-guy, I know enough to be sort of snobbish about movie fights, and to know how actual humans would actually move if they had swords and stuff.

Anyhow, most fighting scenes in movies and TV are bollocks. Either because the parties concerned don’t know what they’re doing, or because the choreographers just want to make it look cool. I love The Princess Bride as much as any nostalgia-addled nerd, but nothing in that movie resembles actual fencing. Sure, it’s fun, it’s great, it’s a classic but… wow. You don’t actually use a rapier like that. Anyway…

Avatar‘s fighting scenes are not crap. In fact, they’re really, really good. The characters move in very natural ways, and even though the fights often involve boulders and fireballs, all of the action seems like it’s the result of actual humans moving around. It’s free of unrealistic action that pervades other media, and it certainly doesn’t have anything like this. My (limited) experience with martial arts made me enjoy the show’s fight scenes more, not less, and that’s a very, very rare thing in a TV show.

It’s funny

Weirdly, genre entertainments and comedy don’t really go together well. There are very few science fiction comedies (the Back to the Future series is the only one that springs to mind) and most fantasy epics such as The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones stick to the serious side of things. Avatar, however, actually allows for pratfalls, puns, jokes, etc. And not only that, but it’s pretty good at all of those things. The show is really, really good at comedy, and that only adds to its charms rather than diminishing the epic-ness of the proceedings. The recent season of Game of Thrones actually had a few laughs, but for the most part genre fiction (perhaps because it’s historically been starved of respect) tends to take itself pretty seriously. Avatar, however, proves that you can have a huge, sprawling (and yes, “epic” as well) fantasy and still have jokes. Humor does not detract from the emotional depth of a given piece of fiction. It enhances it. On a related note…

It very skillfully plays with genre

Lots of shows have one-off genre episodes- think Buffy‘s musical episode. Avatar is no exception.¬†One episode of Avatar (“Zuko Alone”) is essentially a spaghetti western. There’s another that’s very similar to an 80s teen comedy. In yet another, the main characters encounter a bunch of Ken Kesey-esque hippies, and at one point there’s a haiku rap battle. The sampling of genre elements, though, does not compromise the integrity of the show. There’s not any blatant fourth wall breaking or cutesy winking at the camera. Instead, Avatar does episodes wherein it tackles given genres on it’s own terms. The aforementioned spaghetti western episode isn’t done as a joke or a parody. Instead, it’s a really, really good half hour about one of the characters feeling lost, alone, and uncertain of his place in the world. Doing up his experience as a drifting, Eastwood-esque vagabond doesn’t cheapen his character development. Instead, the show’s creators use the spaghetti western genre because it works for what the character is going through. The show samples different kinds of genres, and it often does so in a very funny way, but it does not do that to parody those genres. Instead, Avatar knows that those genres have something to offer the characters and the story, and the conventions of those modes of storytelling are appropriate for the moment.


Korra is how you do a sequel.

Yeah, I’ve started watching Korra. It’s fantastic, and I’m very, very pleased that it’s highly different from its predecessor. Avatar looked like it happened in the 1850s or 60s. Korra, seventy years later, really does look like it happens in the 1920s or 30s. Time has passed, the world is different, and the conflicts in Korra are different from those in Avatar. I kind of want a Fire Ferrets jersey.

I hope the team who does these shows keeps with it. I hope they make a sequel to Korra set in the equivalent to the modern day, and a sequel to that set in a cyberpunk-ish future. I hope Nickelodeon gives them gigantic piles of money with which to make television, and that they stay consistently brilliant. I feel really silly, now, about waiting so long to watch this thing. I have been utterly, totally, and completely won over. And I’m not kidding about that Fire Ferrets jersey. Someone please make that happen.

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