Avatar: The Last Airbender.
I mean, what can I say about this show that hasn’t been said by better and smarter people than more. This show changed the landscape of American cartoons and didn’t even know it was doing it. This show was hands down the best show airing during it’s time. Not the best kid’s show, not the best animated series, but the overall best show airing on (western) tv of it’s time.
The plot, the storytelling, the characters, their emotional arcs, the heroes, the anti heroes, the villains were all executed pretty near flawlessly. The only fault I can think the show had was the lack of LGBT+ representation, but then Legend of Korra takes care of that! No episode feels like a filler even the filler episodes, which they did that, but even in those episodes the character development was magnificent. At no point does the plot feel lost within it’s own story, and as it developed as they created a character that was all about hope, peace, redemption, and they realised they could just have them kill the bad guy at the end, they fixed it by expanding the story and backstory of the abilities of bending.
I’m pretty sure everyone already knows what Avatar is, but in case you don’t. It’s set in a fantasy world based on several Asian cultures in which we have four civilisations: The Fire Nation, The Air Nomads, The Water Tribes, The Earth Kingdom and each nation, all with their own distinct cultures have individual who can manipulate said elements. Within these four nations each generation… a slayer is born. Not really, but pretty much the same thing. Each generation an Avatar is born, or reborn, as it’s a cycle of reincarnation. The Avatar can manipulate all four elements. The Avatar goes through cycles starting with Fire-Air-Water-Earth.
A hundred years ago the Fire Nation got a little bit of a ego and decided that they’d take over the world (here’s where I wanted to link a clip of The Mummy Returns but the internet let me down) and everyone thought the Avatar would be the one to save them.
Unfortunately, he was twelve, scared, and stuck in ice. Until two kids from the Southern Water Tribe find him.
Aang, an Airbender, is our hero, but we don’t just follow his growth into becoming and accepting his position as the Avatar, we follow everyone around him. We follow Katara, a novice Waterbender and one of the youngest feminists that has portrayed on screen, and her brother Sokka, a non-bender and our comic relief grow and become more than Aang’s sidekicks on his story. They each get their own emotionally fulfilling and complex arcs. We watch them meet Toph, a young blind Earthbender, who is too amazing beyond words and who becomes even more amazing beyond words. We see this kids not only master their skill sets, but become extremely important figures as they expand upon what we thought we knew. Yes, including Sokka, who even though he’s not a Bender doesn’t mean he’s not without value and skills of his own.
We also have some of the layered anti-heroes and villains in Zuko, Azula (his sister), Iroh (their uncle), and Azula’s friends, Mai and Ty Lee. First, before I get into Zuko, I have to point out how amazing it is that the show had Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee, three young girls be their most successful antagonists to Team Avatar for pretty much two of three seasons of the show. Also their development is some of the best, especially Azula. Very rarely do we get to have female character with the depth and complexities Azula has. Now, for Zuko, he’s an equally important and complicated character. They both battle with the need to have their father’s esteem and respect. There has been many a meme about Zuko’s hunt for honor. But unlike Azula’s whose main mentor has been their frankly megalomaniacal father, Zuko’s mentor is their Uncle Iroh. A gentle but powerful man who sees the dangers and flaws within the Fire Nation he so proudly fought for. A lot of Zuko’s arc is about self doubt and self acceptance, similar to Aang’s, about the kind of men they want to be.
And about saving the world.
But as important as that is: after all that’s the big goal, the story of Avatar shines because how much care they took developing their characters and their relationships. It makes you root for them, be mad at them, care about them, think about them. How much care it took in it’s production, truly learning about the Asian cultures they would incorporate into the world they built. It didn’t hurt the animation was beautiful either, but it’s really the balance it struck in it’s storytelling and production that makes it such a standout.
Honestly, I’m not sure what why I didn’t pick it as my favourite show after writing this. Maybe in alternate universe I did.
Oh and it’s sequel Avatar: The Legend of Korra is also worth a look. The storytelling isn’t as tight in my honest option but Korra’s journey is just as valid and important as Aang’s, dealing with even more of emotional, physical, and spiritual struggles.