December 3, 2008 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | TV | December 3, 2008 |


In July of this year an awesome, short-lived TV show cascaded into a glorious finale. And it’s sad, not because this underrated gem had to end, but because that end was overlooked by most of Pajiba-land. And it’s such a shame, too, because I’m going to argue that “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is not only the best animated series of the last decade, but one of the best shows ever produced.

This might seem like dubious praise coming from a critic who readily admits to hating almost every television serial on the air. My dislike of TV extends beyond any specific gamut of shows past or present — the format itself seems to result in a fragmented narrative. Televised programs are often, by the nature of their production and broadcast, hampered as devices for storytelling. Shows rarely begin with a clear, totalizing arc — a beginning, exposition, and definitive conclusion; often they are half-formed ideas which take time to cohere or, due to popularity and/or a lack of overarching plot, they meander in the open-ended fashion of certain comic books or soap operas, the story merely functioning to perpetuate itself until someone in the process gets tired and pulls the plug. I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions, or even that shows can’t flourish in this vein, but I’ve always found this format to cause lower-quality narratives which teeter between good and weak episodes while having their overall life cut short or overextended by fickle consumerist demands. Many animes actually have a leg up in this regard.

In “Avatar” I found all the coherence, completeness, and symmetry of a good, closed-circuit narrative wrapped in the youthful vibrancy of a children’s cartoon. I don’t know if the creators were just insanely brilliant in their execution or if the fates aligned in all the right ways during production, but the writing in “Avatar” approaches perfection, at least in terms of an arc — the story begins, gathers momentum, expands, deepens, and then crests as if every second were already mapped. Not one of the series’ 61 episodes is wasted or used as filler; at no point does the show’s objective veer. Every season crescendos; every episode is measured; every sub-plot bears eventual fruit. If this sounds mechanical, it isn’t — rather, everyone behind the series understood the importance of purpose and direction. Even better, when that objective was achieved, the story ended (at the height of its popularity, no less). Good stories have to end in order to really be stories at all … it’s funny how often this is forgotten. We tend to crave more from settings and characters we love, to see the same emotional cycles and relationships play out again and again to our loving familiarity. But in order to deeply, honestly satisfy, a story needs to end.

The world in “Avatar” is a symbolic fantasy realm where humans co-exist with bizarre creatures and spirits. Human civilization is divided into four cultures corresponding to one of the four elements and seasons (Earth/Spring, Fire/Summer, Air/Autumn, and Water/Winter). In addition to taking their dominant cultural motif from a respective element, each culture possesses individuals who are able to “bend” or kinetically manipulate that element. The four nations live in nominal harmony. Every generation, one individual is born who can manipulate all four elements — the avatar, the most powerful bender in the world, who is reincarnated in a cycle among the nations and acts as a planetary guardian and a buffer between the spirit and material worlds. A century before the events of the show, the avaricious ruler of the Fire Nation launched an imperialistic war against the other nations under the guise of “sharing prosperity,” throwing the world into a hell of strife and imbalance. The present avatar dies early in the conflict, passing the torch to Aang (voice of Zach Eisen), a young Air Nomad. Years later, when Aang learns his identity and destiny, he flees, and a storm leaves him suspended in a block of ice near the South Pole. A hundred years pass, in which the Fire Nation’s war ravages the planet, completely eliminating the Air Nomads and all but a few remaining strongholds in the Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom.

“Avatar” begins when two siblings of the dwindling Southern Water Tribe, Katara (Mae Whitman) and Sokka (Jack DeSena), discover Aang and his Sky Bison trapped in the iceberg. Aang learns of the century-long world war which eliminated his people, leaving him the last remaining airbender. After some hesitation, he accepts his destiny to master all four elements and confront Ozai, the new Fire Lord, who is hell-bent on completing his grandfather’s conquest of the planet. As Aang, accompanied by Sokka and Katara, sets off to master the remaining elements and somehow end the war, they’re pursued by Zuko, Ozai’s son and the crown prince of the Fire Nation. Zuko (voiced by Dante Basco…Rufio!) emerges as a complex villain. Years earlier his father scorched half of his face off and banished him simply for speaking out of turn, events which are a constant source of both drive and shame for him throughout the series. Zuko relentlessly pursues Aang, hoping that by capturing the avatar he will regain his lost honor and the respect of his father. Zuko’s scarred face represents the internal turmoil of both his character and his heritage, which produced both the power-hungry imperialists who began the war and the true, honorable characteristics of a balanced Fire Nation. The latter is represented by Zuko’s uncle, Iroh (voice of Mako and Greg Bear), who serves as his mentor and guardian for much of the series. Iroh is a fat, jolly, and rather silly old man, an appearance which belies his actual sagacity and abilities as a warrior. Zuko, though nominally Aang’s nemesis for most of the show, turns out to be the most compelling character of the story, the one who undergoes the most dramatic changes as he realizes in what ways his destiny is tied to the avatar’s.

Each of the show’s three seasons, which consist neatly of twenty half-hour episodes, corresponds to the seasonal time, location, and element that Aang has to master - water, earth, and fire, respectively, before confronting the Fire Lord. Larger forces come to bear, while smaller characters and villains come and go, but each season stays true to its focus, and the entire series drives on to that final confrontation. The characters and their relationships ultimately become paramount - Aang in particular achieves a kind of perfection of balanced qualities, possessing the uncanny power and wisdom inherent to his station while maintaining the inexperience and fun-loving immaturity of his 12-years of age.

I particularly enjoyed the real-life inspirations which so obviously influenced the writers and artists behind “Avatar.” Much of the show obviously takes its cue from Eastern cultures and philosophy, particularly Sinic. Each elemental culture corresponds to a real, historic counterpart of Chinese, Tibetan, or Inuit traditions, and a few others, I’m sure. Most of the philosophical underpinnings of the show come directly from Buddhism, Taoism, and Yoga. For a host of decidedly American writers and producers to show this kind of reverence for Eastern civilization was gutsy; more importantly, it results in an ingenuous tone and setting both fantastical and vaguely familiar. But best of all are the action sequences — each method of elemental bending is represented by a real martial art, meaning that the already fluidly-animated fight scenes look realistic even as the characters hurl boulders, fireballs, and gusts of air or water at one another. Badass.

And really, balance was the key. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” strikes all the right balances — between humor and seriousness, entertainment and wisdom, spectacle and content. This is a show that kids should gobble up since, like many superhero capers, it casts adolescent angst, glee, and romance across supernatural theatrics. Adults shouldn’t be alienated since the youthful vibrancy always remains rooted in a deep, intricate story and impressive, underpinning morality, resulting in an end product as appealing as Harry Potter (and probably just as good!). The episodes range from heartrending (“Appa’s Lost Days”) to hilariously full-blown parody (“The Ember Island Players”). The show frequently utilizes juvenile humor, but never in a way that ultimately subverts the seriousness of the narrative — unlike, say, Joss Whedon, who positively bathes in self-amused irony. And the four-part finale is every bit as momentous as it should be, leaving the viewer with nothing short of full, satisfying closure.

I hate to finish by gushing, but so be it. Almost no other TV show has gotten me this excited, has engaged me visually, emotionally, and mentally at the same time, appealing both to my need to feel challenged and my instinct for youthful immediacy. These kinds of shows shouldn’t be that hard to come by, but unlike “Avatar: The Last Airbender” they rarely strike the balance so well, or so effortlessly. I wish I could convey just how accessible and sad and funny and exciting this show is, and how infinitesimal the outer labels of “children’s show” or “cartoon” seem after fully immersing yourself in the story. And I hate to end with a dumbass platitude, “You just have to see it for yourself.” But you do. You really, really do.


Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).

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The Best Show You Didn't See

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" / Phillip Stephens

TV | December 3, 2008 | Comments ()



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