About two years ago, my trusty, all-knowing Netflix brought a show to my attention – Avatar: The Last Airbender. While I’m not one to typically shy away from any type of television, I was at first hesitant to give this seemingly kid-targeted animated series a chance. Little did I know, I would wind up watching all three seasons of the series in just under a month and The Last Airbender would find a place in my – no joke – top 5 favorite TV shows of all time.
While it wasn’t an immediate hit for me – the first season is a little slow to start and far more childish than the rest of the series – the remaining two seasons, or “Books,” are simply fantastic television. The show consistently focuses on far more mature subjects than typically approached by most animated series and explores fate, spirituality, death, war and remaining true to your ideals, even in the face of adversity from those around you.
The premise of TLA is also uniquely engaging. Borrowing heavily from buddhism and hinduism, Avatar paints a world of wonder and mysticism in which select individuals are born with hidden potentials to “bend,” or manipulate one of the four elements around them. Your ability to bend is based somewhat on your genealogy – i.e. benders often produce benders – as well as the nation from which you hail, be it the Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, Air Nomads or Water Tribes. The Avatar, who is the spirit of the planet in human form, has the ability to bend all four elements and is meant to maintain balance between these four nations by mastering each bending discipline. Whenever the Avatar dies, the spirit is reincarnated into a human in the next nation in the cycle. (Water – Earth – Fire – Air – Water – etc.) In a world in which exploring religion and spirituality on television is often considered taboo or controversial, especially in children’s programming, The Last Airbender offers a breath of fresh air by not only touching on these topics, but making them a focal point of the story.
But it isn’t all serious, and that’s where one of The Last Airbender’s greatest strengths lie. The show not only tells an engaging and oftentimes dark story, but somehow expertly manages to weave humor throughout. Even during the bleakest moments, I found myself laughing and, at the same time, amazed that the writers had managed to add some levity to the situation at hand.
No matter how good the writing or premise, however, a great work of entertainment media is nothing without believable, relatable and entertaining characters. Across three seasons, the show managed to spin a tale encompassing at least a dozen series regulars that I found myself loving, hating and rooting for throughout the show’s 61 episode run.
Last, and certainly not least, is TLA’s art direction and animation. Each of the four elemental disciplines mimics a separate form of martial arts – Earthbending is based on Hun Gar style of Kung Fu, Firebending on Northern Shaolin style, Waterbending on Tai’Chi, and Airbending on Ba Gua – and the writers consistently find clever ways for the characters to utilize their bending to create fantastic action sequences. Through the limits of their surroundings, bending doesn’t feel like a superpower, but as an extra tool to reach a goal. In fact, there are many times throughout the series in which non-benders are able to best those with the ability to bend, and keeps these characters from feeling overpowered or invulnerable from harm. In the sequel series this is further explored, with non-benders focusing more on the development of science and technology to keep them on equal footing with benders.
As you can probably tell, I honestly cannot recommend this series enough. My points here lead directly into a post I will write at some point regarding the aforementioned sequel-series, The Legend of Korra, which recently wrapped up the first half of its first season. While Korra is a fantastic show that stands well on its own (and is significantly more mature than its predecessor), prior knowledge of the Avatar universe and the tale told in The Last Airbender is necessary to fully appreciate the new story in its entirety. So, I implore you, add TLA to your queue and give this show a chance – I promise you won’t be disappointed.