For the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about the next few episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender on my playlist, and failing miserably. Have I reached the limits of what I can say about this show?
Yes and no. In fact, I want to take a conscientious break from the episode retrospectives for a while to do a one-off piece on something that continues to perplex me, and which I’ve found very little written up on. Just how is it that Avatar became so popular and so critically acclaimed in its heyday, and yet seemed to leave such an insignificant mark on the animation landscape as a whole? Inversely, what did its spiritual successors, namely Adventure Time, do so right that made them the most influential cartoons in the last decade that the show’s actual successor The Legend of Korra did not? Was there something intrinsically flawed about Avatar that prevented it from having a more lasting influence? How much is M. Night Shyamalan’s travesty of an adaptation really to blame for Avatar‘s lack of mainstream acceptance? Is Avatar simply the Elvis Presley to Adventure Time‘s Beatles, the Pixies to Adventure Time‘s Nirvana*? Were creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko too self-consciously revolutionary for their own good (an impression reinforced by numerous interviews in which the two postulate that Avatar was intended as an antidote to the sitcom model that dominated the television animation circles that worked in, from King of the Hill to Family Guy)? Or was Avatar always destined for cult status no matter what?
I have no idea. But I’d like to do a post exploring a few theories of my own. I’m letting you all know because: 1) I’ve already been shitty for not updating in the past couple of weeks; and 2) I’m sure some folks have theories of their own–or maybe even some disagreements–and would want to throw in their two cents.
This will be my focus for the next couple of weeks, and then the retrospectives will continue like normal. For now, though, what exactly is your take on what I’ve dubbed “the Avatar Problem?”
*It’s generally acknowledged by everyone, including Kurt Cobain, that Nirvana adapted the soft/loud dynamicity of the Pixies, substituting the absurdity, the humor, and “hipper-than-thou” attitude with a more basic, more accessible, and more emotional approach (though no less melodic). Between Avatar and Adventure Time, the same kind of trade-off occurs, but almost in reverse: the expansive world building fantasy aspect is retained, but instead of the strict adherence of Avatar to a specific worldview and art style (i.e. Asian- and anime-inspired), the rules, style, and worldview of Adventure Time are borderline random, yet the show is smart enough to make this a key source of its humor and excitement, and the writing, the characters and performances are strong enough to make it entertaining.