The “Avatar” Oddity and my Expectations for this Site
When I watched “Winter Solstice,” a friend of mine happened to catch the end of the episode. Having never watched Avatar: the Last Airbender at all, he was greatly perplexed. Of all the things he didn’t get, he didn’t understand the purpose of Momo. No purpose really, I said, but a cool animal companion. But why bring him on such a dangerous mission, my friend asked. Hmm…well, if he wasn’t there, then the kids would have died in the tower, I answered. Then he wanted to know about Appa, and how, if all Air creatures were killed, he survived. The instant I tried to explain the thing about the iceberg, he just stopped listening.
By now, you’ve probably guessed (correctly) that my friend can be a narrow-minded asshole when it comes to things he doesn’t know anything about. That’s his problem. On the other hand, this did make me realize something I’d overlooked about Avatar for a very long time.
When you get right down to it, Avatar is an extremely odd show. I don’t mean odd just in its concept—which is so elaborate and mythical that it is truly a miracle that the show manages to hold together and compel—but in its execution, and I’m starting to believe that the latter is the reason Avatar isn’t as popular as it could have been. Don’t get me wrong: Avatar definitely has a strong fanbase and a depth that makes rewatches and analysis (such as on this site) possible. But then, I could give similar praise to the band Ween, a favorite group of mine who, despite their undeniable musical genius and brilliant sense of humor, haven’t been able to capture the attention of a truly mainstream audience since 1990. So where did Ween and Avatar go “wrong?”
I think the biggest audience killer for Avatar was the fact that it was “anime-inspired,” a term I’ve grown to hate over the years, not in the least bit because, when translated, it redundantly means “cartoon-inspired.” I don’t need to dwell on this, because it’s pretty obvious that anime has never had a good reputation in America for a variety of reasons. Most Americans association all anime with cartoon pornography, ultra violence, and/or super annoying franchises that only kids could tolerate (i.e. Pokemon). It has gotten better: Hayao Miyazaki has grown in popularity thanks to Disney and John Lasseter. But then you have the issue of anything “anime-inspired,” and even anime fans are divided here. Most “anime-inspired” shows tend to highlight only the most superficial aspects of true anime, forgetting to support it with a foundation of a strong vision and storytelling. Not all of these shows were bad per se (I liked the Teen Titans cartoon from a few years ago), but there was certainly something a little off about them. Avatar was the first American series that I know of to really use its anime influences in a personal and original way that, I hope, will finally bridge the gap between American and Japanese style cartoons for future shows to come.
Another factor that dampened expectations was that Avatar was being produced and released by, of all people, Nickelodeon. I’m sure many people were thinking, “Oh, great, now Nickelodeon’s going to make a fake anime, too? How could they sink this low?!” First of all, it’s not like anime was ever that popular to begin with (as I’ve mentioned above), and by the time Avatar came around, it wasn’t even “hip.” As far as Nickelodeon is concerned, Avatar was just about the best thing to happen to that network in a very long time. Everyone’s favorite childhood cartoons no longer existed (e.g. Rugrats, Hey Arnold, etc.), the few good shows were going stale (e.g. Spongebob Squarepants, Fairly Odd Parents), and then they cancelled their best show (Invader Zim). Avatar was a much needed breath of minty fresh air from Nickelodeon and I’m sure they know that. Hell, they somehow persuaded creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko to make a whole new series based on the Avatar mythology. Yep, there’ll be milking this cow as long as they can.
I guess you could even blame Avatar‘s limited acceptance on its status as a kids’ show. Being a kids’ show doesn’t automatically exempt something from gaining a wide audience, (I still remember a time when my entire family would get together and watch Spongebob Squarepants!), but with those first two strikes against you, it doesn’t really help.
And, of course, the most recent disaster was that M. Night Shyamalan adaptation abomination that more than likely lost the show any chance it possibly had for gaining a bigger audience. I’m definitely not going to dwell on this or else this rant would go on forever, so I’ll just say that watching that in a movie theater was one of the most painful, mind-numbingly excruciating experiences of my life; I could literally feel my soul draining from my body the entire time.
Does all this really matter? To a degree, yes, but then again, maybe it was those who needed Avatar that ultimately got it, even if that audience wasn’t Star Wars-sized, and even if that excludes my asshole of a friend. In the end, Avatar will always be a quality-made show that may or may not have been the victim of bad timing, and nothing more.
Speaking of bad timing, I should probably take the time to discuss what I really want with this site. It’s been up for almost a month now and has gotten a more than decent viewership, but I still haven’t gotten what I’m really aiming for: substantial, argumentative comments. I’m really hoping that at some point some Avatar fan(s) will come along, see these reviews and feel obligated to tell me how wrong (or how right, which is not as exciting) I am in my evaluation of these episodes. A good discussion is what I really want. Whether that will actually happen anytime soon or at all is uncertain. Still, it probably doesn’t help that I finally came to my senses and started a critical re-evaluation blog on Avatar over three years after it ended. That’s my fault. I guess I should have liked the show much earlier. Than again, if I did, I probably wouldn’t have a true perspective of my own as to why this show really matters, nor would I have been compelled to make a site explaining myself. Hmm…maybe it was supposed to be this way.
Only time will tell.