I am NOT the biggest fan of Avatar: the Last Airbender.
I realize this introduction seems odd—not to mention hypocritical—coming from a site completely devoted to reviewing Avatar set up by a guy who devoted more than an unreasonable amount of his precious youth to doing said reviews. However, I believe that if I didn’t mention this at the very start, confused people would message me as to why I’m constantly bitching about this show I allegedly love so much.
Well, I do love Avatar: the Last Airbender. It’s unquestionably one of the most positive and innovative things to emerge from the fickle medium known as American children’s animated programming. It was definitely the first animated show to give the label “anime-inspired” a good name. As much as the show innovated in its creative use of Eastern mythology and philosophy and continuity, creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko managed to stay grounded enough to be as emotionally resonant and entertaining as all the best stories do. That Avatar aired in a time when programming was either extremely cynical or just flat-out stupid is nothing short of a miracle—and a miracle which has not gone unnoticed, as the growing number of Avatar fans will let you know. In short, Avatar: the Last Airbender is a rightfully acknowledged cultural phenomenon.
A few years ago, I would not be able to write a single sentence, let alone a paragraph, of such abashed praise for this show. Truth is, it took me a long, long time to really appreciate and love Avatar, and even now I can’t discuss the show without addressing the things about it I don’t like. It’s always been a sort of love-hate relationship: the more I love it, the more it disappoints me. This duality of acceptance has had me debating for all these years whether Avatar was even worth all the trouble of rewatching every few months in hopes that it would ever get better. Luckily, it did, but only when I finally came to terms with the fact that its flaws would always be there, and there was nothing to do but report them.
I mean, I’d probably be more forgiving of Avatar‘s flaws if they weren’t so blatantly obvious. A lot of great works are able to compensate their obvious (or not so obvious) weaknesses with their wonderful strengths. So who cares if the characters of Star Wars are shallower than Erie? We understand them enough and care enough for their adventures to be completely exhilarating. So what if the entire population of (early) The Simpsons were idiots? Somehow the creators made that an asset by mutating the show into a broad satire of American life. Bob Dylan’s singing voice sucks; he writes fascinating and emotional lyrics to make up for that. With Avatar, you don’t get that yin-yang effect (ironic for a show that derives so much influence from Eastern ideals).
It will be much easier to explain my views on Avatar‘s dubious quality in the actual reviews of each individual episode, but to give you a general idea, I’ll say this: being conceived and produced strictly as a kids’ show was all but detrimental to the show’s overall success. At times, it felt like DiMartino and Konietzko were caving in to the demands and expectations of the Nickelodeon Studio that funded and aired the show. The two will gladly tell you that there was little executive interference in the production of Avatar, and while I believe them for the most part, it’s pretty fishy that the worst of Avatar‘s episodes play exactly like the worst kind of shluck you’d normally find on any kids’ programming channel, Nickelodeon included.
And there’s the main flaw that compromised my initial reaction to Avatar: at it’s worst, it was just another stupid kids’ show with the same idiotic storylines, forced morals, and brainless gags that characterizes these shows.
At it’s best, though, Avatar dismissed such associations and was defiantly it’s own creation, and it’s for those thankfully numerous episodes that Avatar will and should be remembered and highly regarded for. Even the less-than-stellar episodes still display the genius that DiMartino, Konietzko and company were able to generate from such an outlandishly elaborate premise. As with the best mythologies, Avatar created a whole new world from scratch in order to abandon many of the more distracting elements of real life and fill it with true emotion and values to be reaffirmed.
Actually, before we get to the actual reviews, I should probably state the BIGGEST problem I personally have always had with the series and that has always colored my judgment: despite it being mostly his story, I never truly did care that much for Aang. Yes, the burden placed upon him is great, especially for a twelve-year-old, and his evolution from mischievious prankster to savior of humanity is a wonder to behold (watch an episode from season one, two, and three, and you’ll find yourself with three entirely different Aangs!). But, I don’t know. Overall, Aang’s conflict just never really resonated too much with me. Every once in a while there would be an individual episode (like “The Deserter” or “Crossroads of Destiny”) that prompts me to care, but unfortunately, thoese episodes were too few in between. Maybe DiMartino and Konietzko didn’t want to be too hard on their poor hero, and while that’s entirely understandable, it doesn’t always make for compelling storytelling.
On the other hand, Zuko’s story was always effective, even in the first season. Unlike Aang—and let’s not kid ourselves here: even when detoured by powerful twists like the one in “The Crossroads of Destiny,” we all knew he was doomed to succeed from the start—Zuko was a total wild card whose actions were always surprising, his motivation never clear, and his impact on the story always right on the money. His transformation is even more powerful than Aang’s, as he grows from a terribly confused “villain” trying to capture Aang for his father, to helping Aang bring peace to the world. Because Zuko’s story honestly stemmed from a trouble and complex emotionality, he created the most dramatic weight of the series. It helped immensely, too, that he was accompanied by the wise, and very entertaining Uncle Iroh, who served constantly as a foil, a voice of reason, and, ultimately, a father figure. The depth of their relationship remains the sole constant within the series. Their side of the story could always bring life to episodes that always contained lackluster Aang stories—a fact made even more apparently when they didn’t appear in an episode at all (“The Great Divide” immediately comes to mind).
So consider this introduction a disclaimer of sorts: if I ever become too bitchy and too critical of certain aspects of the show, you can always be certain that it stems from the main problems I’ve discussed above. Now that I’ve successfully rid myself of any stigma of a rabid fan—besides, who wants to read nothing but gushing praise in critical reviews?–let’s move on to the show!
– Marshall Turner