October 25th, 2006

Team Avatar

Avatar? More Like Pat Benatar!

Back in April, when I was living with my relatives, my nine-year-old cousin was sort of obsessed with this cartoon called Avatar: The Last Airbender. You know, the kind of obsessed where you have to finish dinner and clean up before it comes on so you don't miss it, the kind of obsessed where you frantically hunt down a tape so you can record it if you're going to miss it. I thought it was a stupid little Nickelodeon cartoon like many other stupid cartoons nine-year-olds watch.

Then, in May, to my bewilderment, peri_peteia, who was over twice his age, came out as an Avatar fan. Now, I couldn't make sense of her "basic show in a nutshell," and the majority of her post was bitching about the fandom, which fervently ships twelve-year-olds. So I certainly didn't see any reason to watch the show. She continued to make Avatar posts after coming out, however, and sometimes I stopped in to see what all the fuss was about, even though I didn't know what the hell she was talking about.

Flash-forward four months to September, when all the Avatar talk from peri_peteia and her poodle hobviously finally gets me to sit down with my cousin and watch an episode of Avatar. Two episodes, actually. And I was terribly confused even though my little cousin tried to explain things to me. I found the show pretty entertaining, however, and there were some moments of absolute hilarity. I watched another new episode the next week, which also impressed me.

Then my dear hobviously made THIS EXCELLENT POST THAT YOU SHOULD ALL READ. No, honestly, if you have any interest in my opinion, please read that post, because, well, it's what made me finally check out the show hardcore. She pointed out that Nick was rerunning the series from the beginning, and it's one of the few times I was glad I live in the Pacific Time Zone, because I was able to DVR the first episode that day. You know how I don't like jumping into shows in the middle, even though this is like the third show I've done this with this year. I watched old episodes and new episodes simultaneously so I could participate in the POST-EPISODE SQUEE. I bought the DVDs. I downloaded and watched some episodes with peri_peteia via IM and some more with my little cousin, now ten. And then I rewatched the new episodes to put them in their proper context.


The basic premise of Avatar is laid out in the credits. One hundred years ago, the four nations lived in harmony. Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. The entire show is wrapped around the four elements and all the rich symbolism they inherently provide. So, harmony. Until the Fire Nation attacked, throwing the world out of balance. Now, certain members of the four nations are benders; they can manipulate their given element in creative ways. As an aside, each nation uses a distinct, appropriate style of martial arts in their bending.

The Avatar is the only being who can control all four elements. It undergoes cycles of reincarnation. One hundred years ago, the Avatar vanished, leaving the world defenseless against the Fire Nation. In the present day, Sokka and Katara, a brother and sister from the Water tribe, discover the new Avatar, an Airbender named Aang, who has been trapped in an iceberg the last hundred years. He's twelve. Now, it's up to Sokka and Katara to help Aang SAVE THE GODDAMN WORLD.

But wait, there's more. Because we also have Prince Zuko, banished from his home until he can capture the Avatar and restore his honor. With him is his Uncle Iroh, a former general in the Fire Nation army.

But wait, there's more! Let's not forget Appa, Aang's GIANT FLYING BISON, and Momo, their bat-lemur companion.

If this all sounds a bit silly and confusing, I don't blame you. I thought the same thing. But trust me here.

Man, maybe you should stop reading this and go read what etherealclarity, my recent convert, has to say. Go, I'll wait.

Here's the thing: there is not a single character in Avatar that I do not like. Hell, there's hardly a character that I do not love. Yes, some of the one-shot characters can be irritating, but the important ones? The ones that contribute to the story on a regular basis? LOVE. How many shows can you say that about? The good ones, I'll tell you that. Aang is, at his core, just a kid who wants to have fun, but he's struggling with the immense responsibility he has, and he has an enormous sense of honor and loyalty. Sokka, while he may seem like your standard comic relief character (and by "standard" I mean "top-notch" because he is HILARIOUS), can actually fend for himself despite not being a bender with his mighty boomerang and surprising ingenuity. Katara has lived her whole life isolated from other benders and, now that she is off an adventure, is finally allowed to grow as a person. Both Sokka and Katara have been affected by the war: their mother was killed by the Fire Nation, and their father is off fighting.

Zuko is ostensibly the villain, but he's not evil, despite being a member of the Fire Nation and son of the Fire Lord himself. In fact, over the course of the series, we begin to sympathize with him such that we fucking want him to catch the Avatar, which is just ludicrous! Iroh pretty much pwns the entire world with his deep love of tea, endless fount of wisdom, and unabiding affection for his nephew.

And those are only the major characters we meet in the first few episodes. I haven't even mentioned the DANGEROUS LADIES introduced in the second season and Toph, my blind, underage girlfriend. (You want strong female characters? Hoo boy.)

These fantastic characters are caught up in the middle of a truly epic story. Seasons are called books, and episodes are called chapters, but this isn't a case of pretentiousness. This is a serial tale, told in 23-minute installments. And the amazing thing is you get the joyous feeling that the creators know what the fuck they're doing. They have mapped out a 60-episode arc, and no episode exists in a vacuum. Each episode either moves the story forward directly or provides a crucial plot element to be picked up later. And with this show, you never know what will be crucial. The continuity is awesome, from subtle visual references and amusing callbacks to a full-scale plotline for a piece of jewelry. The wonderful thing is that you really believe in the world because there is such attention to detail. Characters clearly have lives when they're not onscreen. The world goes on, even when the Avatar is not present. And lest you still think this story is not worth your time because it's a kid's show, I assure you that it's surprisingly mature. Some characters are morally grey. One's pretty much a sociopath. And a recent episode could only be described as "downright Orwellian."

The music. It has lovely music. It's kind of tribal and mystical, a product of the Eastern philosophy that permeates the show.


And, finally, it's really, really funny. And I mean genuinely funny, not kid's-show funny. Not situational "Ha, he slipped and fell!" funny (okay, there's some of that), but character-based, honest comedy. Some of my favorite jokes are about skepticism of science, being blind, and the number of syllables in a haiku.

Look, I know I've done a crappy job selling the show, but please believe me on this. I've used up a lot of my squee over the past couple weeks, and I was trying not to be too spoilery. It's hard for me to explain how complex and crunchy this show really is. Go read Tris's post, if you haven't, because it's much better, even though it disses VM and BSG. I did not believe the show could be as good as the poodles were saying it was, but I was wrong. It really, really is just that good, and I am amazed that it is that good.

You don't even have to do that much work, okay? Here is a list of YouTube links. Several episodes are also on GoogleVideo, so you can watch some episodes uninterrupted. Or you can download in parts.

I love this show bunches, and it makes me really happy, and I want to share it with you all.

In conclusion:

Sokka: I just want to say: good effort out there today, Team Avatar!
Katara: Enough with the Team Avatar stuff. No matter how many times you say it, it's not gonna catch on.
Sokka: How about, the Boomerang Squad! See, it's good 'cause it's got Aang in it — Boomer-Ang.
Aang: I kinda like that one.
Katara: Let's talk about this on our way into the city.
Sokka: The Aang Gang?
Katara: Sokka...
Sokka: The Fearsome Foursome!
Toph: You're crazy.
Sokka: Why? We're fearsome.