Okay, before you role your eyes at the Nickelodeon logo and close this tab on your browser, just hear me out. Avatar: The Last Airbender is not only one of the best television shows I have ever seen, it is one of the most amazing stories I have ever had the privilege to experience.
I think the best way to explain the basic premise of the show is through the monologue Katara, one of the main characters, gives in the show's opening:
"Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the avatar, master of all four elements, can stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years past and my brother and I discovered the new avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone."
The show follows Aang's journey with Katara and her brother Sokka, as he travels around the world trying to master all 4 elements in time to stop Fire Lord Ozai and the Fire Nation from taking over. All the while they must evade capture by the exiled Fire Nation Prince, Zuko, who dreams of (
obsesses over) capturing the Avatar in order to regain his honor and be allowed to return home.
It all sounds pretty simple, I know. But Avatar is honestly one of the most complex, well thought out stories I've ever seen, and I'm an English major. The world building is great, the character development is superb, and the cast is highly diverse in almost every possible aspect. And don't let the fact that it is animated fool you; the content of the show is by no means light.
The show is called The Last Airbender for a reason. Shortly after Aang disappears, the Fire Nation wipes out his people, the Air Nomads, in an attempt to kill the Avatar (when the avatar dies the new avatar is born into the next nation of the cycle; the avatar before Aang was born to the Fire Nation, so the Fire Lord knew that the new one would be born to the Air Nomads). When Aang wakes up 100 years later his people are gone; he is the only Airbender left in the world.
Aang is not the only one with tragedy in his past. Katara and Sokka have seen and lost their share to the war. Prince Zuko was exiled by his own father, but not before his father left his face permanently scarred as punishment for what the Fire Lord considered cowardice.
The show delves into complex and serious questions. Aang struggles to grapple with the realities of war and with what his expected role in the fight is when all he was ever taught was peace. Zuko is caught between the desire to please his father and the need to find himself. Katara is forced to confront her lingering anger and hatred over the murder of her mother. And that is only to name a few.
I think one of the best things about this show is the diversity of the cast. Not only are multiple groups represented, but they are represented well, and the show makes a point to play off some common misconceptions. For example, a character that joins the main cast in season 2, Toph Bei Fong, is blind. Her parents are convinced that her disability makes her frail and helpless and they attempt to keep her locked up in their house where they can do everything for her. In reality, however, she is anything but helpless. She is arguably the best Earthbender in the world.
Toph won't let anyone treat her differently because of her blindness. And she is more than willing to educate you on just how awesome she is if you try. Her blindness is never treated like a disability in the show; it is just a fact of her life. She even jokes about it from time to time.
Needless to say Toph is probably my favorite character.
Another misconception the show does a really good job of deconstructing is the concept that women are weak and/or less capable than men. There is essentially an entire episode dedicated to it. Sokka is an exceptionally sexist character at the beginning and has quite a lot of learning to do. Like I said: superb character development.
One post is truly not enough for me to say all the reasons why I love this show. It is one that I can watch over and over again and I love it more every time. It easily makes my list of top 5 favorite stories of all time. I know animation has garnered a reputation for only being for kids, and that is really really unfortunate. There are so many amazing stories that you will miss out on if you write off all things animated, and this is one of the best. Give it a chance. You won't be disappointed.