The Moment Avatar: The Last Airbender Proved It’s More Than a Kids’ Show

By brian longtin • Jul 22nd, 2010 • Category: watching • Popularity: 36%

Like the best shows for kids or adults, Avatar assumes we have the patience to get involved with its characters as human beings, not just action figures.

Two thirds of the way through season one of Avatar: The Last Airbender, in an episode titled “The Blue Spirit”, a single moment cemented the decision: “I’m sticking with this series ’til the end.”

Avatar had sufficiently charmed me leading up to this point — at least enough to find myself thirteen episodes deep into an anime-inspired Nickelodeon series — mainly by subverting my expectations. Here we have a show about teen heroes with the ability to control the elements, who inevitably have to use those powers to save the day. Shades of Captain Planet come to mind, a comparison which no show would ask for. But instead of campy feel-good environmentalism, Avatar employs these elements artfully, mixing a mysticism inspired by Eastern spirituality with the fluid fight choreography of Asian wire-fu cinema. The resulting dynamic allows for gripping action sequences, while telling meaningful stories in a fantasy world that stays grounded in its own logic. (As we discussed on our recent podcast, it would make a hell of a movie, if handled properly by the right people.)

Other potential kids’ show pitfalls are deftly sidestepped as well. The obligatory “And the moral of the story is…” moments are occasionally present, but tied in to the characters’ ongoing development in a way that feels earned rather than forced. Slapstick gags with Hanna Barbera sound effects are routinely employed, but for more than just cheap laughs, often bringing a character back down to earth when they become too serious or self-centered.

However, “a tolerable level of shtick” is not a very strong recommendation. Nor does being less shrill and shallow than other kid-safe cartoons make Avatar worth watching. Hence the revelatory moment in “The Blue Spirit” — the moment during which I fully realized that all the things the show does very right outweigh the litany of things it merely avoids doing wrong.


The scene in question comes after a mysterious stranger rescues Aang, the titular Last Airbender, from captivity in an evil Firebender fortress (’bending’ being this world’s term for controlling earth, air, fire, or water). During their escape, circumstances force them to work together (teamwork, kids!), and in a climactic plot twist, the stranger’s identity is revealed as Aang pulls him to safety.

What follows is not an intense showdown. There is no screaming argument, or a giant gasp of a cliffhanger. Instead, the two share a quiet character-building moment, and Aang flees. But after this small scene of surprising maturity, we won’t look at either character in the same way for the duration of the series.

Avatar: The Last AirbenderIt’s moments like this that put A:TLAB among the best programming for kids or adults. Even if it is simplified for a younger crowd, it treats its audience like they have brains. It’s willing to have a quiet moment when the expectation is a bombastic conflict, and assumes we have the patience to get involved with the characters as human beings, not just action figures. The kung-fu sequences, though impressive, are woven into the dramatic arc of the characters, as opposed to the typical kids’ formula — flimsy plots that only serve to move characters from one fight to another. Like any good serial, it plays to the strengths of the TV format; any single episode plays like a tightly scripted short film, but also works as part of a larger arc in which characters grow and learn and change.

Aang himself is a surprisingly relatable protagonist. He may be a tween with glowing arrow tattoos and supernatural gymnastic skills, but in a way, he’s also a hero perfectly fit for the millennial generation: thrust into a world of adult responsibilities at a too-young age, pressured to learn how that world works as quickly as possible, and expected to solve the problems of the generation before him — problems he had no hand in creating. All this while trying to hold on to his inherent optimism, or sneak in some goofing around wherever he can (perhaps appropriately, he displays the occasional A.D.D. symptom typical of this generation as well). He gives the show its childlike innocence, but also allows us to follow a prototypical coming of age story dressed up in epic tribal conflict.

Though it took one skillfully handled moment to fully crystallize my appreciation for the show, a full season has me convinced there’s no shame in loving Avatar. It stands up to favorites like my personal benchmark, Batman: The Animated Series, for great storytelling in short form animation. It’s made by a team that obviously loves its characters and wants us to share that affection, to the point where seeing Aang blush when a girl is nice to him evokes grins, not groans. It even tops some of its anime peers like Bleach, another teens-saving-the-world epic I watched compulsively, but whose manga style feels more like an action soap opera than an enriching narrative. I may be only one season in, but it doesn’t take long to see that Avatar: The Last Airbender will go down as one of the greats.

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brian longtin wouldn't mind riding a flying bison, either.
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11 Responses »

  1. Man, I agree wholeheartedly. Also, let me say - I just finished burning through all three seasons, and you have got some really good times ahead of you! Season 2 is so flippin epic, and the amount of consistency and the number of callbacks really demands a lot of the audience. It’s so nice to see a kid’s show that is written with the intricacy of more adult cable serials.

    At the start, I had the same thoughts, “Ok, this show is for real” right around the same place. By the time Season 2 gets going, it became clear to me that it was a pretty epically high-quality work, a full three-season arc set in a remarkably well-built and consistent universe.

    Honestly, it so freaking good, I’m telling everyone I know to watch it, even though I am aware that the “children’s” aspect of it just turns them off. But good storytelling is good storytelling, and I can’t think of another show that’s treated its characters with more respect. I’m hard-pressed to name my favorite character arc, but Zhuko, the character who seemed the most childish and annoying at the very beginning, had what was probably my favorite arc over the course of the show. Brilliant stuff.

    And the news of the new series has me excited, too! What is happening to me!? I am going to be closely watching the production of a Nickelodeon show!! Heh.

  2. Amen, Mr. Longtin. I’m a 44-year-old father of two who started watching “Avatar” with my kids. After a few episodes, I started shooing them out of the room if they made too much noise. “You kids go somewhere else… Daddy’s watching his stories!”

    “The Blue Spirit” is a particularly good episode. “The Storm” is another Season 1 favorite. I envy you the fun of watching Seasons 2 and 3 for the first time and following the entire story arc (a big appeal of the show for me was that it was one complete, finite story… not an endless series milked season after season for profits). Enjoy “The Avatar and the Firelord” in Season 3. My favorite of all.

    – mm

  3. oh Common you guys! This movie is not too bad. There are few part in the movie are very good. Anyway the kid plays Aang is a cute kidbut he still too young and this is his frist time show up on TV. We all knew the cartoon always better than the movie. M.Night is a famous director and he said: Noah Ringer ( The Avatar: Aang) works very hard for the movie.This movie’s sceenplay is a little boring after all. When my friends and i watched this movie, My friends said: I’m tire to watch this movie. I understand but i think book two will be better than book one and i really enjoy this movie.

  4. Oh man, “The Avatar and the Firelord” is a great ep. I think that my favorite is “Tales of Ba Sing Se”, from season 2. Even though it’s kinda off-format, it nailed all of the reasons I love the show so much. Impossible to pick a favorite, truly.

    Enough vague discussion, though! Brian, can’t wait to hear what you think of the rest of the series.

  5. I love the show as well but you do no that it’s over and there just showing re runs and what’s this about a new series

  6. On July 21, Nick greenlighted a new Avatar “spin-off” series called the Legend of Korra. It takes place 70 years after the events on The Last Airbender. The show follows Korra, a young hot-headed girl who is the next avatar after Aang. Just google “The Legend of Korra” for more details.

  7. @Kirk and Matt,

    Sounds like I’m just getting started on something that gets even better, which is terrific news. May take me a few weeks, but maybe I’ll report back with more thoughts once I get to the end. And it sounds like I’m in good company with other grown ups who realize it’s worth watching.

    To Kirk’s point about Zuko specifically, that’s another reason the moment I described was so pivotal: they make the bad guy as sympathetic as the good guy! He’s got his own issues and back story and motivations, and I’m excited to hear those get delved into more. When I saw the episode about how he got his scar, my heart broke for him. He’s Avatar’s Darth Vader!

  8. I had the same revelation watching this episode. I only recently saw a couple of episodes (actually I resisted!) with my wife and son just to see what the show was like before the movie came out. The next thing we knew we bought the whole DVD set by the next weekend and watch it all before the movie (I am leaving my comments out on the movie though)!

    I again watch “The Blue Spirit” episode just this week and it is definitely in my top three of the series. The interaction of the characters, the music, the comedic moments, the drama, the action…it satisfied me in ways that most big budgeted movies wished they could entertain me. The only disappointment of the episode is that I won’t again experience the surprise when the Blue Spirit’s identity was revealed.

    Enjoy the rest of the series, you won’t be disappointed!

  9. There’s so much impressive stuff going on with Avatar. It deals with some very adult themes while still keeping things light, is completely committed to its mythology while still being able to poke fun at itself. It’s the perfect balancing act. And though there were a lot of incredible things going on in the series, it’s the season two finale that completely threw me through a loop

    As a writer and avid watcher/reader/listener/consumer of all things that entertain, the season 2 finale was the first thing in a long time that floored me. I hate to be “that guy” who brings Joeseph Campbell into the conversation, but I will say that the writers of that show are familiar enough with the hero’s journey to screw with it, and it makes for extremely fun watching.

  10. ditto. My wife and I, and our four children ages 13 to 3 watched an episode nearly every night if possible. The seasons became far more than… they became a season in my life, it brought us together as a family with something we all enjoyed, not an easy task with such an age range. Having finished the last episode I found this site scouring the web for another show like it. Not sure there is one though?

  11. Just come to a climactic end of a great journey. The build up to the end is something that you will not be disappointed. Seeing this road coming to an end you are left feeling happy for many reasons. Sad because you will never go on any new adventures with these characters again.
    But this is a show that you can watch more then once and still find so much more in it. It is just as much for adults as it is for kids. There are a lot of lessons that stay with you after you watch the show. Great mythology and great heart. When I found my brother watching it after hearing that familiar tune of the presenters at the start I was fast to judge him down because I felt that it was silly to watch a childerns show. But then at the end of that first episode I was hooked I wanted to know what happened next. Like all great stories I wanted to know what the next chapter would bring to me. Now that I am at the end I want to enjoy that end.

    So go watch , enjoy this masterpiece for it has been a long time at least for me that a show that was meant for kids to have moved me like it has. You will laugh, you may cry but be baited to for the end.
    Good writing good speed and never a dull moment.

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