Avatar The Last Airbender: Season 1

"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, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished."

It's not often I say this but thank god for misdiagnosis. If it wasn’t for that doctor reading my x-ray wrong and telling me I had a broken bone in my foot I never would’ve spent a week on my backside and discovered the wonder that is Avatar: The Last Airbender.

BOOK ONE: WATER

(Warning: This review contains spoilers)

Avatar: The Last Airbender was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and originally aired on Nickelodeon between 2005 and 2008. One of the network's biggest hits, it ran for a total of three seasons (called books) and inspired a reprehensible feature film and a spin-off series, The Legends of Korra, that is just as good, if not better. I feel I should address the M. Night Shyamalan movie before proceeding, as I am sure many of the you reading this will only be familiar with the series because of it. If you have seen the movie and, quite rightfully, think it was a massive stinking bowl of cat urine, please don't let that put you off the show. That movie is to this show what the Buffy movie is to Buffy the TV show. So in summary, show good, film bad, tree pretty.

Set in a world where some humans can control the four elements, a skill known as bending, the series told the story of twelve-year-old Aang, the last of the airbenders and the latest reincarnation of the Avatar, the master of all four elements. After being frozen in ice for a hundred years, Aang emerges to discover that the Fire Nation has been waging a destructive war in his absence, a war they are now close to winning. With his new friends, waterbender Katara and her brother Sokka, Aang sets off on an epic quest to master all four elements so he can defeat the Fire Lord and end the war. At the same time, they are pursued by Prince Zuko, the exiled son of the Fire Lord, who believes capturing the Avatar is the only way to restore his honour and return home.


It took more than a few attempts for me to get into this show. The first time I tried, which was around about the time that awful movie version came out, I didn't really enjoy it that much and gave up after only two episodes. I found the humour too immature for my taste, the plot was Fantasy Saga 101, and the characters all came across as a little one note. It wasn't until years later, when the entire show was available on Netflix, that I decided to give it another try and boy, am I glad I did.

Like so much of the best children's entertainment, what made Avatar: The Last Airbender great was that it treated its target audience with complete respect. The writers never made the mistake of assuming that kids were stupid or incapable of understanding complex plots or nuanced character development. Seriously, put aside any personal bias you might have that kid shows are inherently inferior to "grown up" dramas, because this show puts most of them to shame. If someone asked me to name the best fantasy television series of the last twenty years, I wouldn't pick Game of Thrones. I'd pick this show every time.

One of thing I love about this show, something that was completely absent in that ghastly film (yes, I will not shut up about how bad it was), was its sense of humour. Rather ironically, that was one of the things that initially put me off it. The first episode had too many snot jokes and pratfalls for my taste. But very quickly the show's humour became sharper and smarter, to the point that I regularly found myself in stitches. I bet there are sitcom writers out there who lie awake at night tormented by the fact their shows will never be as funny this one.

The characters quickly became so much more than the simple archetypes they seemed at the start. I came to love and care for Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, and Iroh so much in such a short space of time that when I started watching Legend of Korra I literally, not figuratively, cried when some of them showed up. Buckets full. Which is nothing compared to my reaction to a certain reunion in season three that I won't spoil here. I will admit that Aang's childish nature did annoy me first time around. I would often find myself shouting at him to stop playing around and focus on the task at hand, you know, saving the world and such. But now his joie de vivre is one of the things I treasure the most about him. In an age when we are neck deep in dark, brooding anti-heroes, it is so refreshing to have a hero who has witnessed so many horrors (like the genocide of his people), endured numerous hardships, suffers from internal turmoil and occasionally doing shitty, selfish, human things, but still remains hopeful and optimistic. A hero who knows how to have fun, to actually crack a smile, and even do stupid parlour tricks to impress people.

He's going to save the world, y'know. 
Of course, Avatar isn't exactly lacking when it comes to dark, brooding anti-heroes. I've never been all that keen on the whole redeemable villain trope. It's used far too often lately whenever a villain proves too popular to kill and is rarely ever pulled off convincingly. Zuko is that rare exception. Zuko works for me because the show never goes too far with his evil. It never makes the mistake of having him go around committing acts of unspeakable cruelty and then asking us to feel sorry for him because he had a crappy childhood. And it was incredibly crappy. His dad could teach Tywin Lannister a thing or two about being a terrible father. Also working in Zuko's favour is his relationship with his uncle Iroh, which is mostly used for comedy at first as the short tempered Zuko becomes increasingly frustrated with his uncle's laid back attitude, but quickly becomes the most emotional and heartbreaking relationship of the entire show.

You'd be angsty too if you had that hairdo.
As I mentioned before, the overall story of ATLA isn't all that original. The show's creators have both said that the series was born out of their desire to make an epic fantasy saga like Lord of the Rings, but one enriched in the culture, art, mythology and philosophies of East Asia rather than the usual stock medieval Europe we are so used to seeing. The four nations of the Avatar world are each based on a different culture from our own world: the Water Tribes (Inuit), the Earth Kingdom (Imperial China), the Air Nomads (Tibet), and the Fire Nation (Meiji Japan).

One thing I always look for in any fantasy series is A+ world building. I will not stand for any arsing about when it comes to world building. If you want me to invest time and money in your fantasy series I expect a fully realised world with a rich history, distinctive cultures, clear rules of magic that don't contradict each other, and a detailed map so I know where the hell everything is. Basically, the exact opposite of Once Upon a TimeAvatar: The Last Airbender gives you all that and in spades.

The World of Avatar.
The art of bending itself is also pretty fantastic. Rather than just have people waving their arms around and looking a little silly, the show's creators based each bending art on a different style of Chinese martial arts; tai chi for Waterbenders, Hung Ga kung fu for Earthbenders, Northern Shaolin kung fu for Firebenders, and Baguazhang for Airbenders. This results in some truly amazing fight sequences that only gets better as the show goes on and the animation improves. Trust me, there are blockbuster films that wish they had actions scenes as amazing as this series has.

All that being said, the first season is in many ways the show's weakest. It's not bad, if it were I never would've become as engrossed with the show as I did, but it just isn't as great as the two seasons that follows it. It also suffers from being far too repetitive. The writers were in no hurry to get the Gaang (that's the nickname for our heroes) to the Northern Water Tribe, so they spend the bulk of the season wandering around the Earth Kingdom, going from town to town, solving one problem after another, all the while avoiding capture from Zuko, Zhao or any number of minor Fire Nation heavies. Far too often this results in dreary filler episodes like 'The Great Divide' and 'The Fortuneteller'.

BEST EPISODE


For its great mixture of action, comedy and drama, I have to go with 'The Blue Spirit', with 'The Siege of the North' as close second.

WORST EPISODE

Has to be 'The Great Divide'. Worst episode of the season and the series as a whole.

BEST CHARACTER 

"Act natural."
Oh, I can't pick just one. I love them all. I love Aang for his joyfulness. I love Katara for her strength and determination (one of the reasons I hate the movie so much is they give Katara's heroic moments to Aang). I love Sokka for his loyalty and really stupid jokes (he is basically Xander without any of the problematic bits). I love Zuko for his awkwardness. I love Iroh for his wisdom and kindness and how much he loves and cares for his nephew and just wants what's best for him. Also, his love of tea. Iroh and tea is my Avatar OTP.

BEST "THERE'S JUST SOMETHING IN MY EYE" MOMENT


Iroh tells the crew the full story about how Zuko got his scar. If you didn't feel sympathy for the exiled prince before you will now.

BEST ACTION SCENE

This is difficult one to choose as there are so many worthy candidates. There's Zuko and Zhao's Agni Kai in 'The Southern Air Temple'. Avatar Roku's spirit kicking some serious ass in 'Winter Solstice Part 2: Avatar Roku' and showing us just how fearsome a fully powered and in control Avatar really is. And let's not forget Aang wiping out the entire Fire Nation fleet in season finale. But I'm going to go with the pirate chase scene from 'The Waterbending Scroll' just for how unashamedly fun it is.

FUNNIEST MOMENT

'Imprisoned' is not one of the season's best episodes, but it will forever be immortalized as the episode that contained the single best scene of the entire series:



FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

Because this is a children's animated series, the heroes are accompanied by a pair of adorable animal sidekicks; Appa, Aang's giant flying bison (yes, you read that right), and Momo, a winged lemur. The Avatar world is also home to an untold number of fantastical creatures, almost all of which are hybrids of animals from our world, such as:

Otter penguins
Tiger seals
Platypus bears
Ostrich horses
Komodo rhinos
Three out of four Earthbending lemurs.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

5 comments:

sunbunny said...

I'm really glad you got misdiagnosed too. If you hadn't gotten so obsessed I would never have watched and what a loss that would have been! I agree the first season is the weakest. I also find Aang grating at times. That said, his goofy demeanor is terrifically satirized in a certain S3 episode. Sokka is my fave. Katara can get a little preachy and I didn't really warm up to Zuko until S2. Iroh tho...okay my favorites are Sokka and Iroh.

I would also posit that Legend of Korra is better in general than ATLA because of its more grown up sense of humor but I think you need to have seen ATLA to truly appreciate LOK.

EVERYONE SHOULD WATCH THIS SHOW!!!

sunbunny said...

PS. Terrific review Mark. :)

Matthew said...

This show is my childhood in a nutshell I remember it being advertised and I didn't understand it at all

Then the 4th episode came on and I couldn't stop laughing
......then every week I watched it till the 4 part finalie which I cheered

This is probably the best animated series

JB said...

The characters are so used to the creatures being hybrid animals that when, in the next season, they encounter a normal bear, they are completely stumped. It’s actually a really good funny moment.

JB said...

The Storm works really well for being an exposition episode around Aang and Zuko’s backstories, but it’s compelling and gives a lot more depth to them as characters. Aang’s story shows what happens when you tell a ten year old that he can no longer be a regular kid because he’s responsible for bringing balance to the world. Aang now not only is still coming to terms with this, but he also has the knowledge could have done something to prevent what’s now happening. This show doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff, it can be confronting.