For most viewers, when a show or movie isn’t readily available to stream, it might as well be frozen in an iceberg. So it was a big deal when Netflix added Avatar: The Last Airbender to its library last month, giving Avatar fans a chance to rewatch the beloved cartoon and follow Aang’s adventures, starting with his own release from a 100-year span he spent frozen in ice. Other people who hadn’t seen Avatar before got a chance to watch too, and to see if it lived up to the hype. I was one of those people, and having now seen all three seasons, Avatar deserves to be called a masterpiece. But that beginning, that first season — it took me a while to warm up to.
Avatar is a shining example of “all-ages” entertainment, meaning that adults can enjoy it, too, rather than have it purely be intended for children. However, the series is still a kids' show, created for Nickelodeon and originally airing in 2005 — and that’s probably where the rockiness of the first season comes from.
At times while watching the first season (or Book One, as it’s known), Avatar seemed like a different sort of cartoon than the one my friends promised me it would become. If Avatar was going to turn into this epic story with sweeping emotions, nuanced philosophy, and incredible character arcs, the initial run of one-off episodes wherein Aang and his friends visit a location, meet some people that we may or may not see again, and narrowly escape Prince Zuko while on a journey that didn’t feel especially urgent weren’t really selling it. There was a neat premise and promising characters, but both the worldbuilding and the storytelling seemed oddly disjointed.
In other words, early Avatar feels very episodic. That’s not inherently a bad thing. So much modern storytelling has become serialized to a fault, so focused on a multi-season forest that it forgets to make the individual trees enjoyable or stand out. And Avatar’s Season 1 episodes are fun, even if you don’t know at the time that characters like Jet and Suki will return in big ways in later seasons. The feel of the show and the pacing of Aang’s quest just don’t feel as connected and fluid as audiences might be used to — and not just adult audiences, but modern child audiences, too.
Avatar premiered in 2005, a decade and a half ago, when TV and western animation looked very different than they do now. With a few exceptions, most shows of the early and mid-’00s weren’t highly serialized. Even the shows we remember for their grand plots, like Lost (which premiered in 2004), were much more piecemeal than modern audiences might remember. We’re used to showrunners having everything figured out, and for each episode to be one piece of a master plan — like Stranger Things, Star Trek: Discovery, or Westworld— but frequently Lost was progressing episode by episode, with the larger mystery looming with surprisingly little urgency.
Children's TV was even less serialized, often intentionally so. In 2001, for instance, the creator of the Nickelodeon cartoon The Angry Beavers wanted to end the series with an episode where the main characters became self-aware, realized they were in a cartoon that had gotten canceled, and that they were about to die. Nickelodeon put the kibosh on this idea, partially because of the content and also because the very idea of a series finale made no sense in part because there was no larger narrative to wrap up but also because cartoons like this existed to just be a collection of episodes. Kids' cartoons needed to be able to be rerun ad infinitum, and they didn’t want to confuse young viewers by giving the episodes a beginning or end — or any chronology at all, really.
Things eventually started to change as TV — both adult- and kid-oriented — started to embrace serialization more. Maybe it was a newer generation of creators and executives who had more faith that their audiences could follow along. Maybe it was the rise of DVDs and DVRs, which made watching an entire serialized season more possible, because viewers weren’t as likely to miss an episode with crucial plot developments and then never get a chance to see it again. When it came to kids’ TV, the rise of traditionally more serialized anime in the West certainly was an influence, as is extremely clear from Avatar’s entire aesthetic and storytelling choices.
Still, it wasn’t an immediate switch. In 2004, the year before Avatar premiered, Nickelodeon debuted Danny Phantom, a Butch Hartman cartoon about a teen with secret ghost powers. These days, one imagines the show would be much more serialized, and although it did have longer arcs, it notably did not have a real origin story episode. Danny already has his ghost powers in the series premiere. Most episodes could exist in a vacuum from one another.
When Avatar came out a year later, it was clear from the start that this was going to be something unlike pretty much everything Nickelodeon had done before. It had a serious, sweeping story with a clear end goal in Aang’s confrontation with the Fire Lord, and the showrunners had a roadmap for how to get there. But that first season, despite the larger narrative, still feels like it has one foot in an earlier era.
That shouldn’t be held against Avatar, and indeed might have helped it. More distinct, standalone episodes made for an easier entry point for first-time viewers who may have stumbled upon this new show at random. And, once Avatar had proven itself with this first season, the second and third seasons felt much more connected, as the various pieces introduced in the first seasons’ scattershot episodes came back into play, and the struggle against the Fire Nation felt more urgent. At the same time, Avatar never forgot the value of an individual episode. Each episode is a triumph on its own, only in Seasons 2 and 3, it’s much easier to see that all these pristine bricks are building atop one another.
Now, it’s commonplace for cartoons to be serialized, and audiences are used to seeing a grander narrative evolve. Steven Universe and Adventure Time are both great examples of more recent series that have let a complex, self-referential lore develop, and other series like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power have made their serialized intentions clear from the start. Avatar may have been about the Last Airbender, but in many ways it was trying something new from a storytelling perspective. Its hesitations and uneven bits stand out more clearly to viewers watching for the first time who have modern expectations. It’s to Avatar’s credit that it manages to pull all the pieces together, and, much like Aang on his air scooter, get the ball rolling.