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Avatar: The Last Airbender was more than just a children's show

Contributed by
Jul 30, 2018

Aging out of television can be the absolute worst.

As a kid, I had it made when it came to entertainment. Growing up in the ‘90s, there were a plethora of shows geared toward my age group. Channels like Fox and The WB (now known as The CW) dominated TV with stellar after-school lineups, including Tiny Toon Adventures, Darkwing Duck, Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, Animaniacs, and Hysteria — to name just a few.

I reveled in having cartoons to watch when I came home from school, but when adolescence (and hormones) kicked in, these shows didn’t carry the same weight as they did years prior. Additionally, most of my favorite cartoons were canceled to make room for more teen/family-friendly sitcoms reflective of the time. And continuing with the sick cycle, the newer shows were then canceled and/or replaced with other shows featuring slightly more adult themes and content, changing yet again with the times.

On occasion, I’d go back to my beloved cartoons and enjoy them as I did when I was a child—maybe not laughing quite as hard as I did when an anvil would drop on a character, and definitely cringing at the sight of a skunk who clearly didn’t understand “no” meant “no” with non-verbal cues. Cartoons became more of a nostalgic entity for me, as I felt I couldn’t relate to the animated series being formulated for a new breed of youngsters — that is, until I was introduced to Avatar: The Last Airbender.

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Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, Avatar follows the journey of 12-year-old Aang, an Airbender frozen in ice for a century who wakes up to learn he is the last of his kind. Additionally, as the Avatar, Aang is the only person who can bend (or manipulate) all four elements — earth, air, fire, water — and must use this ability to restore order to a world that’s fallen into chaos following his disappearance. Pretty heavy stuff!

I jumped on the Avatar bandwagon not too long after the show had gone off the air, catching the reruns on Nickelodeon. Season 1's “Water” was our introduction to Aang through the brother-sister duo, Sokka and Katara, who found him. Season 2's “Earth” found us meeting Toph, a blind girl of privilege whose lack of sight did nothing to quell her bending abilities. In fact, she was one of the best, if not the best, Earthbenders of her time. Season 3's “Fire” found Aang finally coming to grips with taking down Firelord Ozai, ruler of the Fire Nation, who continued the century-long campaign of world domination. Again, heavy stuff.

Rated Y-7, the show’s content is crafted for a young audience to consume. There’s no blatant gore, and there’s tons of comic relief. After all, Aang is a 12-year-old boy, traveling with his teenage friends across their world. There are hijinks, allusions to the side effects of puberty, and the occasional fart joke — and the show’s strength is its ability to weave the comic relief between it all.

But with themes of genocide, class division, and family dysfunction, there’s no denying this show was meant for parents as well as their 7-year-olds.

Avatar The Last Airbender — Aang

Let’s take a closer look at some of the more nuanced aspects of the show. Aang is the last of his kind after the Fire Nation committed mass murder of the Air Nomads after learning the next Avatar would come from them. Aang returns to his former home to find the remains of his people, one his own mentor. This causes him to go into a rage-fueled Avatar state, something Katara lovingly helps him out of. As the show continues, Aang, who is genuinely fun-loving, has to learn how to be assertive and make difficult decisions—like whether he will actually take the life of the Firelord.

Katara dealt with her own tragedy. Her mother sacrificed herself to keep Katara's bending abilities secret from Fire Nation soldiers who were hunting Waterbenders. This not only forces her to jump into a maternal mode with her brother, Sokka, but also makes her turn a little dark when she learns the identity of the man who murdered her mother.

Prince Zuko, son of Firelord Ozai, deals with a lot of internal struggle. Deformed and banished by his own father, Zuko's journey, which parallels that of Aang’s, is a coming-of-age story that sees him going through a lot of self-reflection. It’s a major redemption arc and something all adults can relate to.

There are other facets of the show adults can understand, like Princess Azula’s descent into mental illness due to years-long resentment toward her mother who feared her; Uncle Iroh’s decision to abandon his family’s legacy after the untimely death of his son; Princess Yueh’s self-sacrifice for her people despite finding love in Sokka; and the question many characters in the franchise must answer: Whose side am I on?

Unlike more adult fare, like X-Men or Game of Thrones, which are inspired by a comic book or an epic fantasy novel, Avatar boasts no such source material, but it hits many of the same tones. All three entities deal with the idea of class divides, self-preservation, and creating harmony in a world of chaos. Avatar, however, is animated. It's ostensibly for children.

Avatar brings to life a world envisioned in the minds of two adults who felt children could relate to the story of a 12-year-old boy, but it’s so much more. Filled with three-dimensional characters, solid plotlines, and amazing visuals, the fact that this show was intended for kids shouldn’t make it any less enjoyable to adults.

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