Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005): One of the Greatest TV Shows of All Time

Nickelodeon cartoons were a staple of the after-school experience for many kids and families during the late 90s to mid-2000s. From Spongebob Squarepants to Invader Zim, some of the most popular shows ever to spawn from the channel emerged during this period. However, one of these shows stands heads and shoulders above the rest, a show whose popularity is continually growing and whose quality is of such refinement that it comfortably stands toe to toe with some of the all-time greatest in televisual entertainment. That show is, of course, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartinoAvatar: The Last Airbender is a fantasy epic that draws from a vast range of inspirations. Set in a fictional world composed of four nations named after the elements – water, earth, fire, and air – many of the people of this world can manipulate one of these four elements, a trait known as bending. One individual, the Avatar, can bend all four elements. They serve as a global peacekeeper who maintains balance in a world constantly falling out of it through geo and sociopolitical conflict. Once the Avatar dies, they are reincarnated into a new host body so that the next generation may continue trying to achieve peace.

But, when this story takes place, peace has been missing for a century. The Fire Nation has been at war with the other three nations in an aggressive campaign to expand their empire, which has resulted in 100 years of devastation. Two siblings from the Southern Water Tribe, Katara (Mae Whitman) and Sokka (Jack DeSena), discover the new Avatar, a 12-year-old Airbender named Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen). Right before the war began, Aang, frightened by the enormity of being the Avatar, ran away, ending up frozen in ice for a century. This resulted in his nation, the Air Nomads, being wiped out in a vicious massacre, leaving him the last Airbender in existence. Aang, with Katara, Sokka, and an increasing band of companions, journeys across the world to master the four elements and finally bring a peaceful end to the conflict.

A cosmopolitan range of inspirations in Avatar: The Last Airbender

One of the first things that makes this show so marvelous is its cosmopolitan range of inspirations. When one examines its story and the three seasons it is divided into, or books as the show calls them, there are more than a few parallels to the original Star Wars trilogy, be it in the characters or, in particular, the story beats. The general look and feel of the show and its worldbuilding are very Lord of the Rings inspired, too.

Yet, its main source of inspiration comes not from these recognizable Western titles but from a vast pool of East Asian cultures and media. The massive city of Ba Sing Se, a notable location in the show, takes inspiration from the Great Wall of China, while the character designs borrow from Chinese art, Buddhism, and Hinduism, among others. Even the various bending styles take from multiple forms of martial arts, such as Northern Shaolin for firebending, Bagua for airbending, and so forth.

This melting pot of influences makes for an awe-inspiring range of cultural and mythical creativity and emboldens the gorgeous animation. Although Avatar is not strictly an anime in the sense that a property like Fullmetal Alchemist is, the creators’ affinity for anime can be seen in the show’s explosive use of color and in its hand-drawn approach to the narrative and action. In utilizing martial arts to inform its spectacle, the show revels in the same quick movements and complex choreography seen in the best Hong Kong wuxia pictures. That the fighters here can also manipulate the elements just adds to the grandeur of excitement. Everything from grand battles to prison breakouts to wild west duels to even a WWE-esque parody are branded with euphoria and imagination, all captured through the fluid, picturesque, and highly expressive animation.

Avatar: The Last Airbender has layered characters

Occupying the delightful imagery are characters that are not only loveable and easy to connect with, but surprisingly intricate too. Aang’s jubilant youthful energy is addictive to watch, while Katara’s headstrong righteousness and Sokka’s comedic attitude yet strategic mind make them an excellent core trio, a family dynamic that grows increasingly bigger as more energetic characters join the group, such as the sarcastic Toph (Michaela Jill Murphy).

Yet, they aren’t defined solely by these traits or archetypes. They are, in fact, layered with history that makes them feel even more dynamic. On paper, Aang fulfills the requirement of the Chosen One trope following the path of the Hero’s Journey laid out by Joseph Campbell. But his mentality and relationship to the archetype is ambivalent and nuanced. He’s aware of the gravity of his role as the Avatar, yet he never wanted this power and often seeks the normality of fun and mundane love that he is told he cannot have because of his responsibilities as essentially this world’s equivalent of a demi-god. It is a show that finds the humanity in its characters and triumphantly champions them.

An early antagonistic character, Prince Zuko (Dante Basco), is such a brilliant example of this championing of humanity that he is cited by critics and scholars alike as the gold standard for morally grey characters that could potentially be redeemed. He is the crown prince of the Fire Nation, banished by his tyrannical father to search for the Avatar and bring him in at last. Zuko’s journey is rife with tension, excitement, and tug-of-war struggles between the light and darkness that can reside in any person.

Whether acting as a foil to the protagonist or a disciple of his sage, tea-loving uncle, Iroh (Mako/Greg Baldwin), another character whose flamboyant personality is tinged with a deep personal sadness, Zuko’s story is one of various character arcs that rewards the viewers with its tight writing and emotional impact. Other standout antagonists include Zuko’s cunning and terrifying sister Azula (Grey DeLisle) and, of course, his father, the series big bad, played by the ever formidable Mark Hamill.

Because the characters are created with such empathy and attention to detail, the world they explore feels just that bit more alive. It already feels impressive given the aforementioned spectrum of historical and cultural inspirations, but it truly rivals even the likes of its Star Wars and Lord of the Rings influences with its sense of authenticity. Helping this is the various episodic stories and arcs that make up the overarching narrative.

While the goal of mastering the four elements and restoring peace to the world is made clear from the beginning, Aang and his friends partake in an assortment of adventures that see them resolving conflicts and aiding the vulnerable. They make for the fun adventure-of-the-day type episodes that family shows excel at, but the fact that the characters they meet and lessons learned through these early episodes all, at one point or another, come back to inform the larger narrative is a feat that’s hard not to admire. Almost every episode, in some way, contributes to the show’s overarching goals and the story’s eventual destination.

Unexpectedly heavy themes for family-based television

In doing this, we are treated to a range of themes that fit the story and are unexpectedly heavy. While its exploration of family, responsibility, individuality, and empathy are all fairly common themes in family-based television, other subject matters include but are not limited to, genocide, colonialism, trauma, prejudice, indoctrination, entitlement, gender and class inequalities, the bolstering or decay of morality in times of war, and freedom, be it of choice or entire civilizations against the might of imperialism.

One example of this includes when Aang comes across refugees living in one of his nation’s most sacred temples. He initially decries the ways in which these refugees have seemingly tarnished his heritage and culture, which his status as the last airbender only worsens. But he comes to understand that these refugees are only trying to survive with what’s available to them. The show may not explore these themes with the same depth as more adult-oriented shows, but the fact that it is willing at least to highlight the nuances and complexities of these subjects reveals a compelling maturity and a deep respect for both the audience and the implications of its storytelling.

Avatar: The Last Airbender finds a balance between drama and comedy

This all sounds like a show that, in another’s hands, could be pretty bleak or overly serious. While it certainly doesn’t shy away from the weight of its themes or subject matters, the show actually finds a delicate balance between drama and comedy. It retains the bright zaniness, playful nature, and even occasional goofiness found in the best of family entertainment media. This creates a wonderful spectrum of side-splitting hilarity, hair-raising exhilaration, and emotional gut punches.

The show explores as many dimensions of its world, story, and characterization as it can while never losing sight of the fantasy and action genres that form its basis. From its kinetically charged fight scenes to the richly detailed locations to the bizarre hybridization of various animals, be it ostrich horses, platypus bears, or the gigantic flying bison, Appa that serves as Aang’s animal guide, imagination, and wonder sets the pace of this epic adventure throughout.

Avatar: The Last Airbender keeps growing in popularity

Although Avatar: The Last Airbender proved extremely popular in its initial run, garnering high viewership and universal critical acclaim, its popularity is only increasing with time. When the show began streaming on Netflix at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it found a new generation of audiences who were as taken in by its characters and storytelling as those who watched the show when it first aired.

Several follow-ups, spin-offs, and adaptations have also emerged following the show’s movie-length climax. They range from the niche but intriguing graphic novel sequels to the exciting and beautiful (as well as unfairly maligned) sequel show The Legend of Korra, to a live-action movie adaptation from The Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan, which, unfortunately, is as bad as everyone says. Just as this piece is being written, we are about to get another live-action adaptation, this time a Netflix series of the same name. One would be hard-pressed to suggest that the vogue of Avatar is going away anytime soon.

It might sound ridiculous to label a Nickelodeon animated show predominantly aimed at families as one of the greatest television shows of all time, but it really is that exceptional. Built through wonderful characters, a vast and gripping story, and a bold passion and ambition that seeps into every frame of its striking animation, the show rarely sets a foot wrong, immersing us from its folklore-style opening to its nail-biting final battle. That its popularity has survived this long is a testament to its craft and the inspiration it provides to many. Its influence can be seen in multiple animated shows to this day, from The Dragon Prince to Steven Universe to RWBY. All of those shows have their own captivating, idiosyncratic strengths that make them well worth watching. But, with all due respect to those titles, Avatar is simply in a league of its own. 

Maybe this new Netflix show will be good. Maybe it won’t. One sincerely hopes that it will be the former, or at least an improvement on the movie adaptation. But whatever happens, we will always have this animated masterpiece to return to and share with others, hopefully, for generations to come. Do not let its status as a cartoon fool you – Avatar: The Last Airbender is truly incredible television.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005) is now streaming.

Did you watch the show when it first aired or did you catch it during the pandemic? Do you agree that Avatar: The Last Airbender is one  of the greatest TV shows of all time? Share your thoughts with us on X @MoviesWeTexted.

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