Written by Charissa Roberson
In May, “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a 2005 Nickelodeon animated series, became the number one show on Netflix and set a new record by remaining in the Top Ten for 61 days (The Guardian). How did this series, purportedly for children, become one of the most beloved TV shows of all time? A spoiler alert is in order!
ATLA is set in an Asiatic fantasy world, divided into four nations, where certain people have the ability to “bend” one of the elements: water, earth, fire and air. Each bending style is paired with a specific martial art that reflects the qualities of each element (such as flowing tai chi for water bending, or solid Hung ga for earth bending) (Screenrant). Only one person, however, can bend all four elements—the Avatar, an individual tasked with keeping balance in the world, who is sequentially reincarnated into each nation. At the start of ATLA, the Avatar has disappeared, and the Fire Nation is waging war against the other nations. When siblings Katara and Sokka find the new Avatar, a boy named Aang, they join him on a quest to master the elements and defeat the Fire Lord.
One of ATLA’s defining characteristics is its unwillingness to shy away from mature issues. Even the title of the show, “The Last Airbender,” references the genocide of the Air Nation, of which Aang is the sole survivor. The show asks challenging questions of its characters and its audience, such as “Is it more honorable to stand by your family and country no matter what, or to betray them to do what is right?” and “Is it right to take someone’s life, even if they are a villain?” “The feedback we’ve gotten from parents over these many years is that this is a show they cannot only watch as a family, but also one that presents a solid set of ethics in an engaging way and helps them introduce difficult topics to their children,” wrote co-creator Bryan Konietzko (Washington Post).
ATLA also features strong and complex characters, from many powerful female characters (such as Katara, Suki and antagonist Azula) to characters with disabilities who are shown to be capable and resourceful (such as master earthbender Toph, who is blind). “Too many times you see people with disabilities being coddled,” said Michaela Murphy, who voiced Toph. “Toph does the opposite of that. She teaches us that what we see as weakness is what you let it be, unless you let other people define it for you” (The Guardian). Fire Nation prince Zuko has also been lauded as having one of the best character arcs in television (Screenrant). Once the main antagonist of ATLA, Zuko transforms from a hurting, angry teenager to a wise, resolved young man over the course of three seasons.
The mere fact that ATLA remains so popular 15 years after its initial release is a testament to how entertaining, moving and iconic the show is. Now, with the entire series streaming on Netflix, there is no excuse not to check it out.