How Avatar Changed the Face of Television
What can I say about Avatar: The Last Airbender that hasn’t already been discussed? They just concluded the sequel The Legend of Korra back in December with a spectacular finale that broke the way we look at children’s television. Both shows have won or been nominated for a plethora of awards. They spurred memes, jokes, and great one liners (ZHU LI! DO THE THING!). The animation is beautiful. The characters are far more complex than many adult shows. Their continuity is spot on. They built a rich world full of mythos where nothing feels superfluous. Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are arguably two of the best shows in the last decade. They defined how children’s television should be done and set the bar higher than ever before.
I approached What the Fangirl shortly after Korra ended. I knew I wanted to write some piece for one of the series. Since WTF creators Bri and Alex were watching Korra for the first time, I decided to cover Avatar instead. I started my rewatch blazing through all three seasons in a matter of weeks.
Then it hit me. I had no idea where to begin. How do I create something new for a show that’s been on for a decade? What can I say that hasn’t already been thoroughly discussed by the media and fans?
Since Bri and Alex have never seen Avatar and started with Korra, I decided to write this for them. Here’s how I would present this show to someone who has never seen Avatar: The Last Airbender.
What is Avatar: The Last Airbender about?
There are four nations in the world that used to live in balance with each other. There’s the Air Nomads, the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, and the Water Tribes. Each nation is unique in their daily lives. The Air Nomads were monks who didn’t need extravagance to be happy. The Fire Nation was the most technologically advanced and used the most complex military. The Earth Kingdom was the largest of the four with diversity across their people. They had farmers, merchants, and a royal family. Finally, the Water Tribes are similar to Inuits living on the water and hunting for a living. There is also a parallel dimension called the Spirit World where animal like creatures live. People seldom travel to the spirit world and vice versa.
Each of these nations have people called “benders” who can control the elements. For example, a fire bender can control fire and other similar elements like lightning, lava, and steam. They’re unique to their nations. We find out the reason for this in Korra when we discover the first Avatar named Wan.
There is a figure called the “Avatar” who is the most powerful person in the world. Only they have the capability to bend all four elements. Their purpose is to keep balance between the four nations and act as a bridge to the Spirit World. When great tragedies strike the world, it’s their job to end it and bring peace. An Avatar will die and the Avatar Spirit will be reincarnated in the Avatar Cycle. This cycle goes in the order of fire, air, water, and earth. You find out in Korra that this was the order Avatar Wan learned the four elements.
The Avatar also has what’s called the Avatar State. In this form, they have limitless power. They are practically unstoppable at these moments. There is one major flaw to it. If they are killed in the Avatar State, it will break the Avatar Cycle ending the line right there. They have all the power in the cosmos, but it’s also where they are at their weakest.
The background for Avatar: The Last Airbender is that Aang is the newest incarnation of the Avatar. He’s a child when the Fire Nation is breaking out to start a war on the other nations. Since the last Avatar was from the Fire Nation, the kingdom sets their sights on defeating the Air Nomads first to wipe out the new Avatar. The Air Nomad monks have no choice but to tell Aang who he really is before he’s of age. Confused and scared, Aang flees from his home with his animal companion, a sky bison named Appa. He ends up crashing into the sea during a terrible storm. He goes into the Avatar State to protect himself and Appa. They fall into a deep sleep frozen in time for a hundred years. During this time, the Fire Nation has an all out war defeating the Air Nomads in a mass genocide and decimating the Southern Water Tribe. The only holdouts are the Northern Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom.
Avatar: The Last Airbender begins when siblings Katara and Sokka awaken Aang from his slumber in an iceberg.
The difference between Avatar and Korra
There’s no way that I can say Avatar is better than Korra or vice versa. It’s comparing apples and oranges grown in the same orchard. They’re similar and very different at the same time. In Korra, they make a lot of callbacks to the first show, but you don’t need to see it to follow what is happening. I do advise people to watch Avatar first (judging you, Bri and Alex!), because it enhances Korra that much more.
For example, they’re not going to know who Iroh is when he shows up in Korra. He’s just going to be some dude but watchers of Avatar know that he’s one of the best, most complex, and well developed characters of either show. When Zuko arrives in Korra, they’re not going to understand what he went through to become Aang’s best friend. He has probably one of the best villain redemption arcs ever written. They’re not going to squeal their heads off when Toph appears and kicks the crap out of “Twinkletoes” Korra. As I said above, you don’t need to watch Avatar first, but it really adds a lot to Korra.
To me, the biggest difference between Avatar and Korra is the demographic the shows were aimed at. Avatar was written for a younger age group. It was supposed to be for the 6-11 age range but clearly reached well beyond that. Korra had the same range, but as they progressed into darker and more complex stories, it was quite clear who they were writing the show for. This was for those eleven year olds from Avatar that were now fifteen years old. Korra is a teenager herself and at a different point in her life than Aang who started his journey at twelve. This was emphasized when Korra was taken off Nickelodeon to stream online only. The subject matter didn’t fit the age group they shot for. You can’t show 6-11 year olds a group of terrorists torturing the Avatar.
This is where Avatar: The Last Airbender ended up surprising me. It’s the more childlike of the two shows, but it definitely didn’t feign from introducing some pretty dark plot lines. When I was going into Korra, I knew it would be more adult of the two shows. Korra is older than Aang and can take on heavier subject matter. I was in no way prepared for the depth and severe storytelling of Avatar. The entire show took me by surprise.
Season one through the first half of season two is fairly light and fun. It’s very much adventure of the week and building the story. The stakes don’t feel as high as the Gaang (Aang’s group) mosey their way along. They know they have to defeat Fire Lord Ozai to end the war. Aang must master the four elements to do so. They don’t really feel a rush to get it done.
They do lay out some heavy tones through season one. I mean in freaking episode three, Aang finds the skeleton of his father figure and mentor Gyatso. He then discovers his people were destroyed in a genocide and that he, as the title says, is the last Airbender. He is so distraught that it sends him into the Avatar State. Only Katara, the always amazing female lead, can talk Aang out of it.
Later in the season, they lay down why Zuko is the honor seeking jerk face villain obsessively seeking to capture the Avatar. When he was thirteen years old, his Grade A parent of a father Ozai (I mean that with so much sarcasm) challenged him to a duel to the death FOR SPEAKING OUT OF TURN. He burned his son’s face scarring him for life and banished him from the country as the dishonored prince. For speaking out of turn. A thirteen year old. Barely a teenager. Still very much a kid.
Grade A parenting there, Ozai. You are one sick bastard.
That’s some pretty heavy stuff for season one. Luckily the rest of the season is pretty lighthearted. Most of the darker moments are handled off screen. You don’t see, for example, Zuko get the life changing blow. You only see his Uncle Iroh close his eyes as it happens. There are some major battles that go down. As mentioned above, the last Water Tribe stronghold is the Northern Water Tribe. A huge battle occurs, but I won’t say how it turns out.
Even as season two rolls along, it’s at a pretty slow pace. The Gaang wanders from episode to episode without any pressing urge to defeat the Fire Lord. I mean we even get singing hippies for Christ’s sake:
Then there are three events in season two that make the show turn to not only a faster pace but also subject matter that changed the face of children’s television:
1. Meeting Toph Beifong
2. The episode called “The Library”
3. Ba Sing Se
Toph Beifong might possibly be one of my favorite characters ever created in the history of television. Plot wise, her arrival marked Aang learning his third element. He was (finally) one step closer to defeating the big bad. She helped balance the team by adding another female.
Toph also made her mark on children’s television for one huge reason. She is blind. While this shouldn’t be a huge deal, it is. You have a main character with a disability. Usually in children’s television they would have a special episode teaching kids the benefits of being nice to people with disabilities, how we’re all equal, blah, blah, snooze fest. It’s been done time and time again.
Toph earthbends that trope out the freaking window. She states in her first episode that she never had trouble seeing. She senses seismic waves through her feet. It allows her to “see” objects and people similar to how bats use echolocation. She’s not a damsel in distress. She can take care of herself, but it’s not below Toph to accept help when needed. She’s uncomfortable when they fly on Appa or walk on a wooden dock, because she can’t feel the earth to “see.” In those moments, she’ll hold onto someone’s arm, but no one makes a huge deal about it. She’s just another member of the Gaang.
Along that same vein, Toph openly makes jokes about being blind. It doesn’t bother her. This is where Avatar struck out away from the traditional PSA format. No one tip toed around her lack of eyesight. Everyone rolls with it as if it’s a normal day in the world of Toph.
Because it’s normal for her.
I read a story on Tumblr about a mother upset over her child getting a disease where she would lose her sight. The little girl told her mother it would be alright because she would be strong like Toph. This is defining television.
Aside from the fact that this is one of my favorite episodes of Avatar, WE FINALLY HAVE A TIME TABLE! This is when season two kicks the plot into high gear. This is a defining episode where we not only question the morals of all wars in general, but Sokka discovers that a solar eclipse is coming in a few months. Fire benders lose their abilities during solar eclipses marking the perfect time to attack the Fire Lord.
From “The Library,” a lot of stuff gets thrown at the viewer. Appa is kidnapped and suffers traumatic animal abuse. After losing his people, Aang must deal with losing Appa as well. Zuko is well on his retribution arc. He struggles with the abuse from his father but also whether or not he wants to be good or evil. Zuko is also dealing with classism. He was raised as a prince in royalty. On the run as a refugee with Uncle Iroh, he experiences poverty for the first time. Season two is Zuko’s defining arc in my opinion.
The Gaang moves from “The Library” to the most disturbing part of Avatar which is…
Ba Sing Se:
Where do I even begin with Ba Sing Se? This section of Avatar is where I had to sit back and go, “How the hell is any of this appropriate for children’s television!?”
These are the episodes that defined Avatar for me and separated it from Korra. As mentioned above, I expected complex storytelling from the more adult Korra. I had no idea how dark Avatar, this children’s show, would become. They handled such mature storytelling in a way that a child could comprehend, but it reached well beyond the demographic to where older viewers would truly understand what was happening.
So what exactly is Ba Sing Se?
Ba Sing Se is the only metropolis in the world. It’s so big that they had to build a monorail system, because it took at least two days to walk from one end to the other.
Here’s a map of then entire world of Avatar:
See those two circles I pointed out? THAT’S the city of Ba Sing Se. It takes up about 1/5 of the Earth Kingdom. Fans speculated that it has at least a million or more people there. The creators of Avatar said it’s bigger than Los Angeles. It’s the Manhattan Island of this world.
To get why Ba Sing Se is so messed up, you need to understand the layout of the city. There are two massive walls that protect this place. Inside the Outer Wall is the agrarian system where they have farmlands, lakes, and even mountains. The Inner Wall is where the actual city is. Within this massive section, there are rings that separate the class systems. Can you already tell where this is going?
The Lower Ring is where the majority of the population lives. It also had the most poverty and crime. Refugees escaping the war fled to Ba Sing Se, because the walls had only been breached once in it’s 5000+ year history. It was considered the safest place on Earth.
The Middle Ring is your middle class sector with restaurants, shops, and merchants. It even had it’s own Town Hall separate from the other two rings. It had more parks, rivers, and flora than the crowded Lower Ring.
Finally, the Upper Ring is where, you guessed it, the wealthiest people in Ba Sing Se live. These are your government and military officials as well as the royal family. Unlike the other two rings, they are protected by a separated secret police called the Dai Li that kept crime out of this ring.
Just looking at the set up of the city, you can see where Aang might have a big problem. His one job is to bring balance to the people of the world. People are no where close to being equal in Ba Sing Se. The walls and class rings play majorly into the plot for several episodes and even comes back in Korra.
Ba Sing Se was created based on real world situations in China and North Korea. For example, the Gaang is given a handler named Joo Dee. She keeps them distracted away from the “unsavory” parts of the city. When they want to see the Earth King to tell him about the coming solar eclipse, she answers with “There is no war in Ba Sing Se.” They’re later informed it’s actually against the law to talk about the war inside the city limits. The moment you see her, you know there’s some pretty messed up stuff going down.
This is when the entire tone of the show changes. Ba Sing Se is a series of eight episodes where just about every terrible thing imaginable happens. This includes a totalitarian dictatorship, secret police that’s similar to the Nazi SS, murdering a teenager, more animal abuse, and brainwashing. Luckily we still have characters like Sokka to make it lighthearted for the children, but any adult watching this is going, “Holy hell, this is terrifying.”
From Ba Sing Se, the show holds a pretty steady path of relatively heavy material balanced with humor. For example, they cover points like how propaganda can effect children raised in a military society, but it’s evened out with Aang befriending them and having a dance party. It’s never gets as dark as Ba Sing Se until you hit the four part final battle.
Well actually, there’s an entire episode about how terrifying waterbenders can be. That is definitely as scary as Ba Sing Se. Because if you think about it, what is most of the body made of?
In my opinion, this is what sets Avatar apart from Korra. As I said, they pushed the boundaries of what the 6-11 year old demographic is watching. It exposed them to complex storytelling and diversity that is really unheard of in most children’s television. Avatar laid the foundation which Korra continued in it’s run.
The Women of Avatar: The Last Airbender
I have three nieces and a nephew. A lot of times I will judge children’s television by whether or not I would want them to watch the show. My oldest niece is ten and right in the demographic of Avatar. Would I want her to see this show?
Hell yeah I would!
One of the greatest qualities of Avatar and later on Korra is the amount of well rounded and complex female characters. They feature just about every kind of woman imaginable. They have mothers who love being at home with their kids. They have princesses obsessed with power who want to rule. They have warriors who get crushes and like boys. You have young girls forced to grow up too fast and become the mother in the family. And of course, Toph who is blind and still rips airships out of the sky. Avatar demonstrates that no matter what age you are, you can fight.
You better believe that I want my niece to watch Avatar and Korra.
Since I already covered Toph, I want to touch on some of the other women of the show. Here’s are some of my personal favorite women from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
It took me awhile to really appreciate Katara in all her glory. I latched on to many of the other characters initially. I still prefer her brother, Sokka, over her, but that’s like saying I prefer Fruit Loops over Lucky Charms. Both characters are wonderful and provide different elements to the show.
What’s great about Katara is her journey alongside Aang. When we meet her, she can barely waterbend. The audience sees her learn, practice, and overcome weaknesses until she’s a master.
As the voice of reason, she’s constantly nurturing the group to bring out the best in everyone. The other great trait is she doesn’t take crap from no one. When Master Pakku say that women can’t be waterbending fighters, Katara bests him in a fight. Sokka is a little sexist in the beginning of the show, but Katara calls him out every single time. She refuses to leave people in need. The Gaang would have died multiple times without her there to rescue them. Katara is the ideal leading lady for this show. She has patience and strength. She shows that you don’t have to be a sword wielding warrior type to be a fighter. You can be motherly, girlie, feminine and then go out and kick ass. You are a queen, Katara!
Aw man, I freaking love Azula. She’s bat crap crazy, but I love her.
It’s probably best they waited until season two to introduce her. The Gaang wouldn’t have made it far if she went after them from the get go. They had a season to prefect their fighting skills before she arrived on the scene. She would have murder them all in episode one and the Fire Nation would have won. She takes on Aang, the most powerful character in the show, and almost kills him a few times. She is that strong. She’s also one of the few characters that can control lightning.
Azula is the best villain in the show. Her father Fire Lord Ozai is your stereotypical mustache twirling bad guy. Zuko ends up switching sides. Azula here is an antagonist through and through.
The great thing they do with Azula is show the progression of how she turned out evil. From a young age, she was the prodigy of her father and this military nation. She’s cruel often threatening death to her servants for the mildest transgression. Azula controls everyone through fear. Being trained in military history, she’s a brilliant tactician usually two steps ahead of the Gaang. While this woman is a wicked force to be reckoned with, it’s easy to forget that she’s only fourteen years old.
This is where the show shines with her. There’s a wonderful episode called “The Beach” where they bring out Azula’s more human qualities. She struggles talking with a boy she has a crush on. She’s jealous of Ty Lee who’s the center of attention. She doesn’t know how to function with normal people that aren’t out to conquer the world. She even flat out says she’s a monster a few times, and she’s okay with that. Azula recognizes that she has her flaws. She chooses to ignore those faults. In the end, it’s her narcissism and pride that’s her downfall.
Azula is an incredible character and probably one of the best handled villains you will see in both children and adult television. She’s probably my favorite character in the show with Sokka.
I have a special place in my heart for Ty Lee. She’s bubbly, happy, and talks about how pink her aura is. Her sunny disposition trying to see the best in everyone including Azula brings its own energy to the show.
There’s two qualities in Ty Lee that I adore. The first is she isn’t a bender. That doesn’t stop her from being able to take out a platoon of benders. She’s learned how to attack people by striking their pressure points. It blocks their chi rendering them paralyzed for a short time. Ty Lee doesn’t need to shoot fire from her hands to fight. She has her own fists of fury for that.
The other thing I love about Ty Lee is she chooses to be different. Growing up, she had a ton of sisters that looked exactly like her. She wanted to have her own identity and ran away to join the circus. When called a “circus freak,” she takes that as a compliment. Ty Lee chooses to be a “freak,” because at least then she has her own identity. That’s a stellar and unique choice.
I wish Suki was in the show more. She doesn’t join the Gaang until midway season three which is a shame. Her badassery is up there with Katara’s. She is the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors and is a skilled fighter. While she’s not a bender, it doesn’t keep her from backing down from a fight. She faced Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai to protect Appa knowing she was outnumbered. Her bravery stems from protecting what she loves even if she’s the last one standing. Suki is even tough enough to survive being a prisoner of war in the harshest Fire Nation prison.
What I admire about Suki is she a normal girl when it comes to romance. She flat out tells Sokka that while she’s a warrior, she’s also a girl who likes him. That also doesn’t stop her from calling out Sokka when he’s trying to be all macho and protect her. Suki tells him that she can take care of herself which we see multiple times throughout the show.
Suki is a great balance for Sokka. They clearly respect each other after their initial meeting. Even in the darkest times of war, you should try and find happiness with someone you care for. Those are the most important relationships.
Mai is another character I just didn’t get enough of. Like Azula, she’s the product of an upper class Fire Nation family. She was bred to hold her tongue and never have an opinion on anything to get what she wanted. As long as she stayed in line and minded her manners, she wouldn’t get in trouble. On the outside, she appears apathetic and uncaring about everything.
She is anything but that. Her love for Zuko makes her break out from her society. She would do anything for him even if that means standing up to her friend Azula. Like Suki, she doesn’t take crap from her boyfriend. Mai chooses to stand by her love oppose to her nation. To me, she’s one of the bravest characters in the show for that very reason.
The trend of strong women didn’t stop with Avatar. Korra has it’s share. What’s more is they portray strong women of all ages. Korra is in her upper teens for most of the series. Asami has her own company by age nineteen. Lin is in her fifties while her sister Su is in her upper forties. Jinora is only eleven when she becomes an airbending master. These women of all ages fight to stop villains from conquering the world.
Avatar and Korra’s strongest point is how they write women into their shows. Their women love, laugh, cry, mourn, choose to fight, choose to be mothers, choose to stay at home or explore the world, and are still powerful. This is why I’m proud to let my nieces watch this show.
Few more things you should know:
Adults in Avatar and Korra are smart. One of my biggest pet peeves in children’s television is when adults are portrayed as idiots. I’ll never forget an episode of iCarly that infuriated me. Carly tricked her adult older brother Spencer to go to a wrestling match. He got terribly injured, but Carly ended up the hero since she had bested the adult. She was never remorseful about hurting her brother. It pissed me off. When I was a nanny, I watched a lot of Disney Chanel with my kid. In almost every show minus a few like Good Luck Charlie, the adults were played off like idiots.
What’s great about Avatar is the kids/teenagers recognize that adults are smart, and they use that. They seek help from their mentors. They learn from the lessons taught to them by the older generation. In return, there are plenty of lessons the adults take from the kids as well. This is how the world actually works.
Another one of my favorite things about Avatar is they humanize the villains. There are points where you’re rooting for Azula just as much as Aang. There’s many great moments where they show that the “evil Fire Nation” are still people. They were actually the first victims of the war. They’re not all power hungry maniacs. There’s a great scene where two workers on a Fire Nation airship meet for the first time. They awkwardly introduce themselves while a third claims it’s his birthday. While Zuko and Sokka infiltrate a prison camp, Zuko chats with some guards at dinner. They joke how you can date the female guards if you don’t mind getting burned by them. The female guard then smacks him. The children in a Fire Nation school choose to dance because it’s fun. These are all very human things which makes it more rewarding when Zuko chooses to save his nation from his father.
Finally, every character has their weakness. Each have one or more episodes where they recognize their flaw and overcome it. My favorite example is when Sokka felt useless for not being a bender. All his friends had these amazing abilities, and he was the funny guy. He moped for about a second before going, “I’m not going to stand for this. I can be better. I’ll learn a new skill so I can contribute to the group.” Sokka sought out a teacher. He learned the sword and became a master at it. Each character hit these points where they chose to better themselves. Aang struggled with the destruction of firebending. Toph invented metalbending while captured by the enemies. Katara learned bloodbending and chose not to use it seeing how deadly it was. Zuko overcame his father’s abuse to become a protagonist. Choosing your own path and to overcome your weaknesses is probably the best message Avatar: The Last Airbender has to offer.
Avatar’s success could also contribute to the wide range of guests on the show. The talent was more than your run of the mill Joe Schmo voice actor. For example, Serena Williams, the world famous professional tennis player, is a huge fan of the show. She asked if she could voice a character, and the show runners were more than happy to give her a character in both Avatar and later Korra.
Many of the guests include:
Mark Hamill (Star Wars)
Mick Foley (WWE Smackdown!)
Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter, Peter Pan)
George Takei (Star Trek)
Héctor Elizondo (Princess Diaries, Runaway Bride)
Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, 24)
John DiMaggio (Futurama, Transformers)
Raphael Sbarge (Mass Effect, Once Upon A Time)
Rachel Dratch (30 Rock, SNL)
Tara Strong (My Little Pony, Teen Titans) AKA my favorite voice actor of all time!
Wil Wheaton (Star Trek, Big Bang Theory)
Wade Williams (24, Prison Break)
Ron Perlman (Pacific Rim, Tangled)
These are just for Avatar. They pulled in even more stars for Korra like Zelda Williams, J.K. Simmons, and Jonathan Adams.
What else can I say?
Avatar: The Last Airbender changed the face of children’s television. It set a new bar that every show should reach for. Some are close to it. I’m a huge fan of Gravity Falls, and Alex Hirsch said he makes a kids show he would watch. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is another fantastic example.
Though, it’s sad to say that most children’s television has really decreased in plot centric shows. The new Teen Titans Go! is trash compared to the complex story telling the original Teen Titans possessed. Cartoon Network also cancelled Young Justice right after it won an Emmy, because the CEOs said little girls weren’t buying enough toys. This is crap. I hope when networks see the success of Avatar and Korra they bring back more plot based shows for kids. Children are not idiots to be talked down to. They deserve well done television just as much as adults do.
Until then, I highly recommend Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s a show that will change your life.