The show that balanced maturity and goofiness like none other
By Greg Waldock, Staff Writer
On July 18 and 19, 2008, the last episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on Nickelodeon. “Sozin’s Comet,” the four-part finale, wrapped up three seasons of what would become a massive cult hit that slowly grew in popularity over the years. A decade after its conclusion, we can now take a look back at this strange, goofy, yet surprisingly serious show, and why it’s only gotten more popular with time.
For the uninitiated, Avatar: The Last Airbender is an anime-inspired American cartoon that focuses on Aang, a little boy running away from his responsibilities as the Avatar—a reincarnating protector of the world—and learning how to come to terms with his identity. It can be seen as a precursor to shows like Steven Universe and Adventure Time: Wacky adventures aimed for kids, yet with dynamic characters and well-thought-out worlds.
The two driving characters in the show are Aang, the titular Last Airbender, and Zuko, a prince of the imperial Fire Nation seeking redemption. They compliment each other more than they contrast: Both are outcasts, both seek redemption for past personal failures, both fail again throughout the run of the show, and both accept themselves honestly to try to fix the world. Of all the many characters in this show, it might be Zuko that’s most fondly remembered for having a dynamic character and believable transformation.
Everybody has a character they identify with most in Avatar. Personally, I found Sokka to be the most relatable—a sarcastic older brother trying to find his talent in a world of amazing abilities and phenomena. Even the best worldbuilding is meaningless without identifiable and likeable characters to fill it, and this is Avatar’s greatest strength. So many arcs and backstories and personalities are worked into every episode of the show, but it never feels crowded and nobody is out of place. Everyone’s story works to help the larger narrative, a colossal three-season buildup culminating in the fall of the Fire Nation and Aang’s ascension to full Avatar.
The tight story is what separates Avatar from other shows of the time. There are very few filler episodes and it’s all building to a single logical conclusion, from the premier to the finale. This cohesiveness also separates The Last Airbender from its sequel series, Avatar: The Legend of Korra. The Last Airbender was guaranteed three seasons from the start, while The Legend of Korra was cancelled at the end of each season, removing the possibility for long arcs and satisfying endings. The Last Airbender also took full advantage of its uniqueness—it was not a sequel, prequel, spinoff, or rip-off of anything on air at the time. It could be, and was, incredibly creative with its artistic inspirations and ideology.
Avatar ushered in an era of kids’ shows that could dabble in mature themes and have sophisticated characters. While it was never a huge ratings success, it proved that there was both a market for this content and a large number of creators willing to try something bold. A lot more can be said about the show: Its excellent music, the amazing voice acting from such a young cast, the movie adaptation and all its flaws, and the philosophy that deepens as the show goes on. The number of amazing things The Last Airbender has going for it is nothing short of astounding. Even if there’s never another sequel show, at least we’ll always have this one near-perfect gem of television. It changed what kids’ television was allowed to do—10 years later, the legacy of Avatar: The Last Airbender is only getting stronger.