One of the deepest and best written shows of the last ten years has been a cartoon on Nickelodeon. No, not fucking SpongeBob. SpongeBob is only for slightly brain-damaged toddlers who laugh at jingling keys and stoners who are too damn lazy — or too giggly — to find the goddamn remote control amidst the Cheesy Poofs bags, the empty beer cans, and the old pizza boxes (OMG! A SpongeBob stoner joke! So original!11! Fuck off). No, I speak of Avatar - The Last Airbender. This cartoon on Nickel-fucking-odeon is more profound and esoteric than any televised American drama or Japanese anime that I can think of off the top of my head. No shit. No joke. Sure, I have trouble thinking (period) after getting kicked in the noggin by that mule I was trying to dress up as Dorothy Hamill, but that still says a lot.
I remember very clearly that I used to just roll my eyes and zone out whenever Mehve and the Chief started waxing on poetically about how great Avatar was during its first season run a few years back. "Really?" I'd say. "You're sucking off and sticking your tongues up the anus of a kiddy show on Nickelodeon that looks like all it did was rip off character designs and a kung-fu plot from any generic C-Grade anime ever made? I'm losing faith in yous. BOTH of yous!" To which they'd both reply, "Give it a chance, asshole. It's good stuff. Don't be a dick. Put the knife down..."
Well, eventually the first season box set came out on DVD and I had a gift certificate for Best Buy left over from my birthday a couple of years ago... I figured "what the heck," bought the first Avatar box set and a few months later (when I ran out of other stuff to watch) I popped it in and gave it a try.
At first I wasn't too impressed. Things started out okay I suppose, as we learn all about the crazy world that Avatar takes place in, but it really didn't feel that fresh to me; it just felt like a typical "caper of the week" show with some martial arts peppered throughout. We're told that in this world there are 4 nations of sorts, each based on the elemental powers of some of the warriors within its borders: The Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, the Air Nomads, and the Water Tribes. The special (and gifted... but not in the retarded sense) fighters of these races can "bend" the main element of their territory for offensive and defensive maneuvers. "What the FUCK does that even mean?!!?!?" you crap out of your mouth like a bulimic teenage cheerleader into the toilet after eating two french fries on a skank-date with the punter on the football team because the quarterback already had 5 girlfriends (and you're too fat to be the 6th)? It means that airbenders have absolute control over the air (using it to glide around the sky, blow razor-sharp gusts at enemies, or simply throw it at people like an invisible fist), earthbenders can manipulate and command rock and dirt, firebenders fire and heat, and waterbenders water and ice. We learn fairly quickly that there is always (and only) one Avatar at a time — one man or woman who is the reincarnated essence of the planet (and all the Avatars who came before) — who can control all 4 elements, and who's in charge of keeping peace throughout the world. But the current Avatar has been missing for over a hundred years, which allowed the power-hungry, asshole-filled Fire Nation to start striking out from its neck of the woods and grabbing control over all the lands, one territory at a time. Bad shit indeed.
Anyway, 100 years after the Avatar disappeared (and the Fire Nation began conquistadoring the globe), two Water Tribe siblings (the older boy Sokka, and younger sister Katara) at the South Pole stumble upon the frozen remains of Aang, a young airbender nomad, and the missing commander of all the elements. And Aang's giant flying bison, Appa, too. Well, because this show is three seasons long, it's fairly obvious that Aang isn't dead, and when thawed out the three kids (and yes, almost all of the main characters are children or teens, but like the anime Bokurano before it, that doesn't make this thing childish, it just makes it more brutal when bad shit happens to them — which it does all the time) set off to get Aang trained in the ways of bending the rest of the elements (he being a master airbender already). From the Southern Water Tribe lands they begin traveling the world, evading the banished Fire Nation Prince Zuko, and Zuko's wise and awesome uncle, Iroh. They make new friends (like the coolest blind, twelve year-old, earthbending uber-warrior you've ever met), and lots more enemies (like lots of dicky Fire Nation twats and assholes), and in the end everybody either forces or helps Aang to face his destiny in taking on the great and powerful Fire Nation Emperor in order to try and stop the world war that he's perpetuating (before a certain comet powers him up even more with pure crazy than he already is).
Yeah, yeah, yeah... I know, you think you've seen it all before. You think, "Chyah... It's JUST a kiddy show... It's probably played up like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, except really lame with tons of fart jokes." UUuuurrrrrrrrr! You lousy sonova..... *POINTS FINGER AT YOU!* You are so goddamn wrong. So much love and history and attention to detail has been poured into this thing... Each group of elemental benders has their own made up martial arts — each completely different, yet beautiful to behold, and you can actually feel the power of them even if the benders are just whooshing their arms and legs around while flying rocks and water is zooming around the battlefield (most fights are usually a LOT more aggressive and physical, I'm just saying...). The ingenious ways that they come up with using each element in battle is astounding too. From building up a sweat to use their perspiration as a weapon, or an earth bender realizing that metal is just purified earth and can be manipulated just like rocks with enough concentration, you applaud each new idea. I won't even get into blood bending, but I'm sure you get the idea. If you don't, well just try opening up your fucking closed mind a bit, twinkle toes. Don't be such a shut-in. Anyway, each fight is choreographed so precisely and animated so smoothly — most of the time it looks like feature film quality animation. Honestly, I am mentally whacking off over this show just thinking back upon it. Work. Of. Fucking. Art.
Beyond the martial arts, another important aspect of ther series is the journey that the kids go on (actually, the whole show reminded me of The Lord of the Rings in that the story is all about their travels and their growth, even though it does lead up to something grandisimo in the end. There's also tons of setbacks and losses for our home team along the way. In fact they usually end up losing their fights with powerful enemies — something you never see in other cartoons where the spunky leads always win with luck on their side in the end, and where you always want to beat the shit out of the main characters for being so goddamn upbeat all the time, usually for no good reason whatsoever). For most of the first season Avatar's kind of like The Incredible Hulk TV show, where almost every week the kids move on to another town to help people or learn something new, always running away from a constant pursuer... But not really... Fuck it, that's a weak analogy, but I just love Lou Ferrigno and reference him whenever I can.
I will admit that the first season is the weakest one. It's interesting and fun, sure, but it's mainly just adventures-of-the-week for the most part. Yes, we do meet tons of friends and foes who come back into the story in a bigger way later on down the line, and we do learn a lot about the world as a whole, and about benders, and the Avatar specifically throughout the first season, and we enjoy it (yes, WE DO, because I SAID so). But it isn't until the multi-part 1st season finale that we really get a taste of what the mythic tapestry of this story is really all about. The last few episodes of the first season get BIG. Things happen and characters change enormously (and some kick the big bending bucket) during and after the events in the Northern Water Tribe lands. This is pretty much when I sat up and really took notice. There were some violent and major confrontations, and the stakes grew two-fold by the end of it all. Then came season 2.
Whereas season 1 dealt mainly with Aang learning water bending, and the kids' trip to the Northern Water Tribes, the second season (aka Book 2) was all about earth — the Earth Kingdom, earthbenders, and of course Toph, the 12 year-old blind bender who kicks everybody's ass with just her feet. Season 2 starts off with the same awesomeness that the first season ended with, and then it continuously and courteously keeps upping the drama, action, and storytelling all the way up till its season finale, and then it passes warp speed and flies directly into plaid. After first seeing it I didn't think that the second season finale could ever possibly be topped. The season-long build-up to it, the gigantic metropolis that the last half of the season took place in, the ambiguous questions of what is right and wrong that are asked (and not even answered clearly), and the betrayals. Ooooooh mamba jamba! I cannot remember FEELING a fictitious act of treachery as strongly as the ones in this show. I couldn't stop thinking about the end of the second season for days. Not that I'm a thoughtful or deep guy, but this children's cartoon really affected me. And as strong as the story was at the end of Book 2, it once again started out as powerful in Book 3, and kicked it up a notch with pretty much every episode as they came down the pipeline.
The cast of characters was fairly large by the time the third season began (the third season being The Book of Fire), and their group dynamics kept changing. Throughout the entire Book 3 I was constantly on the edge of my seat never knowing what would (or even could) happen next. Everything led up to the grandest of the grand finales where.... Sorry, but I can't spoil this for you. It's just too damn good. Avatar is the kind of show you WISH and PRAY for whenever you see another CSI spin-off or another Desperate Housewives rip-off announced for the new Fall season. I don't care if you're 7 or 80 years-old, Avatar is simply a fantastic fable. When half of each episode is dedicated to the bad guy and his personal conflicts and you want to shake the writers' hands for it instead of wishing we'd just get back to the good guys, you know you've got something fucking wonderful. When one entire 23 minute episode is dedicated to the Avatar's pet — that six-legged, giant, flying bison — and you LOVE it, you begin to see that televised tales don't have to follow the same formula week after week.
At first glance you, like me, might just write off the character designs as cheap anime rip-offs... But then you, like me, take a good look at them. Yeah, they do borrow the big-eyes of your typical anime designs, but they are all definitely their own entities. Not only do each of the dozens upon dozens of recurring characters look vastly different from each other (and they don't just use the same face with different hair styles like so many other actual anime series do), but they change as the series goes on. The kids actually look older at the end of the 3rd season as compared to the beginning of the 1st, after a year of harsh story time has gone by. Also, some people with shaved heads grow hair, some take on vastly different hair styles, and they all change their clothing all the time, etc. "Pfffffffft!" you pshaw, "That ain't nothin' special, that there isn't," you claim. But it is. NOBODY changes the character designs in small budgeted animated TV shows. It's so much easier, and cheaper, to keep drawing and painting the same face and hair and clothes forever. But Avatar doesn't care what's easiest or cheapest. It cares about good storytelling first and foremost.
It also cares a great deal about creating breathtaking and bizarre environments (landscapes, cities) that you've never seen before. And it wouldn't think of using anything less than the perfect voices for all its cast (thank you Andrea Romano! You are a goddess of voice directing! Google her the fuck up if you don't believe me). Good, bad, ugly, each character's voice is goddamn perfect. Nobody plays their character over-the-fucking-top (like most dubbed anime seiyuu do — American and Japanese), instead they speak their roles; they let their actual emotions shine through. Take for example the late Mako. Mako did the voice of Uncle Iroh (Zuko's calm and collected [and bad-ass] parental figure) for the first two seasons before croaking, and at times I actually forgot he was just voicing a cartoon character. I felt his fucking pain when remembering his own son's death, and my heart was wrenched from my rib cage when he saw what.... Ah fuck it. Goddamn watch this fucking show! I'm not going to ruin the best parts for you. Seriously, I don't care if you think that cartoons are only meant for kids, or if an animator killed your father with a paintbrush and 4 gallons of burnt sepia right in front of you when you were a child. If you like storytelling that will blow your fucking mind you really need to broaden your horizons (Jesus, I'm on cliche overkill here today) and fucking watch this thing. If you like kick-ass martial arts fighting and incredible battle sequences that you never even thought of before, you need to go out right now and buy all three seasons and sit the fuck down and play them all until you're done. If you like SpongeBob that just means you like to fuck your own mother. Don't talk to me.
Yes, it starts out fairly generic and slower than you might like, but over the course of its 3 season-long plot it builds into something EPIC. Yes, that overused and under-appreciated word: Epic. I know. But honestly, there's no better description for it. The last 21-episode season alone is one of the most applause-worthy televised events that I have ever bore witness to. There are so many moments where my friends and I would just yell out "Oh FUCK yes!" due to the (for lack of another better term) awesomeness that we just watched. Not over-the-top moments, but real, heartfelt storytelling with fantastic payoffs (and punches) and EARNED retributions. Oh, and earned laughs too. The tension-relieving jokes in this show are, get this, FUNNY. Sure, some of it is lowbrow (it WAS originally broadcast on Nick don't forget), but both the smart jokes and the silly jokes actually made me laugh. "It's so dark down here, I can't see a thing!!" "Oh NO! What a NIGHTMARE!"
And the writers never forget anything! You may think that a fairly important plot point has been dropped since they don't mention it for a season or two, but they don't ignore it. They just have HUGE plans for it... But once again, and for the last time, I digress. Swallow what you think is left of your pathetic pride, go out, and get all three seasons. Then watch them all, and thank me for it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, holmes. This is a kiddy show aimed at all you ankle-biters out there, but that's ah-ight. Nothin' to be 'shamed of. Good shit is good shit, yo. But what I don't undastand is just what the fuck M. Night Shamylammy-ding-dong plans to do with this thang for his proposed movie trilogy... Yeah, you can easily chop the first season of Avatar down to one 2-hour flick, yo, but how the fuck do you slim the last two mothafuckin' seasons down to anythin' less than 8 hours of plot each? Everythin' in those episodes was a deep part of the plot in one way or the otha. They's gonna have to carve a SHITload of importan' thangs out of these suckas to make 'em fit in a movie. An really, why bother? The story's been told. It be told to mothafuckin' perfection too. Why retell somethin' that's already perfect? The answer is of course "greed," but still, M. Night Shyalyaman, jus' write and direct somethin' new... Oh, and somethin' that doesn't suck, like yo really shitty Lady In Da Water, and that killer trees flick that made me want to cut Marky Mark reeeeally bad.
Oh, and even though there was no brothas in Avatar, I thought that's okay 'cuz this whole world ain't nothin' but slant-eyed homies and hos. Oh, and eskimos. They need some representin' too. At least they ain't no white devils in this thang.