I finally finished Avatar.

After much hiatus-ing along the way, I’ve finally seen the entirety of Avatar: The Last Airbender. (TV series, natch — not the Shyamalan film. Though I laughed and laughed at how the episode “The Ember Island Players” seemed to presage the movie’s awfulness.)

I very much enjoyed the show: the characters, and most especially the world it takes place in, which has all kinds of nifty little details squirreled away in the corners. Apparently Nickelodeon is planning a new twelve-episode series to air next year — set seventy-five years later, focusing on Korra, a Water Tribe girl who’s the new Avatar — and I am very much looking forward to that.

It was interesting, though, watching a show which fundamentally was written for a kid audience. I read a decent amount of YA, but this was aimed at a demographic aged 6-11 (according to Wikipedia), and they play in a whole different ballpark. I could feel the difference: the show still grapped with interesting and sometimes difficult ideas, but the way it did so was . . . simpler.

Which feels like a criticism, maybe even a dismissal, and that’s the part I find interesting. I can’t find any words to describe what I’m thinking of that don’t sound like pejoratives. It’s simpler. The answers come more easily. They aren’t explored in as much depth.

But that isn’t a bad thing. How many adults got hooked on that series? I’m nowhere near the only one. Just because we weren’t the intended audience didn’t mean we couldn’t enjoy it. If it didn’t reach quite the same depths of grief and heights of joy as, say, Dorothy Dunnett, that’s okay; I was shouting at the TV screen anyway, which is a good sign that I cared. The story may have been simpler, but it wasn’t lesser.

So I’m left wondering, what makes that trick happen? What’s the secret technique that makes a nice, simple story for children (Avatar, Harry Potter) into something hordes of adults enjoy? Was it the characterization? Again, that didn’t have the depth I might expect from an adult show — but it was compelling; I giggled and cheered and wailed at the characters not to do the stupid thing I knew they were about to do. Was it the world? Maybe we were all just starving for a full-blown setting that wasn’t the usual familiar medieval Eurofantasy. I’d be curious to hear from people who loved the show: what was it that drew you to it?

(Be spoiler-free, if you can.)

0 Responses to “I finally finished Avatar.”

  1. kateelliott

    I’ve only seen the first four eps of season one so far (trying to watch with my son and his girlfriend, so it depends on when they have time to get up here).

    But – so far – I too have seen that interesting thing: simpler but not lesser. I have to see more (and I intend to watch the entire series), but I too am trying to puzzle this out because the writers/producers do catch something. I don’t think it is just the world; I think maybe, um, well, I dunno. I think that the world and characters are not quite cut and dried; I do not feel that I am watching a show about Black Hat v White Hat even though it seems kind of that way. I feel like I’m watching something (and this after only 4 eps) that suggests, in that simpler form, a world with the nuances of our own.

    • Marie Brennan

      It definitely isn’t pure Black Hat v White Hat in the stereotypical fantasy way: there are some irredeemably Bad People in the Fire Nation, but the Fire Nation itself is not irredeemable. The people in it are treated as people, ranging from good to bad to indifferent. Conversely, there are some pretty irredeemably Bad People from the other nations, too — though generally not so many.

      I’d have to take a close look at the early episodes to see how the writers communicate that in the short term. I expect Iroh has a lot to do with it: putting him right there with Zuko makes it obvious from the start that there’s more than one type of person in the Fire Nation.

      • mindstalk

        Also, how early do we find out why Zuko’s scarred? Even if Zuko is ‘bad’ then and Iroh ‘neutral silly’, his father is clearly ‘worse’ and a backstory for Zuko.

        Kyoshi Warriors are pretty early, and nice for the feminist viewers. #9 is Waterbending Scroll, which they steal, subverting the usual kidshow morality lesson, ditto for #11 Great Divide where Aang lies to save the day.

        Oh, episode 3 introduces Zhao, for more Fire Nation range, including Zuko sparing Zhao’s life in what’s typically a death duel IIRC.

        #5 is Bumi and Omashu, which is just fun, and the application of earthbending to mail delivery and city-building probably appeals to we who like smart/consistent characters and worlds. #6 has earthbenders imprisoned in metal, and then coalbending, more on “thinking through the powers”.

        Oh, we don’t seem to learn about Ozai until #12.

        • Marie Brennan

          Erm, please to be avoiding further spoilers, when the first comment in this thread is from someone who’s only seen four episodes . . . .

      • kateelliott

        Yeah, I think Iroh has a lot to do with it. As an adult watching (can’t say how children would see it), I perceive him as a good man whose sarcasm and attitude are his way of surviving during an era where the Fire Nation is doing bad things that he cannot prevent, and that it is possible that to some extent his mentoring of Zuko — which he must approach very carefully — is his way of fighting back. But that’s just what I’ve picked up from the first four eps, with virtually no spoilers from any other source (I do know that Zuko becomes a “good guy” eventually, but even so that is already being hinted at–that he is not irredeemable–already).

        And I find that both in children’s lit/shows and in adult lit/shows with irredeemable Evil where we as the viewer can dismiss the Enemy entirely because they are Evil tend to bore me and even to disturb me.

        • Marie Brennan

          Yep, exactly. I have zero interest at this point in uncomplicated “the Enemy is Evil” setups, except to argue with them. For values of “the Enemy” that are larger than a few, that is: I can be okay with Evil in doses of a few characters, but when it’s an entire country or race or religion or whatever? No. That isn’t reality, nor is it a fantasy I care to explore.

  2. mindstalk

    Word is that the series started out being written for 6-11, but upped the target age as they realized their actual demographic distribution. Which still leaves the question of how the first 6-20 episodes or whatever managed to hook that demographic.

    I don’t know, though they put a lot of probably unusual work into it from the very beginning, like basing the bending arts on real martial arts. Not like most viewers, especially 6-11 year olds, will recognize “oh yeah, that’s Northern Mantis style” or whatever.

    • Marie Brennan

      I wouldn’t be surprised if they made some changes along the way; the romance plots were very understated, but still possibly more than is usual for a 6-11 target audience. (I so rarely consume media for that demographic — shows, books, whatever — that I can’t really judge.)

      Still, it didn’t do the Harry Potter thing, growing up visibly as it went along. It stayed a kids’ show, that adults also enjoyed.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oops, replied as you were editing. re: martial arts — even if you don’t have the ability to identify the styles (I don’t, not on sight), you can still tell the Firebenders are moving differently from the Waterbenders, and so on. And I wonder if that’s what my subconscious is trying to get at: right from the start, the show created a convincing reality, with subtle and interesting details, and that nuance is what hooked me.

      (To make an utterly outrageous comparison: I said before that True Blood evoked setting and character with remarkable speed, compared to a lot of other TV. In the end I didn’t stick with that show, because its plot didn’t hold me in the long term; but it’s possible there’s a similarity there, that gives the early episodes weight beyond what you’d expect them to carry.)

  3. stormsdotter

    I think the “simpler” handling of Zuko far outdone what Lucas tried to pull in the prequels, and failed to do.

    I really appreciated all the messages about sibling and parent relationships. The series had a lot to say.

    • Marie Brennan

      Good point on Zuko. (My usual comparison for Anakin is to Pyro in the second X-Men movie: there’s a single shot of him, looking at Iceman’s family picture, that conveys more angst and incipient heel-turn than an entire SW prequel.)

      I think my only disagreement on relationships is that I flinch back from the word “messages.” There are definitely points in the series where clear messages happen, but I think the familial stuff is not as much one of them; it’s more used as a vehicle for other messages about the self. If that makes any sense.

  4. ebenstone

    I think that it has a lot more depth than it is being given credit for. If we go episode by episode, sure we can find examples that they are playing to the “intended” demographic, but for the most part I think there is a ton of depth to the series. The characters are three dimensional and I think as the story went on they tried to wedge in more for “older” viewers. I think of a couple of later episodes (Tales of Ba Sing Sae [esp Iroh’s Tale], Appa’s Lost Days and The Southern Raiders(esp. when Sokka is waiting for Suki)as examples of more mature episodes. I think the over all arc of the story is what might bring in older viewers. Just sayin’.

    • Marie Brennan

      What I mean by lack of depth is that it’s fairly common for an episode to introduce a particular question or idea, in clear terms, and then to answer or resolve it just as clearly by the end. Stuff gets dealt with more quickly than I’m accustomed to, often in the space of twenty minutes or so, and it gets stated rather than implied.

      But that isn’t to say it’s without depth. As you point out, the characters are three dimensional, and there are definitely moments of noticeable maturity. It especially does some longer-term, more subtle messaging by way of character arcs. I got hooked even before the arcs had a chance to take hold, though, and I don’t know if that’s because the shape of the story already promised such things in store, or what.

  5. sarcastibich

    I started watching it second-hand when LE put it on the TV. Then I started to like it. The characters are funny, cute, simple, and innocent. They are straighforward in their methods and ideals, and being able to rely on them to be consistent helps make the story work.

    The story is well crafted: they had a clear beginning, middle and end. Every episode contributed somehow, even if it didn’t feel like it (gaining allies that would reoccur later, building background and motivation so that when character X does Y action later it all makes sense OR explaining retroactively why it made sense for them do to Y). It wasn’t an open-ended story created to go forever and make Nickelodeon lots of money, it was a Story.

    It was well done. That is why I liked it.

    Also: Uncle is my favorite. LE really likes Toph.

    “I am not TOPH! I am the MELON LORD!”


    • Marie Brennan

      I *heart* Toph. And also Uncle Iroh. And, and, and . . . even the characters I don’t like — Azula, frex — I like, in the sense that I am interested to watch them do things.

      Good point about it not being open-ended. I’ve come to realize how much I like arc-based construction; it gives a greater sense of coherence and shape to the whole.

  6. beccastareyes

    My cousin and her husband are also fans — he’s a film student and she has a degree in Caribbean studies but also works as a librarian.

    I think part of it is the way of crafting something that is simple, but in the ‘elegant’ way, not the ‘unfinished’ way. The worldbuilding feels complete, rather than ‘making it up as it goes along’, the characters have enough dimension to them that you can get attached, and the plots are well-told. I think it helps that it doesn’t talk down to the 6-11 crowd — it’s age-appropriate in the levels of sex and violence, and being about kids and teens, but the themes are reasonably clever, and the characters are characters, not cutouts.

    • Marie Brennan

      Ooh, I like “elegant, not unfinished” as a descriptor. It immediately made me think of the aesthetic you get in certain periods and areas of Asian art — ikebana, for an example, where it’s about a striking arrangement of maybe three flowers, rather than a vase stuffed full of them. Simplicity can be its own challenge and art form.

  7. cofax7

    What I liked was:

    1. It had women and girls (okay, mostly girls) in actiony roles. Not just the spunky sidekick, but doing things and driving the action. It was rarely didactic about its feminism (except that one Northern Water Tribe episode in S1), just took it as an assumption that Katara and Toph and Azula could be just as powerful as any of the men.

    2. It was beautiful. Just gorgeous colors and imagery.

    3. It had character arcs. Everyone grew and changed (although it would have been more believable if the series had lasted over years instead of only six months).

    4. It made sense. By which I mean, the writers knew where they were going and they pretty much got there, without cheating the plot-logic or the characterizations (much). At the end you got that hit I call “the surprise of the inevitable”, where everything comes together in a way that makes very good sense and is grounded in the characters and the established canon, but isn’t necessarily obvious.

    5. The world-building was great, although this was more of an intellectual appreciation for me. But it was cool to see the different cultures and colors and clothes fashions and personalities. And to realize that there’s a lot MORE there to examine, more stories to be told.

    6. It put as much emphasis on friendship as it did on family and romance. The most important relationship in the story, I felt, by the end was that of Zuko and Aang, and that was a purely platonic thing, grounded in forgiveness and personal growth. (Although one could make an argument for Katara and Zuko–certainly that one had more drama associated with it.)

    7. I loved the characters. The writing gave them humor and depth, and the voice acting really added enormously to that. Even the one-offs were interesting (like Haru and Jin and the Cabbage Seller). By the end of it, I just adored Sokka and Iroh (Iroh! break my heart!), although I could have done with some adult women in the mix.

    In a sense, what I respect the most about this show is that they took a relatively simple story and they made it really well. Any YA or children’s lit writer will tell you that that’s much harder than it looks.

    • Marie Brennan

      1 — oh, absolutely. And add on to it the fact that Nickelodeon noticed how many people really glommed onto Avatar Kyoshi (the Earth Kingdom woman before Roku) and said, okay, let’s do a spin-off story about a girl Avatar. You’re right that there aren’t so many adult women in the story, not compared to Iroh and Ozai and Bumi and Roku and the kids’ father, but the girls were strong enough that I didn’t feel that absence until you pointed it out.

      5 — it’s more than purely intellectual for me (though there’s that side to it, too) because setting is something I really engage with in fantasy. I need good characters more than good settings — the latter without the former only gets you so far — but an engaging world brings its own kind of pleasure.

      7 — the humour really helped, yes. Even before I heard how badly the movie sucked, I had a sneaking suspicion it would be some uber-serious piece of crap, because they wouldn’t understand that the sense of joy was a necessary component.

    • mindstalk

      Besides the special heroes, you also have female soldiers in the Fire Nation. Or at least prison guards, but I think soldiers too.

  8. moonandserpent

    I think the key is that the writers understood that “simple” does not have to mean “talking down” and instead they went for clarity. This seems to be the unifying factor in a lot of YA popular with adults (Save perhaps the Harry Potter books, but that’s my own personal distaste showing.)

    Good crossover YA tells somewhat simplified stories (sometimes… Doctorow’s YAs are as complex as much of the adult Sci-fi I’ve read recently) but manage to keep things simple via clarity rather than “dumbing down” or “talking down”.

    • Marie Brennan

      A comment above made me click onto a comparison with aesthetics in art: simplicity can be its own style there, without being in any way lesser than a more complex style. As you say, it’s about clarity, rather than dumbing down. That helps me feel less like “simple” sounds a pejorative when talking about stories.

  9. logovore

    They had a real plot arc and real world-building, which, pace Babylon 5, is rare even in adult TV.

    Yes, it’s a kid’s show. So protagonist motives are blatant to the viewer, and people get really worked up about how they’re getting on with their friends and acquaintances.

    But they didn’t do Stupid Kid Show Plotting. In part I’d guess that’s because they had a real plot arc to pursue instead. (That acquaintance you’re nervous about meeting again is possibly a crucial resource in Saving The World.)

    Many adult shows, and even more kids’ shows, build their episodes about people failing to get away with something.

    A lot of Avatar episodes were about the protagonists trying to get away with something cool — and succeeding.

  10. akashiver

    I’ll ditto what others have said about its elegance, worldbuilding, and lack of “Stupid Kid Show Plotting.” Also, the writers *care* about the story and the characters. The overall arc is there and it’s being pushed forward (or it’s at least present) in every episode. It’s a big world, but there’s continuity, and characters who return (even the cabbage man).

    Compare Avatar with Smallville, which is supposedly written for an older audience: Smallville, in contrast, is a show that has no respect for its viewers, characters, or the story it claimed to want to tell.

  11. theironchocho

    What I love most about Avatar: tLAB is how it pits the heroes against a despicable villain, but Aang finds the wisdom to understand that you don’t have the right to hurt someone just because they are different from you. One of my favorite scenes in the entire series is when they find a picture of Ozai as a baby. I tear up thinking about it because there is a beautiful message in that scene about people having roots, and how no one begins life wanting to do harm.

    I was drawn in by the fact that it was an ongoing story that was going to have a definitive ending. There were often self-contained episodes, but most of the show felt like it was going somewhere. I was also excited to see girls with agency, and characters from cultures very different from my own.

    • Marie Brennan

      The moment where Aang gets hit with the “so why is it okay to kill Ozai?” question was a great one — got me right in the gut.

  12. genarti

    I would agree with what others have said about how they set out to tell an elegantly simple story, not a dumbed-down one, and how they took care to make complex characters within a complex world. You get the feeling, with the characters as well as the world, that there’s a great deal more to be seen than what shows on the screen at any given moment, and that it would all fit sensibly with what we have seen.

    That’s a thing that’s not always true of media, and especially of children’s shows. You end up with The Wacky Sidekick, who is The Wacky Sidekick and is interested in Wacky Sidekick Stuff, and never gets to have a complicated personality or past experiences or to behave differently with different people, and so on. Everyone in Avatar feels like a real person, even if sometimes they’re real people drawn in broad clear strokes.

    I don’t think the fact that the setting is different from the standard medieval Eurofantasy hurt anything, to be sure. But I think that any setting, given that much depth and research and care, and written this well, would be fascinating.

    (Also, hello! I’ve been seeing you in comments around my friendslist for a while. I finally got around to checking out your journal, and you seem an interesting and cool person, so I went ahead and friended you. I thought I’d let you know whence I came!)

    • Marie Brennan

      The characters are definitely drawn with broad strokes, but I guess the strokes aren’t all in the same color, if that makes any sense. Sokka has some actual military abilities, as well as a goofy sense of humour. Etc.

      (Also, welcome! Thanks for the heads-up.)

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