by Hannah Gentry
Recently, an unlikely show ended up breaking the record for the longest-consecutive run on Netflix’s Top 10 most-watched list. Surprisingly, the show that outlasted popular mature titles like Ozark, Outer Banks, and Tiger King is child-friendly. Netflix introduced Avatar: The Last Airbender to its catalogue on May 18th, and the show kept up an impressive 60-day run in the Top 10 until finally exiting the list on July 20th. So far, it is the only animated show to have accomplished this, as all other series that made previous records were live-action. It is also the only TV-Y7 rated title to have one of the longest chart runs. Through its new platform, Avatar: The Last Airbender has once again entered the mainstream consciousness. So, why is it that a Nickelodeon kid’s show from 2005 is so popular?
Avatar is set in a universe where people known as benders have the power to wield one of the four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. The four nations are divided based on their element (Ex. The Earth Kingdom, The Water Tribes, The Fire Nation, and The Air Nomads). While these nations used to co-exist peacefully, the Fire Lord set out to seize control of the other nations, which started the Hundred Year War. The world needed the Avatar: the most powerful bender and master of all four elements. Only the Avatar could have stopped the Fire Lord’s tyranny, but no one knows where he is. The pilot episode solves this mystery and establishes two young siblings (Katara and Sokka) who find the young Avatar (Aang) in an iceberg and realize their destiny is to help save the world.
This plot sounds like the setting for an epic trilogy on par with Game of Thrones, so the fact that this all fits under a TV-Y7 rating is surprising. Avatar does not hold back in showing a world divided by war and how people live in fear of a tyrannical force. Even though Avatar was originally marketed as a kids show, the story it tells is surprisingly mature. The depth of the story and its characters is what allows the original audience who grew up with the show to still enjoy it as adults while also appealing to a new audience of all ages.
Avatar deals head-on with the ugliness of war and the destruction that imperialism and totalitarianism causes. When introduced, Katara and Sokka live in the Southern Water Tribe with their grandmother. Their mother was killed in a Fire Nation raid and their father left with the warriors to fight. Despite only being young teenagers, Katara and Sokka are accustomed to war. Katara tries to learn Waterbending to fight back and also fills in the motherly role for her brother and the other children in their tribe. Sokka, who is the oldest man in the village after the warriors left, hopelessly tries to teach toddlers how to fight and defend themselves. They both do not have the luxury to enjoy a normal childhood, something that is common with all children in the show. This reality allows for the characters to feel older than they actually are sometimes because they grew up in a war-ridden society as an oppressed people. Even after they discover Aang and are given the chance to help save the world, they are the ones that have to explain to him the genocide of the Airbenders and other Fire Nation atrocities. While Avatar is technically a kid’s show, the world that the characters inhabit is not child-friendly.
The plot and setting makes Avatar feel more mature. There are real stakes at hand and, at the end of season one, the audience realizes that some characters are not even guaranteed to live. The safety net that is usually under all kid’s shows seems to have disappeared for Avatar. Even grown adults watching the show do not know for sure if there will actually be a happy ending or not because the Fire Nation feels so large and terrifying. Though Avatar can still often be lighthearted and comedic, overall there is the knowledge that—if they do not stop the Fire Lord—the world as they know it will be destroyed. Every action they take matters, and Aang himself fears having to fulfil his destiny as the Avatar. He repeatedly questions whether he’s actually capable of stopping the Fire Lord. When the most powerful character in the show doubts his abilities, the audience also feels that doubt and fear. By becoming connected to the characters and the world they live in, viewers are immersed in the real danger they face. Avatar is also bingeworthy because we naturally want to know what happens and if they will actually succeed since nothing is guaranteed.
Another aspect that sets Avatar apart from the typical plot of a kid’s show is that it realistically humanizes its characters. Real people are not black and white, and Avatar profoundly understands this. The main cast, while being on the good side, can still be wrong. They can act mature for their age, but they are still children. Sokka often criticizes women until he grows out of that mindset after meeting strong female characters. Katara’s motherly nature sometimes makes her overbearingly bossy and this later causes tension with the others. Also, when Aang starts learning how to Waterbend, Katara snaps at him out of jealousy and hurts his feelings. Even Aang, the Avatar himself who was raised by monks, can be childish and petty. He hides a scroll containing Sokka and Katara’s father’s location out of fear that they will abandon him. Also, many times he becomes sidetracked from the main mission and instead wants to play around with exotic animals. His worst mistake and what he always regrets is the time that he burned Katara while practicing Firebending. The main characters are young, inexperienced, and having to shoulder an impossible burden. They are not perfect heroes, which makes them all the more relatable and enjoyable to watch. It is because they are not perfect that they feel real.
Similarly, the villains in Avatar are also humanized. Season one introduces Zuko, the banished prince and son of Fire Lord Ozai who will stop at nothing to capture the Avatar. He is accompanied by his uncle Iroh, who was once known as a fierce general called the Dragon of the West. Zuko is supposed to be a typical bad guy because he’s from the Fire Nation and wants to capture Aang, but surprisingly his motives are understandable and sympathetic. All he wants is to reclaim his honor so his abusive father will love him. His uncle Iroh knows firsthand how war only leads to misery and seems to want no part in being a powerful general anymore. It is clear that uncle Iroh loves his nephew as his own son and hopes that, by supplying him wisdom and getting him to seek out a different path, Zuko will discover his own destiny and not just do what his father wants. These two—who on the surface level should have been strictly antagonists—are debatably the heart of the show and fan-favorite characters. The audience can never tell exactly what direction their story is going in, so watching them figure themselves out is interesting. The characters are a diverse mix of people who have room to develop and grow. In this, the viewer becomes involved in their growth and is able to connect to them.
Aside from the plot and characters, what truly aids in Avatar’s timeless appeal is the world’s design and the soundtrack. The show relies heavily on the imagery of ancient East Asian, South Asian, and Inuit societies. It is filled with cultural references to these societies, from the food the characters eat to the elaborate architecture. The creators of the show, Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, hired cultural consultants to help with the art direction and worldbuilding of Avatar. Some of the fictional places in the show are based on real places in China, Japan, and Tibet. The art of bending elements is taken from martial arts and each type of bending is a different form of martial arts (Waterbending is T’ai chi, Earthbending is Hung Gar, Firebending is Northern Shaolin, and Airbending is Ba Gua). The soundtrack for Avatar uses traditional instruments like a pipa, guzheng, and duduk to match with the show’s setting. These cultural influences are what make the world of Avatar unique and timeless. It feels like an ancient world that the audience is stumbling into and experiencing another culture.
Lastly, Avatar’s resurgence in popularity owes to COVID-19 leaving many people stuck in isolation. People have been working or attending school from home and, with all major events cancelled and sports put on pause for a time, streaming services like Netflix experienced a major increase in viewership. In hard times we reminisce on happier memories, and by adding Avatar to their catalogue, Netflix allowed audiences to go back in time and relive their childhoods. Avatar offered solace and escapism from the pandemic and an adventure for people to insert themselves into. Those who had heard of the show but had not seen it before could finally do so with ease, and with its soar in popularity, Avatar attracted newer fans of all ages.
While it may be misunderstood as just an ordinary kid’s show, Avatar: The Last Airbender is anything but that. Its resurgence in pop culture has proved that the show has a wide generational appeal. Both young and mature audiences can appreciate the depth of the world of Avatar and find a character to relate to. With political tensions rising in our own world, seeing fictional characters rise above adversity in a time of war can be really inspiring. Avatar is relevant again today because human nature and politics have not changed. Its themes of perseverance and hope resonate with a new audience. Avatar is a timeless story that deserves to be experienced at least once.