“[Classics] speak to those basic concerns that define human beings as a species – love, fear, hope, anger, family, power, and the need for acceptance.” Philip Nel
That’s a quote about classic children’s literature, not TV shows. However, in the case of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a cartoon on Nickelodeon that aired between 2005 – 2008 co-created by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, I think it holds true. “The first season is a fun kids’ show, very well-done, but by the second season, Avatar became one of the best shows I’ve ever seen- not just cartoons, I mean any show.”
That’s a quote from me, trying to explain to other adults why I was such a fan, and why they should watch it with their kids.
The American-made show is set in an Asianic fantasy world where people are separated into four nations with benders (people who can magically manipulate) in the four elements: fire, water, earth, air. Every generation there is an Avatar, a person who can wield all four elements, with the task to keep balance and peace to the entire world. The story opens up with a time when the Avatar had vanished for 100 years and the Fire Nation has waged war across the land. The central character is Aang, a young boy who is the missing Avatar, trying to restore peace, meeting and befriending other children who help him in this task.
I watched the series with my children when it originally aired and expected it to be like the rest of the stupid but entertaining shows they watched. It wasn’t.
I would talk to other parents, and it would be like a secret that yes, we were enjoying it just as much as the kids. Unlike most children’s shows (or any TV shows for that matter), where characters never age and the same jokes and “plot” start and end every episode, The Last Airbender was more like a movie, with a definite beginning, middle, and ending, and with music and visuals that set a distinct tone. But unlike a movie, the long-form storytelling allowed Airbender to be more like a book with themes being explored in full, compelling character arcs, and continual world-building.
Last week, I finished the series again with my nieces. We watched one episode a week (more or less), so they could experience it as it was originally intended. (Netflix has changed the way TV shows are created, with the understanding that people binge an entire season. Before that, creators paced their storytelling differently for the once-a-week audience.) I was curious if it would hold up to the shiny memory I had. Had I just been caught up in the geeky culture that enjoyed it at the time? Was it only funny because I liked watching my kids laugh? Was Zukko’s angst still crush-worthy? Ten years later, the show was just as good- great by season two. But is it a classic?
That depends on how you define the word.
The dictionary gives us, “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.” It’s only been ten years so we’ll have to see if Avatar: The Last Airbender continues to be watched and enjoyed. While it aired, several of its episodes were the most watched on the Nick network for certain age groups, and the finale was the most watched show anywhere for ages 14 and under.
Once it ended, the story continued in graphic novels (still being created and selling well), a live-action film (terrible, but commercially successful), a sequel show, The Legend of Korra (a YA series that was fantastic) several video games, and a live-action adaptation for 2020. The world building and character stories have never ended and do not seem to be ending anytime soon. That’s a good sign for the story to continue to live on to the next generation and beyond.
But what about “highest quality and outstanding of its kind?” That’s pretty subjective, but in the wider world, it did get critical acclaim. Avatar: The Last Airbender won several awards including an Emmy, Annie, and Peabody. There are too many positive critical responses to list here, though you can read them on Wikipedia. The words “greatest” and “best” are used frequently.
When I looked up ‘classic children’s TV shows,” I was dismayed by the lists.
Not because Avatar: The Last Airbender wasn’t on some of them (it was) but because of what else was. Most of the shows were stated to be on there because of their nostalgic value and high popularity at the time. That’s like judging classic books based on how many were sold when they first went to print.
Many of our beloved stories were a slow burn, lasting and outlasting the inane, but probably more commercially successful competitors. I love silliness, don’t get me wrong, but silly shows are easy to find and recreated for every generation. Peppa Pig is a silly show that will not last this generation (except for a tiny blip when kids today try to watch it with their own kids, but their kids would rather watch the latest silly show.) The fandom for Avatar: The Last Airbender is still watching and reading about it.
When my adult children meet people who haven’t watched it, they make them watch it. I passed it down to my nieces who loved it, and they are recommending it to their friends, and so on and so on.
I think of Avatar: The Last Airbender the same way I think of A Little Princess, The Hobbit, The Muppet Show, or Star Wars (yes, that’s a children’s film- come on.) I shared all of them with my children because they greatly influenced who I am AND I enjoyed them just as much, though in a different way, as an adult. Children’s stories aren’t just for children, but only the classics prove that.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a classic.