There’s one fantasy show on television today that I don’t really hear people talking about. I mean fantasy in a stricter sense, not in the broad sense that would include science fiction or urban fantasy or horror; I mean epic fantasy in an imaginary land with simpler technology where magic works.

The show has vibrant and compelling characters, a richly textured world and mythology, and crisp, clever writing. To these eyes it is the best fantasy show yet produced for television; certainly it is hands down the best written animated show on TV today

I am referring, of course, to Avatar

Produced for Nickelodeon, at first blush Avatar may look like any other dozen Yu-gi-oh’s or Digios or Cheerimon’s or, indeed, any show with YA protagonists battling monsters. If all you’ve ever done is flip past, you’re unlikely to have seen anything striking.

If you stay long enough for one episode, you’re liable to be favorably impressed with the writing. If you stay for two or three half-hour shows, you start to appreciate the character development and if you watch for any longer… well, you might just get hooked.

Sure, sometimes the comedic elements are played a little too broadly for my taste, a la animé, but when that happens I remind myself that I’m not the intended audience. Avatar is an amazing storytelling cocktail, one that hasn’t produced any real clunkers in the approximately 40 half-hour episodes aired so far. It doesn’t talk down to its audience, and it doesn’t dumb down its writing. Fond as I am of Johnny Quest and a few other shows, there was nothing this good on television when I was a child. Heck, there’s rarely been any cartoon series on this good, ever, with the exception of the DC animated work from Bruce Timm and co. of the 90s and perhaps a handful of other recent shows. None of them, though, have handled such a long story arc so surely, so deftly. Almost every episode can stand on its own and can be viewed individually, yet when viewed in order each season forms a grand arc. Avatar is sure-footed storytelling.

For those of you not in the know, Avatar is set on an Asian-influenced fantasy world where there are four kingdoms named after the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Magic workers in each of the kingdoms can “bend,” or magically manipulate, the element native to their kingdom, with stylistic martial arts movements. The Avatar, reincarnated every generation, is the only man or woman who can manipulate all four elements. The titular Avatar, Aang, is a 12-year-old who was accidentally suspended for 100 years. While he lay dormant, the fire nation launched a war against the rest of the world. By the time Aang is revived by two teenagers from the water tribe, the fire nation has exterminated all of the air benders (save for Aang) and has nearly conquered the vast holdings of the Earth nation. Aang has the potential to master all of the elements, but he must learn them, and he must learn them quickly, if he is to stop the final push of the fire lord.

I suppose any synopsis could be rendered dull in summary, and perhaps I have managed it above. Or perhaps it’s not Avatar’s backstory so much as its delivery that makes it so excellent. The flawed, likable, lovable characters and their story arcs draw you into the epic. The painter has touched THIS canvas with large broad strokes and small subtle ones with equal mastery. Upon third and fourth viewing new surprises pop out of the backdrops and understanding deepens. I can’t imagine noticing much new from Scooby-Doo reruns.

The martial arts used in the show are fabulous – the magical and martial battles are simply amazing. In addition to everything else, Avatar is probably setting new high standards for animation. The climactic battles in key moments — for instance, the fire nation invasion of the water tribe stronghold at the end of the first season — must be seen to be believed. They’re as gorgeous as the grand battles in any high budget Hollywood blockbusters. I could go on and on, but I have been trying to keep my posts shorter these days, so I’ll shut up now, except that I will mention the first two seasons are available through Amazon right now. 

It’s excellent stuff. Don’t miss it. Sooner or later people will be writing dissertations about this show. I find it hard to believe more adults aren’t talking about it


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