I've recently returned to a second viewing of what may very well be my favorite long-running TV series: Avatar: the Last Airbender. This time round, I've tried to sell my roommates on the show, and results have been... poor. They find the show to simplistic, and too cartoonish. They are wrong. But my attempts to convince them that have gone astray, largely because their exposure to the show extends to whatever episode they happen to stumble in on. Spending five minutes explaining why Aang has hair now or why a turtle duck exists is not going to sell anyone (unless you're a very special sort of anyone). So I thought I'd set out a more detailed, exacting argument here for them, and for anyone else who is still missing out on this show. (I'm breaking it into three posts, 'cause it's really long.)
And before we get started, it's important to establish what AtLA is not. First, it is not the James Cameron movie with the blue aliens. And it is not AtLA the Shyamalan movie, which is based on the same concepts, but applies them poorly. And it may or may not be anime. That is, it's based on anime visual tropes, and some narrative tropes, but it is largely written and produced by an American team. There's a very interesting discussion to be had on what American interpretations of anime look like, but that's not what we're doing here.
The general plot, then. The story takes place in a world consisting of four tribes, each based on a classical primary element: earth, wind, fire, and water. And each tribe has its benders, people who can magically manipulate that element. So water benders can shoot jets of water at people, and fire benders do the same with flames, and so forth. The exception is the Avatar, a person reincarnated in each generation with the power to control all four elements. The official role of the avatar is to maintain the balance of the world, and serve as the ambassador to the spirit world. But the balance is, um, out of balance. The Fire Nation has decided it should be in control of the world, and it has been waging a war against the other groups. The Air tribe has been wiped out, the water tribe is reduced to guerrilla forces, and at the start of the series, only the Earth Kingdom still stands fully against them. And the Avatar disappeared a hundred years ago. The show starts when two Water tribe teenagers, the water bender Katara and her brother Saka, find the Avatar, Aang (still a teenger himself) frozen in an iceberg with Appa, his giant flying waterbuffalo. They free him, and Aang sets out with them to master the other elements (he only has air mastered at this point) and restore the balance by fighting the fire lord. Against them is Zuko, the firelord's disgraced son, bent on restoring his honor by killing the Avatar. At least, that's where it starts.
Now, logically, would be the point where I describe what I like about the show. But I want to go more general, and describe what I like about narratives in general, then apply it. The deductive argument, as I tell my rhetoric students. So, then, five traits, in order of rising importance.
5. Good set pieces. A particularly moving scene can happen in virtually any media, and any story. I'm casting a pretty wide net here, as I'm including everything from entire films (say, the basic plot of Gattica) to single episodes or scenes (the hospital heist episode of Firefly.) A series of excellent set pieces can elevate a work that's otherwise rather flat. Take the series Samurai Jack: its plot and main character are, to put it kindly, kind of flat (or, unkindly, paper thin). But the virtue of the series is in its art direction, and the execution of those paper thin plots. Here's a montage from the first episode (skip to 7:00 in the first one, and then continue on into the second. Inconvenient, I know.).
It's a fairly impressive condensing of human history, Jack's training, and his childhood, all the more impressive for being conducted without a single word. A good execution can forgive a lot. In fact, a single good scene can elevate an otherwise rather pathetic narrative. 40 Days and 40 Nights is a film with a ridiculous premise and several ridiculous plot points(I'm sorry, but 40 days of celibacy will NOT make you start to hallucinate), but... then there's the date. The protagonist, still in the midst of his pledge to avoid all sexual contact, has met the girl of his dreams, but can't actually touch her. So instead, they share a very intense, very personal moment, through, ah, other forms of contact. It's very well done, and of a caliber quite out of place with the rest of the subpar American Pie fare. A good set piece, or a series of good set pieces, is usually the first thing a person thinks of when they try to recall why a film or a book or some other story stayed with them.
..And that's it for today. More tomorrow.