I’d heard of Avatar before and watched very brief snippets when I was a kid, but during the summer a friend recommended it to me and I finally sat down and watched it. And I was blown away, not just because Aang is an airbender.
Something that immediately stands out about Avatar is that it wasn’t afraid to be serious when the moment called for it. It had an ongoing story rather than sticking to episodic hijinks. Sure, there were the odd filler episodes here and there, and those are generally seen as the weaker episodes, because the story is that strong that you really want to see where it goes next. And the story could be pretty bleak at times.
It’d be a crime to talk about the show without mentioning its cast of characters. Avatar probably features one of the best casts I’ve seen in a show, animated or otherwise. Iroh is a gem and the best character (save for one dodgy scene in season 1), but they’re all great; Sokka and Toph are hilarious, and Zuko’s character is consistently the most compelling, to the point where, in a lot of ways, his journey is more engaging than Aang’s. Each of the main characters goes through a journey and develops as a person, with setbacks along the way, and that’s what makes their struggles believable; Katara struggles at one point with the age-old decision of revenge vs forgiveness. The best part is that the solution is nuanced; she doesn’t take revenge, but she doesn’t forgive the person in question either. That’s a great moment that adds depth to her character, and the show is peppered with so many of those.
Some years after it finished airing, Avatar got a sequel, The Legend of Korra. And it brought with it lots of changes; a 70-year timeskip saw most of the characters from the original series either much older or having passed prior to the series’ start. The newer generations of their families were still around though, and brought some of the more interesting moments to the series through their connections to the old cast. That being said, my favourite character (Varrick), was unrelated to any of the older characters.
Having came out at a time when the kids who watched Avatar were a little older, Korra isn’t afraid to grow with its audience. It shows some pretty dark stuff, including the likes of suicide and suffocation. It feels like any notion of animation being “for kids” is pushed to the limit in the sequel. Ironically, a lot of the stuff more typically meant for kids (comic relief, etc.) was where this series faltered, with a lot of the jokes not quite landing as often as they did in the original show.
That being said, the generally darker tone doesn’t necessarily equate better writing either. There’s a lot of wonky moments (especially in season 2, the weakest of the seasons by far). But when it’s good it’s great, very much on level with the original series, perhaps even better in some ways. Some moments in seasons 3 and 4 are highlights from across both series, and help make the characters feel a lot more fleshed out than earlier in the show’s run. It’s at this point that I got completely sucked into the world again.
As a sequel, I do think Korra is a very worthy successor to Avatar. One that is often unfairly seen as a bad series because it falls just short of its outstanding predecessor; just short of outstanding is still pretty good. So having jumped into the world of Avatar a lot later than most of my friends who grew up with it, I can see why there has been such a lasting appeal, to the point where Netflix is making a live-action adaptation. We can only hope this goes better than M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 version.