“‘Avatar?’ That’s the thing with the blue people, right?” This question is all too familiar to enthusiasts of the Nickelodeon animated TV show, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” What the poor, naïve friends of us “Avatar” aficionados are referring to is the 2009 “Pocahontas” rip-off, science-fiction blockbuster film directed by James Cameron. What they are missing out on is a touching, artistic, and action-packed TV show following the journey of four friends as they work to bring balance into the world.
“Avatar” is set in a fictional, Asian-inspired universe in which certain people are born with a natural ability to control and physically manipulate, or “bend,” one of the four elements—water, earth, fire, and air. The world is divided into four nations: the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads, and each bender lives in hir corresponding state. However, one person has the power to bend all four elements, act as a liaison with “the spirit world,” and enter a state of heightened bending power called the “avatar state.” This person is titled “Avatar” and lives to keep the universe in balance.
The show begins with 12-year-old Avatar Aang of the Air Nomads waking up from an iceberg after 100 years of entrapment. The following three seasons chronicle his quest to end the war that has been raging on since his confinement. The Fire Nation had, prior to the series, wiped out the entire Air Nomad population, thus making Aang the last airbender on the planet (hint: title inspiration). Upon escaping the iceberg and discovering the existence of the ongoing war, Aang quickly set out to master all four elements and take down the Fire Lord. Along with the friends he makes along the way, he spends three seasons engaging in playful shenanigans, making rocks and water fly around and kicking Fire Nation butt.
“Avatar” is truly a study in the unexpected. At first glance, I saw a show for kids, but “Avatar” beautifully covers themes of friendship, destiny, family, honor, and evil in a way that is accessible to all ages. I didn’t expect an animated TV show on Nickelodeon to be so adored and respected by a demographic past middle-school preteens. I never imagined that I would walk into my dorm’s common room this past Friday and find the couches and chairs overflowing with students fervently gazing at the TV screen that was displaying the Season Two premiere of “The Legend of Korra.”
“The Legend of Korra” is a spin-off series that premiered in 2012, four years after the original series ended. The twelve-episode first season was intended to be a short mini-series but was so well received that it is now committed to three more seasons. The first season depicted the Avatar of a new generation decades after “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” for after one Avatar physically dies, hir soul is reborn in a new Avatar in a different nation. This new Avatar, Korra, is from the Southern Water Tribe.
Korra lives in a world much changed from the rustic land of Aang’s youth. Cities are larger, modern capitalist industry is thriving, technology has developed automobiles and telephones, and Gatsby-era jazz underscores the action. Yet her destiny remains the same: to keep the world in balance. In the first season, this meant taking down the self-proclaimed “equalist,” Amon. Amon led a revolution against the bending world as he felt that they reduced non-benders to second-class citizens. He became a fearsome threat when he revealed an inexplicable power to remove anyone’s bending ability permanently.
“The Legend of Korra” introduced new issues, such as equality, that were unaddressed in the first series. The show has also paid homage to many of the treasured quirks of the original, such as the descendant of the much-beloved cabbage merchant from Aang’s time who owns the prosperous Cabbage Corp. “Korra” has developed the concept of “metal-bending,” which was invented by a central character in Season Two of the first series, to a bending skill utilized by an elite police force. The show has expanded the use of “chi-blocking,” or temporarily preventing a bender from using their gift, into a trainable technique used by rebel non-benders. New and old fans of the Avatar world will find joy in this new series, and luckily, Season Two is rolling and ready to unite appreciators from all nations.
The “Avatar” series can bring students from all walks of life together (in their dorm…on a Friday night…seriously…), and can be enjoyed by anyone who looks past its appearance as a children’s show. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra” are complex television shows wrapped in lighthearted packages.
“The Legend of Korra” is on every Friday at 7 p.m. on Nickelodeon.