Avatar: the Last Airbender (ATLA), a Nickelodeon show first aired in 2005, has made an astounding comeback. Personally, it has been my all time favorite show starting from when I was five years old, and I have re-watched it countless times. Let’s dive deeper into why it should immediately be put in your list of “shows to watch next.”
ATLA made its record-breaking Netflix debut on May 15th, staying on Netflix’s top 10 shows for 61 days. Not only have I found a profound connection to the show, but as evident in its 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, many other fans have also been captivated by it. The show’s resurgence on Netflix has brought a wave of fans into the fandom, both those who have discovered it for the first time or nostalgically watched it once more. Especially during quarantine, a love for the show has cultivated bonds between many people isolated in their homes. An influx of fan art, explainers, theories, and timelines have flooded social media platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram. I, for one, was delighted when I started finding these on my explore page.
ATLA is a coming-of-age story following Aang, a 12-year-old Avatar (voiced by Zach Tyler). Avatars are reincarnated every generation, holding all of their past lives inside of them. They are the only ones who can bend all four elements (water, earth, fire, and air) and serve as the gate from the spirit world to the physical realm. The world falls into a state of chaos when the Fire Nation seeks world domination, disrupting the harmony. Throughout the hundred-year war, Aang has been trapped inside of an iceberg and, upon waking up, he soon realizes he has a colossal burden on his shoulders: the fate of the world. Over the show’s three seasons, he has to learn how to work with all four elements, traveling around the world to do so. On the way, he gathers life-long friends, the main ones being Katara (Mae Whitman), Sokka (Jack De Sena), and Toph (Jessie Flower). As they join his adventure to restore peace and balance to the divided world, they discover themselves along the way.
Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the writers of the series, painted a beautiful and cleverly crafted world, pulling inspiration from countries all over Asia and Africa and mixing them into a beautiful, intricate setting. The four nations have certain characteristics and cultural differences. Even the styles of bending are based on different martial arts, and the architecture is heavily influenced by a range of cultures, from Air temples resembling Chinese Buddhist Pagodas, to Inuit lifestyle influencing the water tribe. “I think the biggest reason why I loved the series so much was the fact that it is a show based on Asian culture and there is no other show that is like that,” Andy Son (’23), a fellow ATLA fanatic, said. “It was very heartwarming and nice to see some proper Asian representation for once.”
Although it seems like nothing more than a childish cartoon at first glance, the show evokes enough emotion to make a grown adult cry. The themes and archetypes portrayed are a reflection of the world we live in, the main one being light versus dark. Many political topics are discussed through events in the show, such as the corrupted government in the Earth Kingdom, the genocide of the Air Nation, and the imperialistic ways of the Fire Nation. Monarchies, puppet kings and figureheads all struggle for power and there’s also a rebellion for freedom, where people find flaws in their authoritative figures.
One of the most memorable things about the show is that it offers many insightful quotes reflecting on human life. “You must never give in to despair. Allow yourself to slip down that road and you surrender to your lowest instincts. In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength,” Uncle Iroh (voiced by Mako Iwamatsu), who is considered the wisest person on the show, says. These words hit the hearts of many viewers, offering a simple yet true and relatable commentary on life. The plot itself is also intricately written; every time I rewatch it, more hidden layers of meaning are revealed. The creators carefully placed details that are referred back to later in the show, constantly eliciting “ah-hah” moments for the audience. “There is so much foreshadowing that drops your jaw down to the ground. There are so many unexpected surprises that just make the show so much better,” Son said.
What’s especially notable is that there’s a certain complexity and attention to detail of each character that makes them appear to be more than just 2-D drawings. Most fans (if not all) have crushed on Zuko (voiced by Dante Bosco), the handsome “lost” prince, but for a deeper reason than for just his looks. Originally the antagonist of the show, he struggled throughout the first two seasons with the definition of true good and evil, an internal struggle that many can relate to. Zuko proves to have one of the most amazing redemption arcs, and the character he becomes by the end of season 3 shows that everyone has potential to change; we might just be lost and in need of guidance along the way. Oftentimes these characters face hardships, slipping down paths of destruction. They deal with many psychological battles, which, as Son described, “makes for some crazy and incomparable character development within the series.” This also reminds the audience that they are still human, since in reality no one embodies perfection.
“The ATLA series was beautifully written with amazing characters and great themes,” Son said. “ATLA not only wrestles with physical debates and challenges, but moral and spiritual challenges through the characters.” The philosophies the show reveals have had a profound effect on kids our age. Since it’s now on Netflix, I have coaxed all of my friends to watch it. The show has sparked many debates and insightful discussions among my friends, whether it be me advocating for Zutara (the infamous romantic ship between Katara and Zuko) or explaining the meaning behind Uncle Iroh’s wise words. If you’re looking for a show that gives you a good laugh and portrays incredible life messages, be sure to search for Avatar: the Last Airbender on Netflix; your life just might be changed.