For some, television is an outlet for escapism from worldly problems and personal anxieties. But while that may be true for reality TV and other forms of vapid entertainment, television should be a medium that goes beyond just an escape. It should be proactive in informing the public about how to deal with issues that affect everyone.
Recent programs like “Atlanta,” “Insecure,” “Bojack Horseman” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” are such cases that offer both subtle and overt commentary on today’s most prevalent topics — race, sexuality, fame, gender and mental illness. But perhaps the two programs that feel more relevant than ever are the brilliant Nickelodeon animated show “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and its just-as-brilliant spinoff “The Legend of Korra.”
While both are currently off the air — “The Last Airbender” finished with three seasons in 2008 and “The Legend of Korra” wrapped up its four seasons in 2014 — their critical look at xenophobia, terrorism, social unrest and totalitarian populism makes for an eerie, albeit timely, foreshadowing to today’s milieu.
In “The Last Airbender,” the messianic protagonist Aang spends the entire series learning how to “bend” the elements of earth, water and fire in order to defeat the evil Fire Lord Ozai and restore balance to the world. The story is a classic powerful-hero-versus-powerful-villain scenario, but “The Last Airbender” offers a mix of solace and intelligence by humanizing the characters, both the good and bad ones. For example, Zuko, the Fire Lord’s son, undergoes the series’s greatest character development, starting out as a stuck-up prince bent on destroying Aang in order to impress his father. After experiencing some soul-searching and cognitive dissonance, Zuko discovers that he was on the wrong side the whole time and decides to join Aang and his friends in defeating his father.
Along with its terrific animation, intelligent writing, breathtaking action and droll humor, “The Last Airbender” is masterful in presenting moral dilemmas and giving practical solutions to those challenges. During the epic series finale, Aang, a non-violent airbender, is faced with the challenge of killing the Fire Lord, a power-hungry firebender. In the end, the writers make an effective, inspired choice to have Aang take away Ozai’s bending instead of killing him, which proves to be even more poetic in its reflection of the show’s recurring conflict between corruption and purity. Instead of resorting to complete destruction of another person, Aang shows restraint by taking away the only power that the Fire Lord possessed using a peaceful yet powerful tactic.
However, even with “The Last Airbenders” ’s happy ending, a new evil force would inevitably appear again in the show’s excellent spinoff, “The Legend of Korra.” Set 70 years after Ozai’s defeat, “The Legend of Korra” tracks the journey of the new Avatar, a crafty waterbender named Korra, who must learn airbending in order to fulfill all four elements. In contrast to the Fire Lord and an amalgamation of other antagonists in “The Last Airbender,” “The Legend of Korra” introduced a new villain in every season, each more powerful than the one before. Korra first engages in a hard-fought battle against Amman, an anti-bending populist, followed by spirit-obsessed waterbender Unalaq, airbending anarchist Zaheer and totalitarian earthbender Kuvira. After each major clash, Korra grapples with the fear of being the sole savior of the entire world, knowing that she’ll be weakened as the forces of evil grow stronger. But similar to Aang in “The Last Airbender,” Korra finds the moral compass within her and fights for the greater good of humanity without resorting to simply annihilating the enemy.
Of course, we don’t live in a world where people can manipulate classical elements through kinetic, supernatural abilities. But it is still satisfying and almost relieving to have shows with a remarkable amount of depth like “The Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra.” Given the current tense sociopolitical climate, television plays an even greater role in shaping a viewer’s perception on the world, as well as offering consolation and clarity in times of confusion and profound distress. In an era where “alternative facts” and “fake news” have become embedded into the mainstream American consciousness, truth can often be found in places like television shows. So maybe next time, instead of mindlessly watching an episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” watch TV shows that can entertain and educate. Otherwise, how else are we supposed to make sense of the world?