“Water, earth, fire, air,” Katara’s voice introduces the four elements, and benders of each skill show off their prowess on screen, whipping air, stomping out earth, harnessing fire and controlling water.
When I first saw the opening sequence for “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” I was convinced that this animated, pre-adolescent, Nickelodeon-produced show was going to be a disappointment. Maybe it was my bitterness over the loss of great ’90s cartoons; maybe it was my childish need to seem “older” and “cooler” than Nickelodeon. I was 13, and a year after “Avatar” aired, I was finally forced by my younger brother to sit down and watch Avatar Aang and his friends explore the four nations, get into heaps of trouble and help Aang learn to bend all four elements
The premise of the show is interesting enough. Aang, a 12-year-old airbender, is the Avatar — keeper of peace and master of all four elements. The Avatar’s duty is to the four nations: Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, Water Tribe and Air Nomads. He is to maintain the balance and amity between the people with his abilty to control all four elements, something no other bender can do. But as Aang realizes his destiny, the Fire Nation declares war and obliterates the Air Nomads, leaving Aang the last of his kind.
As I was watching the pilot, I was indeed disappointed — disappointed by my inability to reinforce my superiority and deem “Avatar” stupid. Six years later, I still go back and re-watch old episodes, finding myself engrossed in the fictional world.
I watch Katara improve her waterbending and Sokka fall in love with the moon spirit. I laugh at Appa’s fondness for food and the various adventures the group of friends encounter. It’s reassuring, knowing that there’s a world where a 12-year-old can grow up with the weight of the world on his shoulders and still, more than anything, want to go “penguin sledding.”
Whether ironically or dramatically, “great TV” usually takes itself seriously, spending energy on creating the perfect dramatic twist or crafting timely one-liners. Though “Avatar” isn’t life-changing, it puts a lot of emphasis on being relatable and simple. It has characters I can root for, a narrative I can follow and, most importantly, it manages to impart valuable lessons while allowing viewers to snicker every time Sokka trips over his own feet.
As a 19-year-old, soon-to-be junior, my life is usually scattered. Clambering up to the 300- and 400-level classes, spending hours in a research lab and trying to squeeze pre-reqs into my schedule, I live for moments where nothing happens. When it’s 2 a.m. and all my work is finished and I can relax by passing out on top of my covers. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is the TV version of a nap; the show that embodies relaxation.
It’s not great; it’s smart. And though it can’t keep me from watching “Breaking Bad,” it’s a TV show that feels a little like coming home for Thanksgiving break — familiar and forgiving.
I admit it: There are times I feel like a 12-year-old that has no idea where to start. Everyone has expectations — maybe not as bad-ass as Aang’s — and piecing things together takes time. My life is one big “Avatar: The Last Airbender” episode, and the only thing missing is my own flying bison that will save me from having to fight the fire nation. If being lost is considered part of growing up, then I, along with Aang, am doing it right.