A quick precursor on how Avatar: The Last Airbender has affected my life: It hasn’t. At all. However, it’s not because I don’t like it, but instead because I have never seen it before.
My parents were never really supportive of cartoons in my developing years and Avatar aired shortly after my family had to cut the cable bill just to make ends meet. Nowadays, why spend the money on cable when you have streaming services and a public library stocked with physical media?
My family’s in a much better place now, in case you were wondering.
I’ve seen bits and pieces of Avatar through the years since, notably when I went to college and my friends had viewing parties for watching both Avatar and Legend of Korra. I’d watch a few episodes here and there (which turned out to be fillers), and I caught a couple more when my younger siblings recently binged the series themselves from a friend’s Plex server (They’re on season 2 of Korra as I write this).
I’ve watched a handful of anime before (both Fullmetal Alchemists (Brotherhood is superior), Fairy Tail, Psycho-Pass, Cowboy Bebop, and My Hero Academia), so the idea of watching cartoons as a 23 year old doesn’t phase me. Heck, I finished Adventure Time not too long ago. I just wasn’t sure if Avatar was overhyped because, at the risk of sounding like an intolerable hipster, it’s just so mainstream. But now the show is on Netflix, readily available for convenient streaming and only twenty minutes an episode.
Plus I made a pact with a friend of mine. I’d watch Avatar if he watched Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. I mean, what else are friends for?
So, without further ado, I watched the pilot.
Episode 1: The Boy in the Iceberg
Katara and Sokka make a startling discovery while fishing: a boy frozen in an iceberg, perfectly preserved and -- amazingly -- alive.
One of the most frequent rules you hear in writing is to start the story at the latest point possible. It’s true for novels, truer for films, and truest for television. With TV, you have to hook the audience right away or else risk the high chance of them changing the channel or, worse, turning the TV off. Now in the streaming age, that risk goes even higher with anything we can think of at our fingertips.
That said, Avatar: The Last Airbender has a genuinely great start in its writing and direction, production value aside (the choppy body movements while Katara was yelling kind of weirded me out). You have the small intro Buffy the Vampire Slayer style to introduce the world and then you’re brought into Sokka and Katara’s fishing trip in the South Pole with Katara practicing waterbending amidst Sokka’s unenthusiasm of the talent. One thing leads to another as the conversation heats up amid dramatic friction and, before you know it, Katara kicks off the catalyst of the series by breaking an iceberg and releasing a skybeam.
Gotta love them skybeams.
This transitions us to an introduction to Zuko and Iroh, sailing nearby and within eyesight of the skybeam. Though Zuko’s dialogue in this scene is somewhat stilted and almost laughable, it does explain the danger to the audience.
Hey, it’s a kid show. I’ll give it a pass on spelling things out for me.
Katara and Sokka find Aang in the iceberg, which is where the writing and voice acting starts to solidify itself. The three caricatures have great chemistry with each other with Aang being the epicenter, a boy with incredible power yet prefers to bring joy. I think it especially stands out when Sokka is trying to train kids to become warriors and Aang lets the kids play with Appa, his flying bison. Doubly so for the penguin sledding scene (which I’m fairly certain is animal cruelty? It’s a cartoon, so who knows?).
Things start to meander a bit when Katara and Aang enter the fire nation submarine they come across while penguin sledding, but really picks back up at the end to create a solid midpoint for what turned out to be a two-parter.
Though the scenes involving our protagonists are stronger in the first half of the episode than the second half, Zuko’s scenes were flipped by getting stronger as the episode went on. Everything in this episode validates why the show starts here and not a minute sooner or later. The pieces are set for further tension, pay-off, and adventure in not only the next episode, but also in future episodes to see if Aang can find a waterbender for Katara in the North Pole.
And what more could you ask for from a twenty-minute pilot? It hooked me, and now I want to see where this goes.