I’m the biggest advocate for cartoons that I know, and yet, up until recently, I let my own biases control how I enjoy them. It wasn’t until I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender that I realized I’m just as guilty at trivializing animation.
I finally got around to watching Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender a couple of years ago when my boyfriend had grown tired of insisting and just put it on one night. I had been told for years by multiple – and I mean MULTIPLE – sources that it was a good show, but me being me, I was skeptical. I’d already made the mistake of watching M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action rendition, and boy-oh-boy was that a train wreck.
Sure, I loved myself some Hey Arnold!, Recess and Bob’s Burgers, but they were basically episodic escapes-from-reality that I could tune into at any time.
If I wanted to watch an animated show with a legitimate storyline, I’d turn to anime, not some American cartoon. The closest I’d gotten up to this point was Gravity Falls, and while it was great, is was clearly one-of-a-kind.
I wrote Avatar off due to no fault of its own, but one night it was finally staring me in the face, demanding to be endured. So “fine,” I thought. “I’ll give it a try.”
What followed was one of the most satisfying cartoon-watching experiences I’d ever had. At the end of each episode, I was incentivized to watch another… and then another. And then what do you know – the whole damn show is finished, and I’m hungry for more.
Avatar: TLA does a ton of things right, which a countless amount of Internet thinkpieces will tell you. It creates a believable world, a believable governing force, and believable characters; the rules of magic are thought-out and intriguing, and it makes you lowkey wish that you could bend elements too.
And while, yes, it’s a Nickelodeon show and you can more-or-less guess the direction that the story is going, it’s still a delight to watch it unfold. Because ultimately, you don’t really watch a show or a movie for the destination as much as you watch it for the journey.
I’ve spent a good portion of my breath trying to explain to people that yes, cartoons can be sophisticated and canny too, and yet I was just as guilty of painting them into a corner. I thought that the format worked best when everything returned to the status-quo at the end of the episode, and any changes that did occur were subtle.
I’ve praised shows like Digimon for having a story arc, and condemned Pokemon for not, yet here I was dabbling in hypocrisy.
When you give characters the opportunity to grow organically and with time, it unmistakably enhances your connection to them; falling in love with the characters is as good a reason as any to want to continue watching and continue understanding.
Avatar: The Last Airbender may take its time fleshing out the characters and introducing us to the pivotal arc, but when it does, every development feels earned.
There’s a huge benefit to creating an episodic cartoon: people can tune in whenever they want and never feel as though they’ve missed something fundamental to the story; it’s no surprise why most cartoons are like this. I love oodles of cartoons that ‘reset’ at the end.
But thanks to shows like Gravity Falls and especially The Last Airbender, I’m starting to realize how much I love a good, seasons-long story in cartoons.
The payoff may take a little bit more time, but how sweet it is when everything begins to crescendo.