Avatar: The Last Installment

by Rick Rockwell

One of the best programs on television wraps up tonight (Saturday, July 19), but if you’re an adult without children, you’re probably unaware it exists.

Those who regularly visit the most watched basic cable network, Nickelodeon, know this series is Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Truthfully, your usually skeptical reviewer probably would never have watched the series, if not for his daughter and wife. But now the skeptic is the biggest fan in the house. The series has been on television since 2005, and the third and final season is about to come to a close (tonight at 8 p.m. EDT). Nickelodeon and its associated Nicktoons Network have been running repeats this summer until this week’s unveiling of the final few episodes, and it has become a guilty pleasure.

Sure, some parents are worried about the violence, intensity, and portrayals of magic and mysticism in the program, recommending that it is not appropriate for children under nine. This critic begs to differ.

Few would admit it, but some parents may be uncomfortable with how the program weaves eastern religious philosophy into the plot. Parts of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism are apparent in this cartoon to anyone who has studied those religions. However, this series is an epic centered around the missions of a messianic teenager. Anyone who has seen this series, with the Avatar winging in silhouette against the sun on his glider knows he’s also a stand-in for Christ. (Importantly, though, the Avatar’s mission is not conversion, but to “restore balance to the world.”)

Yes, the program is violent, but it represents how teens come to grips with a violent world. Often the message is about attempts to avoid violence. One of the new episodes unveiled this week ("The Southern Raiders") struggled with the idea of revenge. Sure, deep subject matter, but a great talking point for kids who want to strike back against someone hitting them on the playground with a karate chop.

Also, one of the central characters in the second and third seasons is blind, and the series includes positive portrayals of the disabled, projecting them really as differently-abled. Of course, this also opens up discussions on those important topics.

Few children’s programs are sophisticated enough to run a satirical episode that basically pokes fun at the entire concept. But the producers of Avatar saw fit to do just that in the penultimate episode ("The Ember Island Players").

For those unfamiliar with the series, comparisons may be unfair, because this is truly an original concept. The humorous and romantic portions of Avatar pay homage to Japanese anime. However, the animated action sequences are similar to the best American graphic novels. Like the best cartoons, the plots work for those under ten, while also embedding jokes and cultural references for adults. The series is a fantasy epic that’s comparable to Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, but throw in more than a dash of TV’s Kung-Fu for good measure and you’ll get an idea of the mood. Avatar takes place in an imaginary world with technology from the late 19th Century/early 20th Century, but this world is also filled with mysticism and magic. The Avatar’s mission is to restore balance between the four nations, which take their names from the elements and echo cultures from our world: Air (think Tibet); Water (think Inuit); Earth (think China); and Fire (think World War II-era Japan).

So for those who aren’t clued into the series, yet, the suggestion here is to pick up the DVDs or buy the episodes on iTunes. It’s probably too late to catch up to make tonight’s finale worthwhile, although Nicktoons will continue its marathon of episodes from the third season later today (at 2 p.m. EDT).

Or you can just wait until 2010. That’s the date Paramount Pictures has set for the beginning of a three-part Avatar live-action feature film series (although Avatar will be dropped from the title for legal reasons). Director M. Night Shyamalan has signed on to guide the film series (which he may need to revive a career that has foundered a bit with his last few films).

Name one other television series that deals intelligently with imperialism, spiritualism, philosophy, and teen angst, with multi-dimensional characters and can keep the under-ten set interested. Avatar: The Last Airbender has all that and more.

(Promotional graphic of Avatar: The Last Airbender from Nickelodeon. To take a cute personality quiz based upon the characters in Avatar, please go here. To see a trailer for the final episodes of Avatar's Season 3, please check below.)

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