Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Book 1 Collection (review)

Empty Air

At the behest of several readers who appear to believe they know my taste better than I know it, and also in an attempt to figure out just what the hell M. Night Shyamalan was thinking with his The Last Airbender, I watched the entire first season of Nickelodeon’s pseudo-anime series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

As I suspected would be the case, I got zero entertainment value out of it.
This is not fantasy storytelling for thinking adults. It’s inoffensive enough for kids, I suppose, but lack of offense is hardly reason to embrace a story. If I had a kid I wanted to inculcate with the attitudes of openmindedness that exploring the alternative worlds of fantasy fiction requires, I wouldn’t mind showing her this… but I’d want to move on right away to something with more heft, like The Lord of the Rings or even The Chronicles of Narnia. Because even an atheist can embrace the Christian Narnia as a fantasy realm that is consistent and grounded in its own distinctive philosophy, and Narnia works especially well to introduce children to other concepts… like the notion of religion itself as fantasy.

But the world of Airbender feels phony and lacks cohesion. Four different nations corresponding to the traditional elements — air, water, fire, and earth — and the people of those nations can manipulate their national element but not the others? That feels like a game of Magic: The Gathering, not a functioning human society. Even if you want to attribute the magical abilities to genetics, there wouldn’t be such clear-cut divisions in powers: it would be like saying that people can have white hair or black hair or red hair, but no shades anywhere along the spectrums between. And certainly not so that it would be possible for, every generation, a single Avatar and not one more, a sort of Dalai Lama-esque figure, to arise, someone who can control all the elements magically and hence somehow keep the peace among the nations.

It’s not just a matter of religion here: the magic is real, just not in any way that seems plausible even on its own terms, within its own context. And the lack of storytelling finesse in the worldbuilding is equally lacking in the nitty-gritty plotting and character development. Since today has been a bit of a Pick on M. Night Shyamalan Day, I’ll say something nice about him: If I’d seen the TV series before I saw his adaptation of it, I wouldn’t have been quite so hard on him, because he appears to have picked up the stilted, juvenile writing and scenarios seemingly designed to appeal to the kindergarten set of his movie directly from the soure material. His movie is pretty faithful to the source. Not really in a way worth emulating, but still.

The movie follows the same basic story as these 20 episodes: A young Avatar who has been missing for a century turns up and now must bring peace to a world that has fallen into war during his absence. But the individual stories don’t have much urgency to them. Mostly it’s a lot of juvenile bickering among Aang (the voice of Zach Tyler: The Ant Bully) and teenaged siblings Katara (the voice of Mae Whitman: Teacher’s Pet) and Sokka (the voice of Jack De Sena). Oh, and Sokka won’t shut up about how hungry he is, which is hilarious, because teenaged boys are always eating: that’s pretty much the extent of the wit here. But even when Airbender wants to be serious, it falls flat: When Aang discovers that his home has been destroyed and everyone he knew and loved is long dead and gone, he grieves by… playing a game with Sokka? Really? These three sound and act like modern contemporary kids, not the products of a culture deeply alien to our own.

And as is to be expected from a relatively modest TV series, the animation is not particularly inspiring or beautiful: it’s functional at best. The lack of feeling and soul in the story and in the serviceable voice performances is not made up for by stylish, emotional, or dramatic visuals, as is often the case when animation does work to engage the adult imagination.

I’m mystified what anyone over the age of 10 sees in this, frankly.

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CB
CB
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 8:58pm

Oh snap!

I smell trouble a-brewin’ in this har comment thread. Time to batten down the hatches and head down to the storm cellar.

Jurgan
Jurgan
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 9:09pm

Sigh…

I mean, I could try to explain why I think this show is so good, but what would be the point? You’ve clearly made up your mind. Well, thanks for giving it a chance, anyway. Maybe I’ll get involved in the discussion later, but right now I don’t feel up for it.

vucubcaquix
vucubcaquix
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 9:10pm

A shame, really. I watched the book of air several years ago and thought the same as you since I’m already accustomed to animation and storytelling of much higher caliber, which was why I held off on watching the rest of the series until very recently.

I don’t know how much stock my opinion will carry here, but the book of earth (the second part) is actually much better in almost every regard. The animation is more fluid, the pacing is tighter, several fan favorite characters were introduced here, the drama is weightier with the death of several, and it even won some Emmys for writing. The philosophy is better fleshed out as the character of Zuko spends more time elaborating the relationships between the elements, and after a rewatching of the first season it turns out that the series is loaded with all kinds of subtle foreshadowing that doesn’t pay dividends until the later seasons.

But part of the fan fervor I believe comes from the fact that a kid’s show was better than their preconceptions, and that plot continuity such as was displayed here, or on Gargoyles and the like, is very rare for the demographic intended.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFASos1G-5U
(one of my favorite scenes from the book of earth, which is quite sad in context)

MaryAnn
MaryAnn
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 9:44pm

I mean, I could try to explain why I think this show is so good, but what would be the point? You’ve clearly made up your mind.

And you’ve clearly made up *your* mind!

You could explain why you *think* this show is so good, just as I explained why I *think* it isn’t any good at all. You cannot possibly change my reaction to it, but you could make me understand what you see in it.

JoshDM
JoshDM
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 10:02pm

Hey, you gave it a shot, and that is something I can appreciate. It’s not your cup of tea.

Before you hang up the hat for good, please watch one final episode, it is from Season 2 and is entitled “Tales of Ba Sing Se” (episode 15). Prior to the episode, the flying bison has been kidnapped and does not appear, and Prince Zuko and Iroh are trying to get away with a normal life in an Earthbender city. That’s all the preface necessary.

Beyond that, and even if you don’t watch it, I do appreciate you giving it a chance.

T.J.
T.J.
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 10:02pm

I would recommend that you watch books two and three as well. The complexity and caliber of the animation ramps up and the series really comes into its own. There are some breathtaking moments in the series finale that literally made me cry. I am an illustrator and graphic designer, so I am quite picky about animation. I like GOOD animation (aka Miyazaki, Brad Bird, and the like). Season one is much simpler in scope than seasons two and three. Give the rest of the show a shot and you might just change your mind!

Jurgan
Jurgan
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 10:03pm

I’ll probably take a crack at it tomorrow, once I’ve thought it over, but I don’t really have time to go in depth right now. But you say I “can’t possibly” change your reaction- has no one ever convinced you to change your mind? I’m not arguing about Avatar specifically, it’s just a general thought I’ve had for a while. I’ve always wondered how often critics change their opinions on things. I mean, I’ve discussed movies or TV shows with friends and changed my opinion on whether they were good or bad, yet I rarely see professional critics do so. Maybe it’s just because they (you) tend to spend a lot of time thinking the subject over before giving an opinion, so it’s more final by that point? I don’t know, I’m just curious.

JoshDM
JoshDM
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 10:05pm

And this is me coming back once more after reading the above comments and noting that the link vucu gives is one of the stories in Tales of Ba Sing Se.

Megan
Megan
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 10:13pm

I just finished watching the series with my 10 yo brother, and I found it enjoyable. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever watched, but I think it had strong characters that were both male and female and of varying races, which is rare for kids shows, at least that I’ve seen.

vucubcaquix
vucubcaquix
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 10:20pm

@Josh

I actually felt that the episode felt out of place in the narrative as it was in the middle of a string of intense episodes, but yeah, as a standalone, it had some of the best scenes in the series.

JoshDM
JoshDM
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 10:30pm

What made me watch the series from start to finish was that I started mid-way. I didn’t watch from the beginning. Due to a marathon and my DVR, I watched Tales of Ba Sing Se and the fourth-to-last episode of season 3, where they’re all performing final training against the rock statues. Sort of ruined all the character arcs for me going in, but I didn’t mind.

Those two episodes made me want to watch the rest.

MaryAnn
MaryAnn
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 10:44pm

I would recommend that you watch books two and three as well.

Give ’em an inch…

has no one ever convinced you to change your mind?

About anything at all in the whole wide world? Of course.

But you won’t able to explain away my emotional reaction to this show. You might make me understand why an adult might enjoy this show, but there’s no way you’re going to convince me to enjoy it. You can’t inject the adult complexity into this story if it isn’t already there.

I’ve changed my mind about films and TV shows before, but nothing so simplistic as this. It’s always been about stories that are complicated and open to varied interpretation. But there isn’t enough there there in *Airbender* to leave any room for that.

fastpathguru
fastpathguru
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 11:12pm

While admittedly “book 1” was a little lighter than, and more about laying groundwork for the rest of the series, I do wonder if your reaction might somewhat result from already being tainted by the horror of the apparently craptastic movie…

I’m sure that M.K.S.’s movie has ruined an entertaining show for many who might’ve otherwise enjoyed it.

Pity…

Wicked Fix
Wicked Fix
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 11:48pm

MaryAnn-

I understand your disinterest in the show but I am telling you from the experience of not really caring about the show… you really should watch the other two books.

I am a 28 year old sci-fi/horror, blood and guts, hardcore action and intelligent drama type of movie and tv show person. The last thing I expected to like was the Avatar series. I started watching it with my girlfriend and her kids because she said it was really good. When you watch it, You have to watch it with your inner child in mind at the same time. Just go along for the ride and have fun. In the last two books (Earth and Fire) we get to see the characters grow so much, as well as meeting new ones, and there are themes that come into play that adults can understand and be entertained by much more than book one… and it all leads up to the final showdown between Aang and the Fire lord Ozai.

There really only is one word that sums up the events that take place in the last book… Epic.

Just let yourself be open emotionally to what the characters are going through and you will not be disappointed with how the series turns out.

It is with all sincerity the best animated kids show I have ever seen.

Laurel
Laurel
Wed, Jul 28, 2010 11:53pm

All I can say is read the Wikipedia and tvtropes pages about it. I think you’ll find there’s a lot of complexity that you’re missing.

PaulW
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 1:05am

MaryAnn, I understand your being underwhelmed with the Avatar series, mostly because Book 1 is relatively weak compared to the later series (the artwork is also more stiff and uneven in the first few episodes, before the artists found their styles and character designs).

But as someone who grew up with Star Wars, Star Trek, and a lot of scifi and fantasy (Narnia books were easy reads for me and my brothers; my elder brother Eric became so devoted to Tolkien he learned Quenya – both writing and speaking!), I have to say that I found Avatar refreshing and enjoyable. Unlike other pre-teen oriented fantasy cartoons, Avatar seemed to at least operate by a consistent set of rules. Yes, the characters are annoying and ill-defined at first, but they’re kids and they do grow into more mature and complex characters.

I also note in your review that you had problems with Aang’s finding out about the Air Nomads and… running off to play Airbender games with Sokka. I don’t think you noticed that earlier in the episode, Aang is in a ton of denial: he’s still coping by his measurements the fact the Monks told him he was the Avatar (why he fled the temple and froze in ice for 100 years), and he’s still in denial that he’s been gone so long that nearly everyone he knows would really be dead. Even when Katara warns him the Fire Nation wiped out the Air Nomads, Aang doesn’t buy it. He doesn’t find the bones of his mentor Gyatso until after he plays those games. And only then does Aang freak out and enter the Avatar state, unleashing a wind blast of furious anger that only Katara can calm.

As for the kids acting like contemporary teenagers… well, you never want to make your characters too alien to your intended audience (kids, teens and fanboy geeks who won’t get out of their parents’ basements). Why else did Tolkien make his Hobbits so… humanly British? :)

Also… That was Jason Isaacs (Lucius “Pimp” Malfoy) as Admiral Zhao!!! How could miss that?!

I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy Book 1. But try Book 2. It has TOPH! Toph rocks! Pun intended.

Sarah
Sarah
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 1:18am

You gave it a shot, not your thing. I liked the first season for the characters, the humor, and the respect it had for its audience, even if they were primarily young children.

However, and this is important, the show grows with its audience in a way I’ve seen in precious few other shows. The two best characters in the entire series aren’t introduced until next season, and while the broad strokes of the characters’ personalities are remarkably consistent, they are filled in with a very authentic sense of children growing up.

Also, Nickelodeon realized, with this season you’ve just watched, that the show was striking a chord, and with viewers well outside the 6-11 year old demographic they expected. As a result, the writing became much more nuanced and the budget for the show was increased dramatically. The last 4-part episode is as beautiful as any animation I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

Is it perfect, or even particularly profound? No. But it is an extremely generous-sprited, entertaining show that respects and celebrates the best of its characters and its audience. My friends and I – postgraduate-degrees, late twenties, discriminating-tastes and all – routinely shout lines from the show at each other along with more classic quote sources like Monty Python, Big Lebowski, and – yes – the Princess Bride.

MaryAnn
MaryAnn
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 2:25am

he’s still in denial that he’s been gone so long that nearly everyone he knows would really be dead.

Or, conversely, it’s simplistic writing, simplistic performances, and simplistic animation that is unable to convey all the emotion content you brought to it yourself.

Just let yourself be open emotionally to what the characters are going through and you will not be disappointed with how the series turns out.

Ah, so: *that* was my problem! I wasn’t open emotionally to it.

*grr* That sounds suspiciously like the nonsense religious types use to “explain” and “cure” atheism: If only we atheists would open our hearts to Jesus, we’d see the error of our ways.

Look: I’m glad you all enjoy it. But we’re going to have to disagree on this one. I gave it a shot. But I’m not going to invest another 20 hours in this. Sorry.

Rose
Rose
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 2:56am

I wouldn’t have invested the time you did – it sounds extremely dull from the concept, then add that awkward kiddie anime style of animation and humour – I think I’ll go back to my Stingray box set.

Corey Tamas
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 3:21am

I think it’s perfectly fine if you watch something and dislike it (in fact, that’s a big part of why your loyal readers like me keep coming here), but this review was uncharacteristically snarky. I was surprised by that.

“At the behest of several readers who appear to believe they know my taste better than I know it…”

Having watched a number of Avatar: Last Airbender-related discussions unfold in your forums, I think it’s true to say that many of your readers want you to give this series a go and are eager to hear what you think. Were there behind the scenes conversations with certain readers in which you were told that you don’t know your own taste? Because I didn’t see that in the comments; only a lot of people wanting to share something they like with you because they value your opinion. So… what did I miss there?

I’m mystified what anyone over the age of 10 sees in this, frankly.

It might be true that you’re mystified, but the comment is harsh. You’re no longer talking about the material, but making some insinuations about people who like it. I love reading your movie reviews but, when the discussion moves to people reviews, I am not quite so enthusiastic.

I love your writing and if you disliked the Avatar: Last Airbender series, I respect that completely… but this review had a lot of little barbs in it which clearly aren’t about the series.

Mirabai
Mirabai
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 6:19am

Everyone, please. MaryAnn didn’t enjoy it. Sometimes you can agree with someone a lot, and disagree on a particular point.

I recently watched this series, because of the hubub over the movie, and did enjoy it. However, personally, I’m able to enjoy things aimed to a younger audience, which Avatar definitely is. Some of the moralizing in the first season can be excruciating. There are some really good concepts in the series, in my opinion (Aang still being a child with a really heavy destiny, Katara working to learn all she can about waterbending while running up against some really shitty cultural expectations, and most things to do with Toph), but Maryann acknowledged that. There are some good concepts, but she feels other books and movies did it better.

Personally, I do feel that Avatar has much stronger female characters and a more positive message for girls than Narnia or Lord of the Rings (though I love both those books), but that’s a long textual debate that I’d rather not get into without being asked.

Asking someone who didn’t enjoy the first season to just give the next few seasons (something like 30 hours of television time, or more!) a chance is just not a great idea. You asked MaryAnn to try it, she did, and she didn’t like it. Oh well, let’s get on to the next Female Gaze entry.

Laura
Laura
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 8:39am

Well, this is a relief to me, frankly. Two of my friends keep showing me episodes of the show to try and get me to watch it, and I’m just like “meh.” For my tastes, it wasn’t bad. But it certainly isn’t something I’m going to go out of my way to watch.

markyd
markyd
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 8:40am

I have to admit I was quite shocked when I saw that you actually gave in and watched the show. Heck, I’m even tempted to after reading all the praise from the posters around here.
The few bits I saw of it on Nick looked awful and I never even considered watching it. My 9 year old son wasn’t even interested.
Anyway…
I don’t get you people asking her to keep going with it. If she didn’t like the first season, why would she like the rest? Heck, why would any of you have kept going with it when most admit the first season was weak? I don’t get it.
If I read the first book in a trilogy, and it sucks, I most definitely will not be reading the next one.
Same with movies.
It’s a huge time commitment, and I give her huge props for actually giving it a chance.

Bluejay
Bluejay
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 9:42am

I’ve changed my mind about films and TV shows before

MaryAnn, would you consider it worthwhile to occasionally write about those changes of opinion? (Perhaps you have, and I missed it.) Like Jurgan earlier in this thread, I’m not arguing about Avatar; I’m just always interested whenever people turn their critical thinking on themselves and explain how or why their thinking evolved: whether it’s Shirley Sherrod explaining her change of attitude about race, or a scientist explaining her revised theories in the light of new evidence, or whatever.

You recently mentioned elsewhere that you have a lower tolerance for BS these days; it made me wonder if that means you would come down harder today on some films that you reviewed more favorably at the time. (Conversely, perhaps there are some films you didn’t care for at first, and reviewed negatively, but that grew on you after some repeat viewings?)

Would revisiting your old reviews, to see how well they match up with your current thinking, be worth occasionally writing about? Of course you may have neither the time nor the inclination; how people’s opinions change is just a subject that interests me in general.

Emily
Emily
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 10:10am

It’s a shame that you didn’t like it, because I truly feel that it is really a great animated series. I agree that the first season is not as adult friendly as the other two, but it is the introduction. Aang is still a kid in denial about his true destiny, not really understanding that he is the only hope the world has. It’s childish feel reflects the feelings that the main character is experiencing. Also, get your facts right, please, because the episode that you referred to when Aang “discovers that his home has been destroyed and everyone he knew and loved is long dead and gone, he grieves by… playing a game with Sooka” he still doesn’t believe that everyone is dead or that the place is deserted when he plays air-ball with Sokka (that is how you spell his name). He believes that they are hiding or are somewhere else in the Southern air temple. You also said that the show lacked wit and it’s humor only went as far as Sokka always being hungry, well, that is true, but these are kids, what you don’t understand about that, I have no idea. They are children about to take the weight of the world on there shoulders, not yet fully understanding what that means. As for you going easy on M. Night Shamalon, he left out a large amount of the foreshadowing, many characters that play huge parts in the next two seasons (Jet, anyone? Haru? Suki?) and got the mythology wrong, which becomes very important as the next two books develop. On top of that he couldn’t even get the pronunciation of the characters names correct and had a horribly written screenplay. Like I said, it is a shame you didn’t like the show, but it sounds like, to me, that you didn’t fully understand it and you went in with your opinion already formed. On top of that, you saw the movie first, which most likely played a part in many people not liking it as much, and may have also been the case for you.

JoshDM
JoshDM
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 10:13am

Look: I’m glad you all enjoy it. But we’re going to have to disagree on this one. I gave it a shot. But I’m not going to invest another 20 hours in this. Sorry.

Gang, stop bugging her. I already asked for just one more episode from her; if she watches it, she watches it, if she doesn’t, she doesn’t.

Do realize, THE LOT OF YOU (me included), that she has only watched season 1, and that having watched the other seasons, we’ve grown to be quite interested in the extended cast, many of whom (Toph; I can’t believe MAJ is going to miss Toph!) were not introduced till mid-second-season.

Heck, the “always comes back” meme hasn’t hit the show yet either, iirc. At this point, much like someone else mentioned in the other thread, it’s best to lay off. I think enough of us have expressed that it does get better in the later seasons, but she’s right about the time investment.

Bzero
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 11:04am

I can understand the feelings of Airbender fans to an extent… I’m frustrated when people watch the first two-hour pilot of Firefly and then give up on the show as too slow (“It picks up! I promise!”), but, yeah… asking for another 30 hour commitment is a bit much. B)

(I’m obliquely reminded of the mistake I made in scaring my sister away from comics… she picked up one good issue that caught her interest, and teen nerd as I was, I told her she really needed to read these 200 other issues to really get it. She never expressed interest again. *doh!*)

MaryAnn
MaryAnn
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 11:39am

You’re no longer talking about the material, but making some insinuations about people who like it.

Yes, I am. I’m inviting people to explain what adults see in this. Because I really am genuinely mystified.

I think it’s true to say that many of your readers want you to give this series a go and are eager to hear what you think. Were there behind the scenes conversations with certain readers in which you were told that you don’t know your own taste?

No behind the scenes conversations. But in those comments, I was told that I would love this series, and I explained why I believed I would not. And those were the precise reasons why I did not enjoy it.

Also, get your facts right, please,

My facts *are* correct, thank you. It’s my interpretation that differs from yours.

because the episode that you referred to when Aang “discovers that his home has been destroyed and everyone he knew and loved is long dead and gone, he grieves by… playing a game with Sooka” he still doesn’t believe that everyone is dead or that the place is deserted when he plays air-ball with Sokka (that is how you spell his name). He believes that they are hiding or are somewhere else in the Southern air temple.

From those “facts,” I see a hamfisted and juvenile way of expressing coping with bad news. I do not see any interesting or involving dramatization of a child’s denial and fear. Aang knows he’s been gone for 100 years. He already knows everyone is dead. So you cannot honestly say — despite what the character *says* — that he really and truly believes everyone is hiding unless you believe he is mentally retarded, which he clearly is not.

And I do know how to spell Sokka’s name, as you can clearly see earlier the paragraph. But thanks for pointing out the typo — I’ve fixed it.

You also said that the show lacked wit and it’s humor only went as far as Sokka always being hungry, well, that is true, but these are kids, what you don’t understand about that, I have no idea.

What I understand is that this is a story about children *for* children, not for adults. Just because the characters are kids doesn’t mean they *must* be depicted this way. In fact, we can look to Shyamalan’s *Sixth Sense* for a dramatization of a child’s grief in a sophisticated way that will appeal to adults.

*Avatar* is not that. As I said in my review above, this is for children. I am not a child. I need more than what the simple, for-children story here gives us.

Like I said, it is a shame you didn’t like the show, but it sounds like, to me, that you didn’t fully understand it and you went in with your opinion already formed. On top of that, you saw the movie first, which most likely played a part in many people not liking it as much, and may have also been the case for you.

I refuse to accept this criticism. Think it if you like, but I’ve demonstrated plenty of times before that I am not locked into my own expectations. I *am* capable of enjoying — even loving — things I expected to hate, and vice versa. I would have been delighted to discover that I loved this show. I didn’t.

I’m frustrated when people watch the first two-hour pilot of Firefly and then give up on the show as too slow (“It picks up! I promise!”)

But that doesn’t mean they’re going to to like the rest of *Firefly*! They might, but they might not, too. If I were on the fence about *Avatar,* if I saw something to pique my interest, that might be reason to keep watching in the hopes that I’d like it even more. But *Avatar* bored the shit out of me. Why would I keep beating myself by continuing to watch it? Particularly when there’s so much other stuff I’d much rather watch, including new stuff I’d like to try?

MaryAnn, would you consider it worthwhile to occasionally write about those changes of opinion? …

You recently mentioned elsewhere that you have a lower tolerance for BS these days; it made me wonder if that means you would come down harder today on some films that you reviewed more favorably at the time. (Conversely, perhaps there are some films you didn’t care for at first, and reviewed negatively, but that grew on you after some repeat viewings?)

I was thinking more specifically, in what I mentioned here, about rethinking my opinion before or even while I’m writing my review, and I often mention that process in my reviews (how the more I thought about a film the less or more I liked it). And I’ve had time to think over *Avatar* — I didn’t just watch it all yesterday and post a review immediately. I’ve had time to find ways I might change my mind about it. But I didn’t find any.

But revisiting films from years ago? I wish I had time to do that! I would love to rewatch films and write about them again.

Corey Tamas
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 12:16pm

Yes, I am. I’m inviting people to explain what adults see in this. Because I really am genuinely mystified.

You’ve also said with brusk clarity that you’ve given this series all the attention and thought you’re prepared to give it. So what’s everyone’s motivation to make an earnest effort?

Chris
Chris
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 12:42pm

Hasnt everyone learned this by now, if it’s not called Dr. Who and the show is not a true drama, Mary Ann will either initially or eventually hate/dislike the show. BBC is Mary Ann’s only acceptable network. :)

That said, I dont love this series but I do think it is one of the better series for children to get into today, which isnt a large number to begin with. It reminds me of my youth watching Dragon Ball Z, not the greatest story in the world but it featured characters you cared for and wanted to root for.

Just remeber to show your kids Batman: The Animated Series, which in my opinion is still the best kids show from the past 25 years

TempestDash
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 12:42pm

Context is king, especially in ways people frequently don’t recognize. There are things to appreciate in Airbender, but they are not the sort of things that one muses about for days on end, at least not yet.

Why I point out context is because it was working against you, MaryAnn, in very real ways that were far from your ability to control.

The first context, is of course, popular opinion. Which is impossible to divorce oneself of once they hear it, especially again and again and again. Some cognitive biases are very hard to overcome. When someone tells you Item A is the greatest thing in the whole world and you aren’t human until you experience it, you have to deal with confirmation bias. Which is to say, the human brain seeks to find evidence to support their initial conclusion and downplay evidence that contradicts it.

Frankly, nothing could live up to the hype that surrounds Airbender these days. Certainly Airbender itself can’t live up to it, it was a kid’s cartoon on Nickelodeon, who’s previous breakout series included Rugrats and Spongebob. Anyone who isn’t predesposed to like Airbender after hearing so much crap about it, would have to overcome overwhelming confirmation bias. The first season simply isn’t that good compared to the second and third.

Though it was trying to be edgy. Airbender shows the result of a successful genocide within the first handful of episodes. Just GETTING ON TELEVISION was an accomplishment. Which brings me to the second context, what it was trying to rise above.

Perhaps there is no favorable comparison between Airbender and Lord of the Rings, or even Airbender and the similarly named “Avatar” from Cameron. When compared to the rest of the films reviewed on this website and the assigned scores, Airbender probably doesn’t rank in the high echelons. Especially since, as a TV series, it moves at a snails pace at first.

But for a VERY large majority of Airbender fans, they came to the show as if taking a risk. They were cartoon fans (either from youth or because of Anime) and wanted to give it a shot, but knew the general quality of animated TV shows in the US (and recently, in Japan as well) is fairly low.

Airbender, by that reckoning, was an incredible breath of fresh air. It had a season-long dramatic arc, which, frankly, is STILL incredibly rare in American animation (or Canadian, whatever. _Western Animation._) It had characters who grow and change. It shows people dealing with tragedy and setback, even on the good guys side. It had a villain driven by noble goal (seek my father’s approval) doing unscrupulous things (violence and potentially murder).

The best way to view Airbender Season 1, and why I continue to like it even as I see it pale in comparison to later seasons and even, I fully admit, it’s more mature storytelling contemporaries on film, is that Season 1 establishes a direction the series intended to go in. It doesn’t actually get there until the very end, unfortunately, which makes the early episodes seem plodding in contrast.

The point is, Airbender is really one story with a disturbingly high number of self-contained chapters. Season 1 is Act 1: we see characters, we get to know them, they act funny so as to try an charm their audience, and it establishes the danger or obstacle to overcome. Then, at the end of Season 1, we have the first climax: the villain (Zuko at this point) actually gets Aang but realizes he can do nothing on his own. He realizes his goal of finding the Avatar is NOT what he wants unless he can show him to his father.

Season two is the second Arc, and it turns everything on its ear. Season two is when fans really stopped liking the series and started to love. The heroes start losing a lot. Zuko realizes his goals are muddied by his motivations and questions who he really is. The resentment the world feels towards the Avatar and the Fire Nation is revealed. It all becomes bigger and more important.

But it couldn’t have done that if it hadn’t established a baseline, which is what Season 1 is. An unfortunately boring baseline.

Given all that, I’m not convinced it’s really worth your time Mary Ann. I loved it, and I think it’s great, but my biases, the history of love for animation, and decades of disappointment with what I’ve seen come from western animation, set me up to like Airbender in a way I didn’t like other shows.

But without that background, I question how much enjoyment you were ever going to get out of this show.

Sorry for the essay. I suppose I could have just said: We love it for what it is, but it’s certainly not for everyone.

TempestDash
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 12:52pm

Wait, I just found a easier comparison!

I don’t listen to any Jazz music, really, it’s just not part of my playlists. I listen to other music, symphonic, pop, some eastern genres, but not Jazz. Because of that, I cannot see how a musician like Miles Davis is such a standout in the genre. It’s just more Jazz, just like the rest of it.

But there are millions of people who say Miles Davis is not just the best Jazz musician, but the best musician ever. Better than Beethhoven!

I can’t understand that, and it makes no sense to me. Beethoven is excellent, better than any trumpet player, easily.

Airbender is the same way for animation. Unless you love animation and have spent time trying to dissect it and compare it to its contemporaries until it becomes something all to its own, it’s hard to figure out why someone would say Airbender is better than all other TV instead of just another bit of Jazz.

CB
CB
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 12:53pm

But that doesn’t mean they’re going to to like the rest of *Firefly*! They might, but they might not, too.

Frankly, if I showed someone the pilot and they didn’t like it, I wouldn’t expect them to like the rest of the series either. It has all the elements in the show that make it great, and its pacing is actually pretty par for the course. There’s a lot going on in that episode, so if someone is bored by the crew talking around the dinner table and wish there was more action, well, Firefly probably isn’t their show. And I certainly don’t think that the next two episodes, which are much weaker than the pilot, are going to change their minds.

I can just see some people pressuring their friends into continuing. “I loved this show from the beginning, but I’m sure you’ll start loving it sometime in the middle, for some reason!”

You’ve also said with brusk clarity that you’ve given this series all the attention and thought you’re prepared to give it. So what’s everyone’s motivation to make an earnest effort?

So that she can understand what it is that people like about the show; what adults (that aren’t her) find appealing about it.

Not to convince her that she was wrong to not enjoy it, and get her to watch more. That ship sailed.

It’s up to you to decide if you would like to discuss the show you like with someone who is interested in why you like it, but isn’t going to join you in becoming a fan.

MaryAnn
MaryAnn
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 1:07pm

You’ve also said with brusk clarity that you’ve given this series all the attention and thought you’re prepared to give it. So what’s everyone’s motivation to make an earnest effort?

So the only reason this could be worth discussing is if it convinces me to watch more?

But without that background, I question how much enjoyment you were ever going to get out of this show.

I think a story should work primarily *as a story.* If there’s other stuff going on as it relates to the history of the genre, or what other similar stories are or aren’t doing, that’s icing on the cake. But the cake itself should be enjoyable as cake.

I cannot intellectualize myself into an emotional reaction. I can do the opposite: I can come up with all sorts of intellectual rationalizations to justify why I enjoy something on an emotional level (as I do with *Doctor Who,* sometimes). I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Because a story has to hit me on a gut level first. And sometimes the intellectual can be tied up inextricably with the emotional. But the intellectual without the emotional? That’s too cold and too unsatisfying for me.

But I appreciate your explanation, TempestDash, because now I see what there is for an adult to appreciate in this show. Your jazz analogy is excellent (and I feel the same way about jazz as you do).

Corey Tamas
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 1:18pm

So the only reason this could be worth discussing is if it convinces me to watch more?

Not at all, and that’s not really what I was getting at. On the one hand you’re essentially saying “I’m done with this TV series and I’m not re-visiting”, while on the other it’s “I want someone to explain this to me”. That’s a mixed message.

JoshDM
JoshDM
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 1:30pm

Yes, I am. I’m inviting people to explain what adults see in this. Because I really am genuinely mystified.

You’ve also said with brusk clarity that you’ve given this series all the attention and thought you’re prepared to give it. So what’s everyone’s motivation to make an earnest effort?

She also intimated in the original comment section for The Last Airbender that she had no interest in following-up on the film by watching any of the animation.

For me, I enjoyed the heck out of the show, and explained my reasons in prior comments in other threads of this topic, can confirm that subsequent seasons are better than season one, and have stated that I became interested due to watching late-season episodes instead of starting from the beginning.

JoshDM
JoshDM
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 1:35pm

Just remeber to show your kids Batman: The Animated Series

Please tell me you’re watching Brave and the Bold. There are some excellent episodes in there (along with some failures).

MaryAnn
MaryAnn
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 1:54pm

On the one hand you’re essentially saying “I’m done with this TV series and I’m not re-visiting”, while on the other it’s “I want someone to explain this to me”. That’s a mixed message.

In what way is this a mixed message? I’m not asking to be convinced to change my opinion — I just would like to understand why others hold the opinions they do.

I really cannot win with this, can I? I devote time and attention to something that I wasn’t all that interested in but gave a fair shot anyway, and I’m accused of fixing my opinion in advance, and that I just wasn’t open enough to it. And when I ask for others to tell me what they see that I didn’t, I’m told I’m being contradictory.

I think I’ve been extraordinarily open to being shown my expectations were wrong — as I have been in the past — and very open to continuing a conversation that, clearly, many people want to have. Where did I go wrong in any of this?

TempestDash
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 2:19pm

I think I’ve been extraordinarily open to being shown my expectations were wrong — as I have been in the past — and very open to continuing a conversation that, clearly, many people want to have. Where did I go wrong in any of this?

You did nothing wrong. Fans just have a hard time understanding what an ‘opinion’ is:

http://okazu.blogspot.com/2010/07/how-to-not-to-read-reviews.html

Newbs
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 2:19pm

Whew. Thanks for this review. People kept telling me how great Avatar is, but no matter how many times I tried to watch it I completely failed to see the appeal.

I thought it was just me! My sneaking suspicion is that the people who love it so much were probably (males) between the ages of 12 and 15 when they first watched it, which means they’re not quite old enough now to have outgrown it (or are steadfastly refusing to acknowledge their nostalgia for what it is, young though it may be).

Thanks for giving me a reason to quit trying to like this show, MaryAnn!

Newbs
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 2:30pm

Wicked Fix (Wed Jul 28 10, 11:48PM):

When you watch it, You have to watch it with your inner child in mind at the same time. Just go along for the ride and have fun.

I gotta say, Wicked Fix… keeping my “inner child” in mind does not sound appealing. This sentiment lends some credence to my suspicions about the emotional maturity level of Avatar’s fanbase. I’d rather be engaged at my current level without having to, you know, regress myself. I mean, it’s cool if you like it (however you have to intellectually manipulate yourself) but the Avatar proponents remind me too much of the kids I used to meet five years ago who begged me to watch Invader Zim.

Yeah, yeah… I know. Holy shit, right? You love Invader Zim! :)

PaulW
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 2:39pm

I think those of us still arguing for this tv series are just trying to convey to MaryAnn that 1) we loved watching Avatar the Last Airbender and 2) we normally love MaryAnn’s reviews and 3) we’re unable to reconcile that MaryAnn and Avatar aren’t meshing into any “like-fest” on MaryAnn’s part. :(

It just kinda hurts that we’ve fallen in love with Avatar and that MaryAnn doesn’t see the appeal.

TempestDash
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 2:42pm

Thanks for giving me a reason to quit trying to like this show, MaryAnn!

I can’t imagine a more unsatisfying experience. If you don’t like something, why spend time trying to force yourself to? Just stop. It’s not like there is a paltry number of shows or movies around that you can’t turn to in order to find something you genuinely like instead of just kinda maybe sorta made yourself tolerate.

My sneaking suspicion is that the people who love it so much were probably (males) between the ages of 12 and 15 when they first watched it, which means they’re not quite old enough now to have outgrown it (or are steadfastly refusing to acknowledge their nostalgia for what it is, young though it may be).

The funny thing about nostalgia is that it can happen to anyone, anytime, without warning. I loved MacGyver, but I now that I have the series box set, I have to say, there are a LOT of episodes that are kind of painfully silly or absurd. I still love the series as a concept. That doesn’t mean I’m regressing to the age at which I first watched it, it just means I recognize it’s importance to me and potentially for the era it was broadcast in.

Newbs
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 3:19pm

TempestDash (Thu Jul 29 10, 2:42PM):

I can’t imagine a more unsatisfying experience.

I can! :) But seriously: it’s tough when everybody you talk to says a show is so great and you just don’t agree… I kept trying out of respect for their opinions. MaryAnn’s review here is really the first time I’ve seen or heard anyone say it isn’t that great. Admittedly, I haven’t been able to drum up the desire to search for many opinions, so when this one fell in my lap I was able to shed an unpleasant task I didn’t even realize I’d assigned myself.

I loved MacGyver, but I now that I have the series box set, I have to say, there are a LOT of episodes that are kind of painfully silly or absurd. I still love the series as a concept. That doesn’t mean I’m regressing to the age at which I first watched it, it just means I recognize it’s importance to me and potentially for the era it was broadcast in.

Ha! I almost used this exact same example to make my point. I loved MacGyver so much when I was 12, but as you say… when I watch it now it just doesn’t hold up. So I like the idea of it, sure, but I also am willing to admit that my adult, intellectual mind sees how preposterous the entire concept is.

Contrast MacGyver to another show from the same era: Quantum Leap. It’s my contention that Quantum Leap holds up to modern scrutiny… even now I find myself pulled into reruns if I happen to flip by when SyFy is doing one of their marathons (been a while since one of those… what gives?). Here’s a show in which I can recognize a personal importance, just like MacGyver, but I can also see that it’s a solid show that appeals to the adult in me in different ways than it did when I was a pre-teen.

Adina
Adina
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 3:23pm

Newbs, you’re wrong about the ages of people who love ATLA. I’m a woman, and in my forties, and I watched it for the first time last year, and I love it.

Most of my friends who love the show are a bit younger than me, but that just means that they were in their 30s when they watched for the first time.

I did find the childish bits of many of the early episodes off-putting; however, I’d had that same experience with Cardcaptor Sakura, and I came to love that too, so I was willing to keep going.

What I liked from the beginning of ATLA was that the antagonists were not portrayed as completely evil. Uncle Iroh can be stern, but he’s also loving and honorable. Zuko is filled with rage, but even he doesn’t kill needlessly. Stuff like that will keep me going.

Ryan H
Ryan H
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 3:55pm

What I liked from the beginning of ATLA was that the antagonists were not portrayed as completely evil. Uncle Iroh can be stern, but he’s also loving and honorable. Zuko is filled with rage, but even he doesn’t kill needlessly. Stuff like that will keep me going.

That’s… not exactly character depth. That any of the characters are more than a basic cardboard cutout is not a high bar. That should be the absolute minimum expectation for a mature watcher to get past episode 1, not the payoff for seasons of development.

I get the appeal of shows aimed at a younger audience as an undemanding and brightly coloured diversion. But that should not be an invitation to confuse it with more complex and well rounded offerings.

TempestDash
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 4:12pm

I get the appeal of shows aimed at a younger audience as an undemanding and brightly coloured diversion. But that should not be an invitation to confuse it with more complex and well rounded offerings.

And ATLA gets there, but it takes it’s sweet time, to the point where, if you hadn’t been tolerant of it’s rather timid steps in the early episodes, you’d never reach the point where the show becomes relevant. In many ways that is a serious detriment against the show. But, as I indicated before, it’s possible that only someone who is fluent in the limitations of western animation can fully recognize a series that is striving to break expectations while remaining in the environment where those limitations are most stringently enforced.

Which is perhaps where the real nobility of ATLA shines through. It tried to tell a halfway decent story, even a GOOD story by some standards, but it did within an environment of oppression. They could have gone to Cartoon Network, or even to the broadcast networks and had a much more tolerant environment to work in. But they didn’t. They told a mature story and they told it to the audiences that watch Nickelodeon.

Does that on its own make the story better than something like The Dark Knight or Lord of the Rings? Of course not. But it is still an accomplishment.

vucubcaquix
vucubcaquix
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 5:55pm

It is what it is, folks. I have years of experience trying to inculcate friends and folks into animation and it’s different styles thereof. We in the anime community have a select group of works known as “gateway series”. For kids, it’d be the Dragonball or Sailor Moon shows, for someone older something like Ghost in the Shell, Nodame Canatabile, Mushishi, FLCL or Berserk depending on taste (my personal gateway series and still all-time favorite is FLCL which is a treatise on male adolescence and puberty wrapped in madcap action and comedy). And there’s the Miyazaki movies which may be the easiest of all to sell the merits of to the uninitiated.

Some folks will be receptive, others not. A person may not be feeling it for myriad reasons. They either don’t like the plot, can’t become involved with the characters, feel as is they’re being pandered to, or can’t suspend their disbelief far enough to enjoy a certain genre of animation (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AnimationAgeGhetto). It’s not their fault, it’s just taste. Ironically, as I grow older I find it harder to watch something that isn’t animated because when I view an actor onscreen, I’m distracted by thoughts of what his or her real life must be like.

If MaryAnn decides that something like this isn’t for her, well, she’s got other things to do with her time. She may or may not revisit the other books, but the pseudo-anonymity of this forum doesn’t lend itself very well to rational discussion of differing tastes, let alone persuading someone to change. It tends to quickly devolve into accusations and assumptions, then insults and name-calling. I see it everyday and in faster fashion on certain anonymous imageboards.

P.S. I ended up really liking Avatar, but only after being dragged kicking and screaming back to it during a show swap with a friend. But my appreciation for the show increased as I saw the research and effort put into it from watching the extras (about a minute each):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ae0LQ-rVGI
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGvvXIrToYQ
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RJUJ7fisw8
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NO2b60GOn4

Not to mention all of the bilingual bonuses and even stronger ties to (and criticisms of) Buddhist philosophies during the book of fire.

Bluejay
Bluejay
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 6:36pm

I recommend TempestDash’s link above, to Okazu, as well.

And I think PaulW has a point, too:

I think those of us still arguing for this tv series are just trying to convey to MaryAnn that 1) we loved watching Avatar the Last Airbender and 2) we normally love MaryAnn’s reviews and 3) we’re unable to reconcile that MaryAnn and Avatar aren’t meshing into any “like-fest” on MaryAnn’s part. :(

As irrational as it is, it’s tough to take a dissenting opinion from someone whose writing and ideas you respect and usually agree with. We may be lulled into thinking that we’re always on the same wavelength, at least regarding the topics we hold dear; and it’s a surprise to learn that, naturally, it’s not always the case.

I suspect it’s a little like when I found out that Philip Pullman thinks Tolkien’s work is “fundamentally infantile”: he has a right to his opinion and his reasons for it, but it was just a shock for me to disagree so completely with someone whose own work I greatly admire.

Newbs
Thu, Jul 29, 2010 7:16pm

Adina (Thu Jul 29 10, 3:23PM):

Newbs, you’re wrong about the ages of people who love ATLA. I’m a woman, and in my forties, and I watched it for the first time last year, and I love it.

Well, of course I was being facetious — but I’m sure you knew that. :)