Why “Avatar: The Last Airbender” Is Still Popular After 15 Years
Reading Time: 4 minutes
This past month, Netflix released over 60 new seasons of TV shows and movies, one of which was Nickelodeon's “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” What used to be an old childhood cartoon on Nickelodeon has made a comeback after 15 years. Now, it’s the most-watched show in the country and has inspired many TikToks and memes on social media. This animated series follows 12-year-old Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen)—known as the “avatar” who can master all four elements (air, fire, earth, and water)—and his group of friends as they travel throughout the world to end a century-long war against the totalitarian Fire Nation. Together they search for benders who will help Aang master the elements and fulfill his destiny to defeat the Fire Lord.
The show holds a special place in many people’s hearts and has remained well known for years. Millions, including myself, distinctly remember watching the show on TV as children, and now its revival on Netflix has caught the attention of millions more as people look for new shows to binge during quarantine. As someone who hasn’t revisited the show since it initially aired and only vaguely remembers its details, it was refreshing to rewatch and understand why this series is more than just one of those children’s shows people love to reminisce about.
This series blurs the lines between children and adult TV shows by touching upon topics like imperialism, genocide, corruption in government, and sexism, all of which are rarely discussed in children’s entertainment. These themes are addressed in prominent and nuanced ways throughout the series, such as when Aang finds out about the genocide of his people by the Fire Nation or when he and his friends discover that government officials in Ba Sing Se, the capital of the Earth Kingdom, are keeping the war a secret from its citizens to draw power away from the city’s king. Though I never understood these messages as a six-year-old, now in the midst of a global pandemic and political turmoil, the show’s themes prove to be more relevant than ever. The series encourages its younger viewers to think for themselves and realize that they control their destiny.
Moreover, possibly the biggest reason why the show remains special to many, is its diverse set of characters, who each tackle different issues of marginalization. The characterization of characters like Toph (Jessie Flower), a blind earthbender, and Teo (Daniel Samonas), a paraplegic boy, isn’t centered around their disabilities, but rather their ability to overcome them. Toph uses earthbending to “see” and discern attacks by sensing vibrations in the ground. Teo builds an airglider to help him “fly” and move around since he’s bound to a wheelchair. Young girls like myself found themselves identifying with characters like Katara (Mae Whitman), the last waterbender of her tribe who faces systemic sexism when she’s denied the chance to learn waterbending by the waterbending master of the Northern Water Tribe. When she’s told women could only use waterbending for healing, she proves her strength in a fight against the master and over the course of the series, becomes a master waterbender.
The expertly crafted character development of Zuko (Dante Basco) has also been widely praised. Introduced as the banished prince of the Fire Nation who must hunt down the avatar to regain his honor, Zuko slowly evolves into a conflicted anti-hero who teams up with the avatar to end the war against his evil father and sister. Zuko’s redemption arc has become a staple of the show, its perfect execution being one of the largest reasons why people love the series so much. Zuko’s redemption arc and his struggle between good and evil after being raised on the wrong side of history is my favorite part of the show. After struggling for so long against his abusive father who exiled him, Zuko reinvents himself through deep soul-searching.
The show’s filler episodes remain as some of the best filler episodes for any series ever made. These are episodes that divert from the main plot to provide comedic relief or introduce subplots within a series. While filler episodes are usually boring since they don’t advance the main plot, many fans of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” rank its filler episodes as some of their favorites, specifically “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” one of the saddest episodes in the series. The episode documents the “tales” of different characters while in the city of Ba Sing Se, one being the tale of Zuko’s uncle, Uncle Iroh (Mako Iwamastu), who is loved for his funny remarks and wisdom. Though nothing regarding Aang’s quest takes place, the episode honors Uncle Iroh’s voice actor who died shortly before the episode aired and gives background information on the character. This show uses filler episodes in the best way possible, not only enhancing character development, but also reinforcing important messages and themes. “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” “The Beach,” and “Appa’s Lost Days” don’t contribute much to the main premise, but they’re some of the most-watched and discussed episodes in the entire series.
You don’t have to look too deep to see why a kids cartoon has made such a comeback. Its characters are relatable and funny and face struggles still relevant today. It’s an action-packed fantasy adventure filled with heartwarming and gut-wrenching moments. Teenagers who didn’t pick up on what the show was throwing at us as kids now understand its importance in modern climate. In only 61 20-minute episodes, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” has managed to capture the hearts of millions and stood the test of time, remaining one of the greatest childhood shows of our generation.