Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Geek TV: "Avatar: The Last Airbender"

This is what I hope will be the first of many reviews of fantasy and science fiction television I include on my blog. Why TV? Because, lately, sometimes TV can be really great. There's a lot of great genre shows out there, for adults and kids alike, and I include them in my love of all things f/sf as much as any books or movies.

I need to start with a show that's been on a lot in my house lately, "Avatar: The Last Airbender." What started with a few episodes to amuse my 5 1/2-year old Juban Princeling on an airplane trip last month has turned into a family obsession. Even my husband, who isn't a huge fan of animation, has said how good this show is.

I'm not the only one who's noticed; the parent reviews on Common Sense Media - a site I frequent and take very seriously before I show unfamiliar media to my children - rave about this show. Even one of my favorite geek blogs, The Mary Sue, is getting in on the "Avatar" action. And with good reason:

It's a good show.

It's really good.

Not just good for kids, but adults as well.

Now, I know that as a good, progressive parent in 2014 I'm supposed to limit my children's exposure to "screen time," and that's very nice in theory. Sure, if I had an army of nannies at my beck and call, and a mansion with six or eight different play rooms filled with millions of toys and games, then my kids would probably watch less TV. The reality of our situation, though, is that I'm mostly on my own in the mornings before school, so the best I can do is get the Juban Princeling and his 2-year old brother, the Duke of Juban, fed, dressed, and brushed teeth as quickly as I can, then put on a TV show I know will hold their attention while I take care of myself. You know, crazy indulgent mom things like brushing my own teeth and putting on pants that aren't made for doing yoga in, so I can take the older one to school. And in the evenings I make sure they have their baths, dinner, and do homework before any TV is allowed.

Hashtag: Paranoid defensive mode over.

Point is, there has been a LOT of children's programming coming through this house in the past 5 1/2 years. Some of it is pretty good -- "Yo Gabba Gabba," "Pinky Dinky Doo," "Doc McStuffins" -- but some of it has been C-R-A-P. I'm looking at you, Caillou, you whiny little twit.

So when either of my children gloms on to a show that's more good than bad, we encourage him to run with it as much for our sanity as for their well-being.

The quick-and-dirty of the show goes like this. In a fantastical, but Chinese-inspired, world there are four nations: Air, Earth, Water and Fire. Inhabitants of these nations can "bend" those elements to their will. Every generation, an Avatar is born who can bend all four elements. A hundred years ago, the Fire Nation decided to take over the world. They wiped out nearly all the Air Nation except for Aang, who was frozen in ice for 100 years. He's found by Water Nation brother-sister duo Katara and Sakka. Realizing he is the next Avatar, who was feared gone forever, Katara and Sakka sort of adopt Aang and travel with him as he learns to "bend" the other three elements, with Katara as his water-bending teacher. Their hope is that one day Aang will be powerful enough to bring down the Fire Nation and restore peace and balance to the world.

Meanwhile, Zuko, crowned prince of the Fire Nation, is tortured and banished by his father the Fire Lord. To restore his honor with his father he sets off with his uncle to find the Avatar and destroy him. Later, Zuko's sister Azula is brought in to the search as well, all leading up to the fateful face-off between Aang and the Fire Lord.

Toph: Blind earthbender who "sees" with her feet.

What makes "Avatar" so good? Here's a quick rundown:

No Stupid Costumes
OMG I hate the Power Rangers. HAAAAATE. Anything that the Princeling will watch that doesn't involve girls being relegated to the color pink, or bizarre and shitty foam costumes, is fine by me.

Subtle, Complex Storylines
You'll get no overly simplified good vs evil here. No bad-guy-of-the week. Instead, "Avatar" is spread out over three seasons. Each season contains a whole story arc in itself, and all three seasons lead up to the climatic ending. There are bad guys who turn good. There are unlikeable good guys. There are lovable bad guys. There is nuance and context, and a million shades of grey. The heroes often fail and the villains get away with a lot of bad stuff. I like that this show forces my 5 1/2-year old to confront the idea that people can grow and change with their circumstances, at an age where he himself is growing and changing so much every day.

Zuko: More than an angsty scowl

Well-Drawn Female Characters
In far too many fantasy kids' shows, women are relegated to one of three roles: the love interest; the evil witch; the doomed mother. There are variations on these, like the wise teacher or the damsel in distress. However you roll it, though, women are too often given lackluster supporting roles in fantasy, especially with children.

Yet here is a show with more than one female lead, and all of them are as varied and complex as, well, real-life women. They lose their temper, they feel despair, they get frustrated, they save the day, they teach, they grow, they learn, along with all the men and boys on the show. In other words, Katara, Toph (who is BLIND! How's that for non-ableist!), Azula, and the others all have actual full personalities that respond according to the situation and their moods - just like real people!

Azula: She will kick your ass and then laugh in your face.

Positive Messages
Another problem with children's shows is that too many of them try to beat kids over the heads with positive messages. The Duke of Juban loves this weird show "Bo On the Go!" It encourages children to get up and move around, which seems like a good idea in theory - if you've never met a child. Most kids I know don't watch TV for exercise. They watch it to be passively entertained. So when even a 2-year old sits on his ass during the "Get up and move with me!" parts of "Bo On the Go!" you know the show has failed in its messages. He just wants the pretty colors, OK?

While "Avatar" does have a few lectures from one character to another about things like destiny and following one's own path, the overall message of the show is clear in every episode: True success depends on friendship, believing in yourself, and trying your best until you get it right. In this show, hard work pays off. Practice pays off. Failing and trying again pays off. Trusting your friends pays off, and doing what you know is the right thing even against insurmountable odds pays off. And the show does it without patronizing its audience.

Katara: Gettin' shit done.

The main character, Aang, is the show's hero. But he's also a 12-year old boy, with all the hormones and feelings and anger that come with being a 12-year old boy. Even at 5, the Princeling can relate to feeling like no one appreciates what you do for them, you just can't get things right, it's too hard to keep trying, you'll never "get it." And, often in the show, Aang has to deal with fallout from previous incarnations or things that happened in the 100 years he was frozen in ice -- things that cannot possibly be his fault, but which he gets blamed for anyway. It's unfair, and Aang doesn't whitewash his feelings about this. He's bitter and pissed off and doesn't really want to do the right thing. He develops crushes, and his feelings aren't necessarily reciprocated. He gets mad at his friends. As the last Airbender, he is all alone, and sometimes that overwhelms him. He gets scared. Not everyone loves him. Not everyone thinks he's a hero.

Sometimes a kid just wants to be a kid

In other words, Aang is a pretty typical kid, who just happens to be the Avatar, and a great deal of the show is spent watching Aang try to wrestle with his destiny and his status, while also going through all the regular, typical kid stuff everyone else goes through. Sometimes it isolates him, sometimes he alienates those around him, but always it feels real.

The other night I opened my e-book to read a bit while the kids watched some "Avatar" before bed, but found myself shutting off my Nook before I read even one sentence. I'd rather watch the show with them, and not just for couch bonding time with my kids. As I said, it's a high-quality show with enough action to keep the Duke entertained, it's smart enough to get the Princeling thinking, and it gets my husband's and my stamp of approval for grown-ups as well.

What genre shows do you watch? What, if any, kids shows do you watch or let your kids watch?

1 comment:

  1. Wait... you don't have an army of nannies, and a mansion with half a dozen play rooms filled with millions of toys and games?

    Image. Blown!