"Avatar: The Last Airbender" is this week's selection.
Only one recommendation again this week because of time constrains, so I'll keep the intro short as well.
HBO Max finally launched Wednesday, and through a few days of use, it's everything I thought I would be. The library of options is enormous, and much of it is high quality. With "Sesame Street" properties, new and classic "Looney Tunes" series and a selection of Cartoon Network shows, it's great for young viewers, and the Turner Classic Movies/Criterion Collection section, as discussed last week, is great for film buffs. For the casual viewers, there's no shortage of blockbuster franchises, including all eight "Harry Potter" films, "Friends," "The Big Bang Theory" and DC Universe content like older "Batman" films.
It's so well rounded that I'm not sure why anyone wouldn't get it — well, unless you literally can't get it. At launch, HBO Max's app was not available on either Roku or Amazon Fire, a large portion of the country's streaming base. I watched it through my Playstation 4, and people can also watch via Chromecast or on a Samsung smart TV app (plus online at HBOMax.com, where you'll find a full list of providers.) I hope this gets resolved soon for viewers' sake.
In the meantime, in case you're one of the people in streaming purgatory, I have a non-HBO selection for you.
"Avatar: The Last Airbender" (2005-2008)
Netflix, TV-Y7, 66 episodes, 25 hours of content
I realized recently that I had not included any family-friendly content in Binge Blog for a little while, so I'm here to fix that with one of the most-beloved shows of its generation, one that has as much for adults to love as it does kids.
Until it hit Netflix last week, I had never seen "Avatar: The Last Airbender," and as someone who tries to champion animated media as an art style, not a genre or an indicator of audience or intelligence, that was a source of shame. I'm happy to say I have now started to right that wrong, though I'm also sad I didn't start this journey sooner because it's an exhilarating one.
"Avatar" — I'm referring to the show as this for brevity's sake; just know it has nothing to do with James Cameron's film series of the same name — is the story of Aang, a young boy who is actually more than 100 years old but became cryogenically frozen in an iceberg for much of that time. He's discovered by Katara and Sokka, teenage siblings, who take him back to their camp and try to catch him up on what has happened in the world during his extended freeze.
The fictional world of "Avatar," which was influenced by East Asian and Inuit cultures, is full of life. People are in touch with the planet, literally. There exists four "nations" named after each of the elements: water, fire, earth and air. Within these nations are "benders," people who can conjure and manipulate the elements, usually for military purposes. The four nations have been at war since Aang became trapped, with the Fire Nation attacking the others at will. In fact, the Air Nation were thought to have been completely wiped out. It wasn't, though. Aang is a natural Airbender, and what's more, he's the spirit of the Avatar, the one person on the planet who can learn to control all four elements. The Avatar spirit is reborn into a new body in perpetuity, rotating from nation to nation each time. As legends have it, the Avatar is said to be the keeper of peace. Only when he left did the nations go to war, after all.
Once Aang sees firsthand the destruction caused in his absence, he embarks on a quest to master the other three elements before the Fire Nation is the lone Nation left standing, with Katara (herself a burgeoning waterbender) and Sokka in tow. They're accompanied and occasionally helped by Appa, a flying bison, and Momo, a normal lemur who sticks around for comedic purposes.
For those familiar with anime, the structure of "Avatar" will seem familiar. Each episode takes the gang to a new location, where they meet interesting people and learn a lesson or two that they will carry with them on their larger journey. There's also a surprising amount of character depth, with Aang struggling with the consequences his past choices have wrought on the world and learning to be a vessel for good. Callbacks to previous episodes are abound, and the longer the show goes, the more it builds its lore, making for a deeply pleasurable experience.
It's heavy stuff delivered in a way kids and adults can both handle. The show does not shy away from death, and the animation, while beautiful, can also be a kid's introduction to scares, like an early Season 1 episode that depicts a monster from the "Spirit World" stalking villagers in a forest. But it's not all heavy. There's plenty of comedy, much of it physical, and it's delightful to watch Aang figure out his life's purpose while hanging onto his youthful, playful spirit.
Each episode is about 23 minutes long, thanks to it originally airing on Nickelodeon, so it is easily digestible. Be careful, though: "Avatar" is like a nutrient-rich version of Pringles — once you pop, you won't be able to stop.
(Whatever you do, steer clear of the live-action M. Night Shyamalan movie based on this series, but do read everything you can about its production, because it is famously a disaster.)
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