Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Will It Bend? (pt. 1)

In a couple of earlier posts (here and here), I wrote about a phenomenon that I would generously call "not a good sign": the increasing tendency of adults to prefer novels intended for children over novels intended for people their own age. Interestingly enough, this doesn't seem to be as prevalent a trend with other narrative arts. Though a large segment of the population, young and old, can be counted on to trek out to the latest Pixar offering, and Twilight and Harry Potter's grown-up fans never missed the chance to see them in theaters, most blockbuster protagonists are grown-up enough to wield firearms or disrobe onscreen, and the same goes for TV. Even shows like South Park, The Simpsons, and Family Guy, all of which prominently feature child characters, make that part of the joke: look, they're little kids, but they're advocating genocide, becoming members of Mensa, or talking like Rex Harrison (respectively). Our full enjoyment of these kidlets depends on us, the viewers, being able to see and identify their apparent contradictions from an adult perspective.

Nickelodeon's show Avatar: The Last Airbender is not like these other cartoons. The children in Avatar do things that real children couldn't, but we're not supposed to laugh at the impossibility; we're meant to suspend our disbelief. And the series as a whole definitely meets my criteria for a young adult story: the characters develop and age, but they never change in ways that permanently mar their innocence. It's certainly not intended for adults. Yet to me, the thing that makes it really terrific children's television, and entertaining for the rest of us, is the unique way the series as a whole is structured.

I find it surprising that, miniseries aside, so few television programs are constructed with the end in mind from the beginning. Like emperors demented with hubris, show creators must think that they are immortal, that they'll never have to relinquish their reign, and that their empire will only become more powerful the longer it exists. Of course, the opposite is true. The expression "jumped the shark" was coined just to capture that moment when a TV series goes from being relevant and entertaining to embarrassing, and I won't bother listing the shows where this has happened: it's nearly all of them. The ones that have escaped this grim fate ended too – they just knew when to stop.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is striking not for what it does so much as what it doesn't do, which is to careen wildly off course. In the first episode, the central path of the narrative is laid out. We learn that in the world of the story, certain gifted warriors are capable of "bending" or controlling each of the four elements: water, earth, air, and fire. Only one person can learn to control all four. This person is the Avatar, reincarnated in each generation, and in this one he's a little boy named Aang, the airbender of the title. But his duty to humanity is even greater than the Avatars of the past, because now the Fire Nation is intent on conquering the rest of the world. Only Aang can restore balance by freeing the other nations. And then, over the course of three seasons (each named for an additional element he masters: water, then earth, then fire), that's exactly what he goes on to do. This sounds predictable, and it is. But that macro-predictability gives the makers of the series incredible freedom to bring the world of the story, and its characters, to life in the individual episodes. Since they know where they're going, they can take their sweet time getting there.

Watching the series was useful to me as a writer, since I seem to find this simple truth very easy to forget. For a long time, in fact, I used to think that plots needed to be convoluted, or at least not "obvious," in order for the finished story itself to be wildly imaginative. When I made my first serious attempt at writing a novel in college, I so eschewed the notion of straightforward plot that I didn't even bother writing the action in sequence: instead, under the heavy influence of freshman year philosophy courses and Mountain Dew (which I consumed by the case), I scribbled random scenes into notebooks so filled with doodles they resembled illuminated manuscripts penned by gonzo monks. Every day I felt inspired. Some year and a half later, when I began to look back over the gory Frankenbook I had created, filled with characters hurling cats at one another and shouting about Descartes, I knew something had gone horribly wrong, but I didn't know what.

Perhaps Avatar: The Last Airbender might have saved me some time and the world some paper. I think the thing I find the most striking about it is how much fun the creators seem to be having, just making things up. Most of the animals in the show, for instance, are hybrids – badger moles, koala sheep, lizard rhinos, a lion turtle – and there's a weird moment of humor when a regular bear is introduced, much to the confusion of the main characters. Nearly every permutation of the four "bending" styles is eventually explored: although characters just start out controlling the basic elements, they eventually learn that other substances containing or contained by their elements are subject to bending as well. An earthbender learns that she can shape metal, forming a suit around her body; firebenders can shoot electricity from their fingers – or catch it and shoot it back; and in a genuinely creepy episode that might be the high point of the series as a whole, a waterbender learns that she can "bend" blood inside of people's veins, turning them into living marionettes. By the end of the series, I had the feeling that the makers of the show had completely exhausted their material, which I mean as a high compliment: there's nothing more frustrating than feeling like an artist didn't do his own idea justice.
The one sort of fire bender the show never includes.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the simple overarching structure of Avatar: The Last Airbender allows the show's creators to dig deep into their thematic material. Its peace-loving message may rival Fraggle Rock for naked idealism, but it beats the Fraggles hands down for subtlety. (Sorry, Wembly.) While most kids' shows with a moral message set up simple parables, solved over a single episode and generally with maximum preachiness, Avatar: The Last Airbender is able to build up to ideas slowly. The Fire Nation, which starts out as pure enemy in season 1, is gradually revealed to be a sophisticated, beautiful culture, as much worth preserving as the civilizations it decimates. And the people in it are complicated, products of their country's nationalism and xenophobia but not incapable of change. Similarly, though they learn to work together, the peoples of the other nations aren't a unified front: the Air Nomads are vegetarians while the Water Tribe eats practically nothing but meat; each nation worships its own gods. That's not the kind of idea that gets a lot of play on Captain Planet.

All of this is the reason that I was horrified when I saw that the show had been remade as a live-action movie by M. Night Shymalan; I was even more horrified when I read Roger Ebert's review. Nevertheless, because I apparently don't know what's good for me, I'm planning to see it later this week. I'd say I'm interested in finding out what happens when a sprawling narrative like this collapses in on itself to fill less than two hours, but that would be a lie. I'd really go to see any movie that promises a flying bison in glorious 3D.


Laina said...

Once again, reading your blog has left me feeling pleasantly thoughtful and intrigued (and kind of wishing we had television to watch Nickelodeon). Thanks Chandler!

Meredith said...

My friend Sam likes the cartoon and she also liked the film. Maybe you will like it too. Although she's a baker and not a writer so she probably doesn't think about story structure much.

The Chawmonger said...

Thanks for the comments, ladies! Meredith, I do have to admit the movie sounds dreadful, but I have been wrong many times before... so I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

Marisa said...

This reminds me that I have something wonderful to send to you tomorrow. I'll e-mail it.

Beautiful post and excellent points about why this show inspires such strong loyalty and reactions from its fans. If you wish to have your joy untainted, don't watch the movie.