Noah Brand explains how there is no gender war in Ba Sing Se.
The 2000s were, many critics and fans agree, the Decade When TV Got Good. Some mark the transition from the 1999 premiere of The Sopranos, but whenever you mark it, the decade of The Wire, Arrested Development, Firefly, Deadwood, and the first three seasons of House really does mark a profound shift in sheer quality on television. (Yes, I am almost definitely leaving out several of your favorites; just assume I meant those too.)
For all the brilliance and innovation of those series, though, the 2000s TV show I return to most often, the one I can watch over and over and always enjoy, is a kids’ show that aired on Nickelodeon, and that I didn’t discover until years after it went off the air. I am referring, of course, to Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Some of you may only be familiar with the franchise from the live-action M. Night Shyamalan movie. Please, as you value your sanity, disregard that. The movie was godawful, but the show, even truncated at a mere three seasons, was the most brilliant children’s show in at least a generation. The action, imagination, visual design, humor, and engrossing worldbuilding of the show are all top-notch, but the quality of the writing is what sets Avatar apart. It deals with serious issues in a way that kids can understand but adults can appreciate, a difficult line for anyone to walk. The characterization, though, passes beyond skillful and into extraordinary.
Avatar has been much-praised for its excellent female characters, who span a variety of heroes and villains, all of them complex and three-dimensional, none of them a simple stereotype or cliché. When too many shows, especially kids’ shows, have a character who can be accurately described as The Girl, that’s a rare and special quality in television.
What I loved most about the show, though, was the wonderful range of male characters. Not just the usual Generic Leader, Cool Snarky Guy, and Dumb Guy, they are also well-realized and complex characters, and three of them stand out, for me, as role models for three stages of a man’s life.
SPOILERS from here on in. If you haven’t seen this show, go now and watch it. You’re in for a treat.
Sokka is a great example of how to be a young man. A teenager throughout the run of the show, he has a young man’s vices and a young man’s virtues. He’s often overconfident, thinks he’s immortal, and has an immature and sometimes inappropriate sense of humor. As the “normal guy” surrounded by fellow heroes who wield immense superhuman powers that he doesn’t share, it would be easy for him to just be the doofy comic relief. Instead, he’s presented as smart and capable, using his own abilities to their utmost, coming up with the plans the group depends on.
Most of all, Sokka knows that he’s young and plans accordingly. He occasionally falls into the adolescent trap of thinking he knows everything, but he’s always willing to learn from his mistakes and admit when he’s wrong. He never seeks to dodge responsibility for his errors, but does his best not to make the same ones twice. In the third season, he gains a coveted position studying with the world’s greatest sword master by humbly admitting that he knows very little, and he has a lot to learn. When I look back on what a godawful little smartass I was as a teenager, I wish I’d had a role model like Sokka to follow.
Iroh, aka Uncle Iroh, aka General Iroh, aka The Dragon of the West, is a magnificent example of how to be a middle-aged man. He first appears as one of the bad-guy team hunting down the heroes, but turns out to be perhaps the most decent, human, and purely good character on the show. He’s a funny, chubby, seemingly harmless goof with a well-developed taste for rich food, fascinating women, and most of all good tea. He flirts shamelessly, but is never rude. He treats everyone with respect and kindness, even when he doesn’t have to. He is a matchless warrior who has turned his back on war, but is willing to fight for principles that he discovered too late in life.
What makes Iroh a great middle-aged man is that he has a past. He has made mistakes. He has fought hard for what he now knows to be the wrong side. He has done terrible wrongs, but he does not let his past define him. For Iroh, every day is a new day, full of good food, good tea, good women, and another chance to do the right thing, after too many years doing the wrong one. He learns from his mistakes, and tries with all his considerable might to prevent the next generation from repeating them. He forgives others their bad actions because he knows that he has plenty of his own to be forgiven. He is a testament to the idea that one can always choose to become a good man, no matter what kind of man one has been in the past.
Then, of course, there’s King Bumi. If my reprobate lifestyle allows me to become an old man, I hope that one day I might be an old man like Bumi. He’s rude, absentminded, confusing to talk to, and his clothes are sixty years out of style. He’s also still brilliant, still active, and a lot trickier than those darn young folks assume. He’s willing to use the dotty-old-man routine to seem harmless as a way of covering his own agenda, or just as a way of messing with the heads of the teenage heroes. When I’m old, I hope I’m half that good at messing with teenagers.
Bumi’s virtues are those of age: experience and patience. Without the rushed do-it-now urgency of youth, he can wait peacefully for the right moment to act. He’s willing to look like a fool because he’s too old to be hung up on his image. And he’s free to screw around with people’s assumptions and expectations because at his age, he’s well past giving a fractional fuck what people think of him. He knows who he is, and is going to get some laughs out of his twilight years with or without anyone else’s permission. At my age, I still have too many bridges left unburnt to enjoy that kind of freedom, but there is a part of me that looks forward to being old enough to get away with becoming childish again.
Next month, Nickelodeon will premiere the spin-off series The Legend of Korra, and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve heard some grumbling among fans (you know how fans are) that the lead character being a young woman will just lead to the same old dynamic with a cliché early-90s Action Girl and the parade of dumb male characters who are just there to act as foils for an ill-considered and even patronizing “grrl power” image. Me, I’m not worried. Given the creators’ track record, I have faith that Korra will be a complex, human, well-realized protagonist, and that the male cast will once again feature men so well-written, so fallible and yet admirable, that I’ll watch the show and think “See, that’s the kind of man I want to be.”
All images in this article are from Nickelodeon.