If an advanced otherworldly life form ever came to earth and asked us to give it a quick but comprehensive lesson on what it means to be human — to hurt, to heal, to grow, to love and sacrifice — there’d be no other option than to hand over all three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender. If any other TV show is as complete and perfect a blueprint for how to be a decent person, while still managing to entertain and connect with viewers above all else, I haven’t found it yet.
Those of us who were lucky enough to grow up with the Emmy-winning Nickelodeon series have been singing its praises for over a decade now, facing an uphill battle when convincing our friends and peers that an animated kids’ show deserves a spot in TV history. But there’s no doubt Avatar: The Last Airbender is beloved; the series currently stands as the eighth-highest-ranked scripted TV series on IMDb, close behind such greats as Breaking Bad and The Wire. For TV fans who make it their goal to burn through all shows prestigious and critically adored, Avatar may seem like an unorthodox choice, but it’s also more likely than not the most-beloved series that you haven’t seen yet.
Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the series is set in a world in which some people are gifted with the ability to manipulate a single natural element–water, earth, air, or fire–a power that’s called bending. It’s a culturally rich and diverse world full of kind and funny people. Still, it’s also one that’s been torn apart by 100 years of war after its spiritual peacemaker–the avatar, the only person who can master all four elements–went missing. In the pilot episode, a small village’s only waterbender, empathetic Katara (Mae Whitman), and her clever yet ridiculous brother Sokka (Jack De Sena) discover twelve-year-old Avatar Aang (Zach Tyler) trapped in a pocket of ice.
Since Aang comes from a group of air nomads (think like Tibetan monks) and has been sidelined for a century, he’s a gentle soul, distraught to discover the toll war has taken on the world around him. Aang’s struggle to reconcile the suffering he sees around him with the world he knows is possible provides a powerful moral backdrop for a story that, while blending elements of action, fantasy, comedy, and adventure, is at its heart one of war’s lasting impact. Furious, scorned fire nation teenager Prince Zuko (Dante Basco) pursues Aang, Sokka, and Katara. At the same time, they travel the world in hopes of finding a path to peace, and while they gain allies, like badass blind earthbender Toph (Michaela Jill Murphy), the show builds in scope and emotional impact, it stakes raised with each epic showdown and gut-wrenching season finale.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is built to binge. Its episodes are usually only 23 minutes long, and almost every single one of its 66 episodes is a standout. That may sound like hyperbole, but if you ask an Avatar fan to name their favorite episodes, you might end up in an hour-long conversation. The series–which includes Star Wars TV universe filmmaker Dave Filoni among its episode directors–has dozens of distinctive chapters and very few weak links. Game-changing climatic episodes like “The Day of Black Sun” and “Lake Laogai” are offset by funny outings like “The Cave of Two Lovers” and “The Blind Bandit,” while transformative chapters like “Zuko Alone,” “The Southern Raiders” and “Tales of Ba Sing Se” reward character investment with gut-wrenching yet tentatively hopeful individual storylines. If you’re already a fan and I haven’t listed your favorite episode yet, that’s no surprise, as consistently great directing, animation, voice acting, music, and especially excellent writing are all par for the course when it comes to Avatar: The Last Airbender.
All three season finales have the pacing, high-stakes tension, and emotional gravity to match the best hero’s journeys you’ve ever seen. In contrast, the cinematic four-part series finale–with the help of a live orchestral score that will thrill you to the bone–sticks the landing in a way other shows of this narrative scale never could. When it’s over, it’s satisfying. Still, if you don’t want to leave the world of Avatar, you don’t have to thanks to post-series comics (series fans, drop what you’re doing and read The Search), a sequel series set 70 years later, and an upcoming Netflix live-action reboot series that looks promising.
Lost, Fleabag, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men: few shows are capable of leaving you feeling like a changed person by the time their final credits play. But Avatar: The Last Airbender belongs to that rare club thanks to its brilliantly original mythology, its unflinching yet resilient take on humankind’s tendency to hate and control, and ultimately, the unfathomably deep wells of empathy it shares with each and every person who chooses to watch it.