Upon the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend, I lately began Avatar: The Last Airbender, the first domestic, American cartoon I have followed in years. Actually my friend, a journalist now writing some of the Tewksbury Town Crier pieces for the Woburn, Massachusetts Daily Times Chronicle (sample), recommended the current sequel, The Legend of Korra, but so resolutely chronological a being as I could never begin the second without the first.
For a man so accustomed to anime, yet not quick to forget the waywardness of our domestic programs, some leeway is readily granted in the ranking of such a series. Of course, in any show that portrays the organization of fictional exotic societies, feminism will be the overarching theme, because to doubt the equality of male and female roles or capacities is to doubt the foundations of "one person, one vote" democracy. And by episode 4, the viewer is already introduced to the Kiyoshi warriors, the series' primary amazons. The secondary male protagonist, Sokka, is shown to be all bark by comparison, and despite coming through on many occasions, is marked by overconfidence.
Thankfully, for the traditionalist, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation more than makes up for the Kiyoshi harpies. That's him behind his Uncle Iroh, in a pic that reminds us that Avatar is indeed of Nick. Whereas establishment critics are wont to drone praise for every detestable "strong woman", Zuko (fanlisting here) is among the fewer strong man characters I can recall. Proud of noble birth, yet completely self-reliant, respectful of authority yet forthright, and alternatively self-sacrificing and ruthless, he embodies every contrary virtue which builds a true prince, and consistently demonstrates his worthiness for the throne he is destined to assume. He has the fault of rashness, but given his inner strength and categorical loyalty to his nation, he is a far better person than any of the purported protagonists, who are as immature children next to him. Being an American cartoon, he is the primary villain, earning a page on Villains Wiki, and joining the ranks of those many other villains, from Angelica Pickles (Rugrats) to Tamaki Reika (Ojamajo Doremi) to Rock (Metropolis) to Francisco Franco (Homage to Catalonia) whom I have found preferable to the official good guys. In Avatar, the Fire Nation is imperialistic (though not marked by the industrial monotony of the Galactic Empire of Star Wars fame), and struggles to dominate the Earth and Water nations. This goal is intended to be self-evidently wrong, but given Fire's capable leadership, intense traditionalism, and general rejection of feminism (even Azula, Zuko's warlike sister, is not a quarter as obnoxious as the "good" Earth Nation girl Toph), there is little doubt in my mind that Fire hegemony would do the Avatar universe some good.
For a cartoon with a Chinese ethos, there were some missed opportunities. While Buddhism is not taken very seriously in most anime (and is treated with a graceful humor that would be impossible for the peoples of ex-Christendom), everyone knows that cool Westerners are fascinated by the Eastern religion. Hence, this was a good opportunity to present Americans with some of the more ascetic principles of a religion with a good reputation. However, as of two-thirds through Avatar, there has been only one episode centered on Aang's quasi-Buddhist spiritual training, #39.
There was, however, one boon I did not at all expect from a Viacom cartoon. Episode 37 is named "Lake Laogai", and concerns a facility the repressive government used the Earth Nation city Ba Sing Se to brainwash residents who discuss the war with the Fire Nation and supposedly threaten the culture, and even to indoctrinate tour guides and other civil servants. As I recalled from college, the real life Laogai is the system of prison-labor camps in Communist China. Estimates of the total number of people who died in the camps under Mao's rule range from 15 to 27 million, and my professor ominously told us, the Laogai still exists (and is thought to manufacture consumer goods for export), though the government tries to hide it. The real life reference has not been lost on either the relevant Avatar Wiki or Wikipedia pages. So, again, thanks to the writers and their corporate overlords at Viacom for teaching American children a thing or two about the past and present of Red oppression in China. Beyond the excellent animation and compelling characters (Zuko and Iroh, plus the cute Ty Lee), this is enough to recommend Avatar: The Last Airbender by itself.