Squawk Box: Avatar The Last Airbender/Away

Avatar: The Last Airbender is something I've been waiting to watch for a very long time. It never seemed to be on any streaming services I could find and I didn't grow up with it on television the way a lot of kids did. I heard two consist things about it: a. that it was incredibly good and b. the movie version sucked and while I haven't seen the movie and cannot testify to it's quality, I have now seen the entireity of the series and can cofirm: it's incredibly good.

Set in a world where some people can manipulate one of the four elements- water, earth, fire or air using telekinetic martial arts known as bending the series opens with one of the four nations, the Fire Nation in ascendance. They've driven the Airbenders to extinction and pushed the Water Tribes to the North and South Poles of the world. The only ones left the oppose them are the Earth Kingdom and the war is not going well for them. One day though, a couple of members of the Southern Water Tribe, Sokka (Jack De Sena) and his sister Katara (Mae Whitman) find someone frozen in the ice- and that turns out to be Aang (Zach Tyler) who is the Avatar and the last of the Airbenders.

The avatar only appears every generation or so and is the only person who can bend all four elements and is responsible for either bringing or maintaining harmony between the four nations of the world. Aang's job is the end the Fire Nation's war against the other nations of the world, while fleeing Zuko (Dante Basco), an exiled Prince of the Fire Nation who is looking to restore his honor by finding the lost avatar and capturing him for the Fire Nation to end the war once and for all. 

Look, if you're one of those people that is all like, "I don't watch cartoons, cartoons are for kids," then I'm hear to tell you that this is the show that will change your mind. It is a kid's show, that's for sure, but it also doesn't flinch heavy topics or the harsh realities a lot of kids have to deal with- while not necessarily here in America- but certainly some of the realities they touch on are felt by kids across the world. It looks at things like war, genocide, imperialism, totalitarianism and the idea of free will or free choice in real and meaningful ways- and I'd go further: it touches on these topics so well and it's story telling is so damn good that this show transcends it's medium. It's not just one of the best animated shows you will ever see, it's one of the best shows you'll ever see on television full stop.

The writing and the character arcs on this show are fantastic as well. There's television shows that you think are really good and really well written out there right now and let me assure you that this show that aired on Nickelodeon starting fifteen years ago now will absolutely go toe-to-toe with any show you can name me. Every character has a beautiful evolution on this show and as a result, the finale, when you get to it, is one of the most satisfying finales you'll ever see. My Grade: If you haven't sat down and watched this yet, what are you waiting for? ***** out of ****

The second show we're going to talk about is Away. Now, in an alternatre universe, Netflix and Hulu ran The First and Away against each other so we could do a better side by side comparison of the two, but in the real world, The First dropped on Hulu in 2018 and lasted for one season. Away dropped on Netflix this year and also (sadly) lasted for one season. The real question is this: in the battle between dramas centered around two academy award winning actors wrestling with the human cost and drama of spaceflight and missions to Mars, who came out on top?

Well, you could argue that neither really came out on top as both shows were cancelled after one season- but I think I'm going to have to give the nod to Away and Hilary Swank here. The First was... okay, but it was a lot of interpersonal drama, emoting from Sean Penn and not much actually action until the last episode when they actually launch to go to Mars. Away, in contrast not only sees the Hilary Swank launch to go to Mars, but she actually gets there as well, which makes for a more interesting story overall, I think.

The show opens with Emma Green (Swank) in a bit of a tense spot. They're about to leave for Mars, but there's a fire onboard the ship, the Atlas and she's deemed responsible for it- compounding that, her husband Matt (Josh Charles) who works at Mission Control for NASA has a stroke and has to go through surgery and her teenage daughter, Alexis (Talithia Bateman) who is already having a hard time anyway gets to have an even harder one. Emma wavers on going on the mission for obvious reasons, but Matt convinces her to keep going with it and reluctantly, she does.

They depart for Mars and everyone has to adjut: the crew face their share of emergencies including a solar panel failing to deploy and their water supply failing, but gradually come to trust Emma and her ability to pull them all together. Back home, Matt has to adjut to the new normal of being in a wheelchair- potentially forever- while Alexis misses her Mom, starts noticing a dirt bike riding boy who turns out to be fairly decent- and wrestles with getting tested for the gene that contributed to her Dad's stroke.

Taking a page from that other show on Hulu, we also get to see the personal problems and quiet tragedies that confound the rest of the international crew in ways large and small over the course of the journey to Mars and eventually they get there and they land together and in one piece.

Overall, I actually hadn't heard that this had been cancelled after one season which sort of bums me out because they seemed to be laying the groundwork for some very interesting, if forced storylines for subsequent seasons-- at the end of the day though, I do like this better than The First, because you actually get to see them go to Mars and not talk about going to Mars, which is a subtle distinction, but as it turns out, a somewhat important one. My Grade: Better of the two prestige streaming 'let's go to Mars' shows by a decent margin, *** out of ****.


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