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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Modern Mormon Geek Moment #2

by Bradly Baird (bio)

I confess that I maintain a secret life as a fan of popular - and not-so-popular - culture. I know that each of you knows what I am talking about. You assiduously keep your guilty pleasures secret and never let anyone outside of your immediate family know about them. Because to reveal such things is to reveal your inner geek; that deepest most secretive (and embarrassing) part of your personality. But no matter how deep inside you've hidden your geekiness, I am here to say that you should let it out every once in a while and share it with someone. You never know, you might discover a fellow geek. And in that spirit, I present my second geek secret ... please don't beat me up, take my lunch money, or give me a wedgie. Previous geek moments here.

When someone first described the central plot and themes of Avatar: The Last Airbender to me, I laughed out loud and dismissed it as yet one more dumb children's television show. The whole concept seemed like new-age claptrap infused into a Saturday morning cartoon format.

After the program completed its second season, my son began to take an interest and started to watch, utilizing our Netflix subscription. However, the only television in our home with Netflix access is located in our downstairs living room, a space that is often occupied by my wife or myself. One Saturday afternoon, he came into the room and proposed that we watch Avatar together. I was not excited by the idea, but thought I would be a nice old man and watch the program with him since he loved it so much.

We sat down and watched an episode from the second season - Zuko Alone - and to my great surprise, I really enjoyed the program. It is intelligently and creatively assembled, demonstrates an uncommon thoughtfulness found almost nowhere else in the onslaught of modern children's television programming, and provides a compelling plotline to follow.

I like that it tells a continuous and ongoing story with twists, turns, multiple storylines, jokes (both visual and verbal), explorations of human relationships, and that it attempts to understand the extraordinary complexities of humanity by touching on war, cruelty, compassion, kindness, love (romantic and familial), friendship, the environment, responsibility, morality, education, women's rights, and diasporas, to name but a few.

I also like that there is never a simple solution to any of the problems faced by the main characters (Aang, Zuko, Katara, Toph, and Sokka); they struggle to learn, struggle to get along with one another, fail at many things, nearly lose their lives, make many mistakes, and eventually - because of all of this - build lives for themselves. While it is not a perfect program, the creators offer a great deal of honesty about life, all the while providing an entertaining epic drama/comedy.

And in case I have overstated anything or tried to make it sound like more than it is, we should remember that it is a cartoon and it is targeted towards children. The program contains its share of silliness, childish jokes, magic, events that stretch credulity, and the occasional solution that is too simplistic in nature. But, this is all part of the package that makes the program interesting and helps to make its serious(very) premise retain its charm.

The program concluded its run on Nickeloden almost four years ago, but my children and I download the episodes on Netflix about once a year and hold an Avatar marathon (we are only talking about sixty episodes, each about twenty minutes in length). I suspect that we will probably only do this once more before the inevitable interests of teenagerdom overtake their lives, and then we will probably never watch the program again. But, I will always have a place in my heart for Aang and his friends.

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