Nickelodeon has often drawn my ire. In my opinion, successive uninventive shows over the years had sunk their reputation into a bottomless pit. I understood that Nickelodeon was a children's channel; what I didn't understand was why this television network thought children could not think for themselves. Why hide from children the real world? Why shield them from seeing more intellectually demanding TV?
I have to admit: this show has made me rethink that. Its first episode in under half an hour provides a very convincing argument as to why my assumptions of half a lifetime aren't necessarily one hundred per cent correct. That argument isn't perfect - you could say it lacks a degree of that refined eloquence seen in the best arguments - but it is earnestly given, with a degree of authenticity I frankly thought had died out.
In the show, a legendary Avatar kept the world and its four nations at peace with each other. However, the Avatar disappeared one hundred years ago and hasn't been seen since. During that time, the tyrannical Fire Nation used the opportunity to wage war with the other three nations, seeking to conquer them. During this episode, two Southern Water Tribe teenagers, Katara and her brother Sokka, unknowingly discover the long-lost Avatar (Aang) frozen in an iceberg, and bring him back to their village. After witnessing the beam of light that shot through the sky after the Avatar's liberation, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation becomes intent on capturing him. The young boy mistakenly alerts a Fire Nation ship of his whereabouts, and causes panic in the village.
The first thing that struck me about "The Boy in the Iceberg" is that it doesn't pretend that "The War" is just a minor detail designed to complicate the plot for the protagonists. The War is everywhere, and nothing escapes its dark, billowing reach, not even a remote village in the middle of nowhere. The dramatic monologue and opening theme embed this concept firmly in our minds, and the episode does not hesitate to remind us of this concept, even in the most brutal way. In a lighter moment, Aang and Katara go penguin-sledding, but we're brought straight back down to earth when they run straight into a forbidding (and booby-trapped) warship.
Recently, too many children's shows (and many popular novels, for that matter) have simply defined a good and an evil - one side completely pure, the other completely corrupted. The real world isn't like that, and I think it's important children at least try to recognise this at an earlier age. "The Boy in the Iceberg" demonstrates this truth beautifully. While the protagonists clearly are Aang, Katara and Sokka, we get insights into Zuko and Iroh as well, and we recognise very early on that they do not act like your standard antagonists. We see Iroh counsel and mentor Zuko in a way that demonstrates that he cares about him. We see that Zuko is a teenager who is more short-tempered than evil. We even see them, Iroh in particular, provide comedic relief. ("Very well. But first, I must finish my roast duck!")
But this episode isn't perfect. In particular, while some of the jokes by themselves are indeed mildly humourous, they do not add to the quality of the episode. For example, we see Sokka teaching little boys to be warriors. This does set things up for a minor joke or two ("But I gotta pee!"), but one asks why this situation is occurring in the first place. Considering the hardship the village clearly is in, there must be more productive things to do than get the oldest male left in the village to teach a couple of very young kids warrior concepts. Won't survival, gathering fuel and food, teach them that? It's the South Pole! Other examples include the fact that Katara isn't aware that Airbenders can't teach Waterbending (silly and unnecessary), and some more unintelligent use of dialogue ("You're an Airbender!").
Overall, however, "The Boy in the Iceberg" is a very promising, if not perfect, beginning. It treats its audience as intelligent beings, explores darker themes and doesn't stray from them too much, and provides for the most part some relevant light-hearted touches. I'm rethinking my perceptions of Nickelodeon now.
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