If you were to ask me on the street what my favorite childhood franchise was it would be difficult for me to answer you immediately. Harry Potter and seasons 1-5 of Pokémon would certainly be honorable mentions, but Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender has always been and remains one of my favorite franchises of all time.
A franchise that trumps even the magical saga of The Boy Who Lived may be hard to conceive, but Avatar: The Last Airbender always came out on top for me as a kid and as an adult. As a child, I just thought the show was downright cool. People that can control the elements around them as if they were extensions of their body: awesome. A single person that controls all of the elements and can tap into nearly limitless reserves of spiritual energy: even better.
But as I have grown up and re-watched the series in its entirety repeatedly (with a more critical eye each time) I have gained an even greater appreciation for the series and its creators.
Make no mistake, Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel The Legend of Korra are both shows primarily aimed at a younger demographic (a demographic that I was a member of growing up). With that said, I can't think of any other shows (animated or otherwise) aimed at the same demographic that have accomplished as much as both shows have in terms of storytelling and representation of underrepresented groups.
In terms of storytelling, both series were masterfully crafted and told by co-creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino in different ways. Avatar: The Last Airbender frequently touched on issues like genocide, dysfunctional family dynamics, and the repercussions of war. However, the series also placed a heavy emphasis on friendship, forgiveness, and the ability for people to determine their own future regardless of their past. The Legend of Korra, on the other hand, always struck me as a decidedly more political show in that each season dealt with an antagonist that had warped a particular ideology for his or her own purposes (communism, theocracy, anarchy, and fascism respectively).
The protagonists in both series were always complex and never static. They all ultimately retained key traits that made them who they were as each series progressed, but like the audience members who tuned in year after year, the characters also grew up and evolved over time. The antagonists were also always complex too. Unlike on similar shows also aimed at younger demographics, the antagonists of both series were almost never villainous for the sake of being evil or "world domination," they nearly always had complex and sometimes very understandable motivations and backstories that made some of them sympathetic instead of outright despicable.
In my opinion, this is what made both series so successful as shows: they were aimed at Nickelodeon viewers but could appeal to anyone in need of a good story. Konietzko and DiMartino never talked down to their viewers or attempted to sugarcoat the realities they portrayed on-screen. They simply portrayed a very human world with decidedly human characters and like reality, that world and those characters were not always perfect, far from it in many cases.
In terms of diversity, both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra were decidedly groundbreaking in their own ways and Konietzko and DiMartino created a beautifully diverse world from the very start and made no bones about it.
The fictional casts of both shows (leading and supporting, protagonists and antagonists) are completely made up of people of color. As a child, I do not know if I fully appreciated this, but today I do. Although cartoons and television in general are slowly becoming more diverse today, growing up there were few to no heroes (or even villains) with brown skin and yet Avatar: The Last Airbender was full of them. They didn't play into racial, gender, ethnic, or cultural stereotypes either, something that certain television creators today seem to still think is necessary in order to get their points across.
I cannot and should not speak for how both series portrayed characters that are a part of other marginalized groups, though it seems many fans and critics alike agree that both series have done an excellent job of portraying women and people with disabilities.
The Legend of Korra arguably had all the diversity and accurate representation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but Konietzko and DiMartino took it one step further with the series finale of The Legend of Korra. The final few scenes of the series show a tender moment between protagonists Korra and Asami before the two decide to embark on a vacation together to the spirit world. The final shot is of the two holding hands and gazing at one another in the center of a portal to the aforementioned spirit world as Jeremy Zuckerman's score (which doesn't get nearly enough recognition for the beautiful piece of work that it is) ends in a way that can only be described as hopefully romantic.
Within a few hours of the episode hitting the Internet, fans, critics, and bloggers alike all gave their two cents on "Korrasami." Some rolled their eyes and asked why two women simply could not be friends and share an intimate moment together without it meaning anything romance-related. Others interpreted the scene as too safe and lamented that the pair's blossoming bisexual relationship was not more explicitly stated.
Then Konietzko and DiMartino and confirmed via their personal Tumblr accounts on December 22 that: "Yes, Korra and Asami have romantic feelings for each other," and "You can celebrate it, embrace it, accept it, get over it, or whatever you feel the need to do, but there is no denying it." I highly recommend reading both of their individual posts, they are excellent and informative reads.
As someone who knew but probably did not want to admit that he was not completely straight for a multitude of reasons as a kid when Avatar: The Last Airbender was airing, seeing a scene like the one that concluded The Legend of Korra would have meant the world to me. It did not feel like a forced ending, it did not feel like (as some fans and critics have said) there was an agenda. It felt and was organic, but more importantly the scene and pairing were normalized. It felt just as normalized as the racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity in both animated series.
Normalized diversity and accurate representation is what today's youth and adults need to see more than ever as our world becomes increasingly blended. I will show my children Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, not only because they are fantastic stories and shows, but because they will hopefully see themselves in one way or another in either show. After viewing both shows, I hope that they will know as I now know that people like them can be more than a stereotype or a sidekick or comic relief and that their differences (be them physical, mental, cultural, sexual, etc.) don't make them "other" nor do they have to define them.
If The Legend of Korra were to have another season I know that "Korrasami" and the sexuality of both of the characters involved would not define either character or the direction of the show. I know this because Konietzko and DiMartino never let other characteristics such as blindness or post-traumatic stress solely define their characters before.
I am hopeful for another sequel series set in the universe that Konietzko and DiMartino have created (or a better film than the M. Night Shyamalan atrocity that fans have all but sworn never to speak of), but if neither materialize all I can say to Konietzko and DiMartino is thank you. Thank you for two wonderful stories full of wonderful characters that have and will continue to inspire kids and adults everywhere for years to come. Thank you for showing us that diversity and representation not only work, but matter in storytelling. The rest of the television world should be taking notes.