Children’s Animation for All Ages
Storytelling Innovations in the ‘Golden Age’ of Serial Animated Television
MA Thesis | Quinten van Winden
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org | Student nr.: 11071885
Supervisor: Dr. V. (Vanessa) Ossa | Second reader: Dr. J.A. (Jan) Teurlings MA Television and Cross Media Culture | Universiteit van Amsterdam June 21st, 2022
In recent years, television journalists have described the period from 2005 and onward as a
‘golden age’ of serial animated children’s television (Motamayor, Romano, Sholars).
Commonly noted characteristics of this body of children’s animated series include progressive forms of representation, innovative storytelling practices and a wide appeal beyond its initial target audience. This thesis examines the latter two of these characteristics and their relation.
Firstly, it provides a narrative analysis of the storytelling characteristics that distinguish the works within this ‘golden age’ from prior conventions of televised animation. Additionally, it argues how introduction of these innovative storytelling elements importantly contributes to the notable crossover appeal to both a child and an adult viewing audience, as they provide opportunity for viewing practices marked by various levels of engagement.
To do this, this project specifically analyses three of the ‘golden age’s’ most prominent examples: Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005 – 2008), and Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time (2010 – 2018) and Steven Universe (2013 – 2020). While representation in these works has already been discussed within academia (Dunn; Gruenewald; Jane; Ravela;
Vital “Lapis Lazuli, “Water”; Yao), the narrative characteristics and associated appeal to a crossover child-adult audience have remained largely unexamined. The analyses of these three shows fill this gap, and each highlight one of three main storytelling elements that characterize innovations marking this larger body of work. Specifically, the objects on examination are discussed with a focus on the elements narrative complexity, worldbuilding, and the use of character, respectively. The analyses demonstrate that along each of these three elements, these shows balance appeal to a traditional cartoon audience of casual, most likely younger viewers with a more engaged secondary audience of adults, by combining narrative elements of a smaller, often episodic scale with elements of remarkable narrative scale and complexity in the context of children’s animation.
Keywords: animated series, children’s television, storytelling, crossover audience, adult audience, narrative complexity, worldbuilding, character.
Introduction – The Golden Age of Serial Animated Television....……… 1
From Children’s Medium to Crossover Storytelling:
Convention and Innovation in Animated Television... 6
Chapter 1 – Episodic Adventures and an Epic Journey:
Narrative Complexity in Avatar: The Last Airbender……….…………. 18
Chapter 2 – Endless Imagination and Meticulous Mythology:
Worldbuilding in Adventure Time.……….…. 28
Chapter 3 – Coming of Age and “Changing Your Mind”:
Use of Character in Steven Universe.……...…...………...……….…. 39 Conclusion………50 Bibliography……….………... 56
INTRODUCTION – THE GOLDEN AGE OF SERIAL ANIMATED TELEVISION
In 2020, almost 15 years after its initial release, the animated fantasy series Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005 – 2008) spent a “record-breaking 61 days” in the Netflix Top 10 featuring the streaming service’s most popular shows (Kahn). Originally airing on the children’s TV channel Nickelodeon, its recent appearance on the streaming service has reignited and possibly even expanded the show’s original popularity, as it has proven to be a success not only with its original target audience of children and young teens, but also with an audience of devoted and adult viewers (Kahn). The series is set in an Asian-inspired, war-torn world divided along four base elements that are controlled by gifted individuals called ‘benders’, and tells a grand fantasy story spanning 61 20-minute episodes. As such, it has been described by critics as “[n]ot simply a series of short episodic adventures, [but] an invitation to immerse yourself in an epic journey with conflicts, characters and long-running jokes […] that built on what came before” (Phillips).
Further marked by a combination of characteristics from traditional Western cartoons and Asian anime, fantasy fiction and primetime serial television, Avatar’s combination of cartoon entertainment and remarkable narrative weight has proven to have a lasting appeal among audiences young and old.
As this project will demonstrate, the remarkable appeal of this fun and lighthearted and simultaneously grand and complex animated story with both a child and adult audience has not remained a singular phenomenon. In fact, Avatar: The Last Airbender has been said in television journalism to have started a ‘golden age of serial animated television’ (Romano;
Sholars), “proving that there was a US audience for sophisticated narrative animated series”
and paving the way for “lore-heavy cartoons” in this context (Romano). Possibly the other most prominent case within this lineage is the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time (2010 – 2018).
Similar to Avatar: The Last Airbender, Adventure Time is initially targeted at children, but has gathered a significant and highly active fan base among adult viewers (Thomas 6). It follows the protagonists Finn the Human and Jake the Dog in the magical post-apocalyptic land of Ooo, and combines easily digestible episodic adventures with various longer story arcs, a large cast of recurring characters and complex narrative threats. Perhaps the series’ most distinctive feature, however, is the extensive and detailed worldbuilding that functions as a central component throughout the series, combining a sense of unrestricted cartoon imagination with consistent and meticulous fantasy elements. Following closely in this series’ footsteps, the Cartoon Network series Steven Universe (2013–2020) carried on the popularity and prominence of narratively complex and audience-crossing serial animations within children’s television.
Another fantasy show, Steven Universe follows the eponymous protagonist, a little boy living with a group of supernatural humanoid aliens called the Crystal Gems. Together, they protect the Earth from an intergalactic plot that is slowly revealed over the series’ length. The show features heavy science-fiction and fantasy worldbuilding and an extensive coming-of-age story arc covering five seasons, an additional feature film and an epilogue season. As such, “though ostensibly a show for children” it has been reviewed as an “equally rewarding watch for adults”
(Whitbrook). Besides this, more than any of these three shows, Steven Universe utilizes its storytelling to develop its individual characters to remarkable complexity, scale and function.
This thesis considers these three shows as part of this single lineage or trend that has been described as ‘the golden age of serial animated television’ (Romano; Sholars), marked by common innovations in storytelling and a resulting notable appeal to a dual audience of children and adults. Spanning from around 2005 onwards, it consists of animated television series that are primarily targeted toward a traditional cartoon audience of children and young teens, while also finding significant popularity with an older and more dedicated audience of late adolescents and adults. As such, these series characteristically draw what in literary criticism has been called a ‘crossover’ audience, rendering them works of ‘crossover fiction’ (Beckett 3). In terms of content, this crossover appeal can be linked to a characteristic form of storytelling marked by a combination of more traditional and small-scale cartoon storytelling with narrative elements of innovative scale and complexity. As will be shown, this is most clearly expressed in the narrative structure, worldbuilding and use of character within these series. Taking these three shows as objects of research, they are understood as prominent examples of this phenomenon and reflexive of its innovative characteristics and corresponding forms of audience engagement. Other, lesser-known series that may be considered part of, or at least significantly indebted to this development are, among others, Disney XD’s “Twin Peaks for kids” (Sholars) Gravity Falls (2012 – 2016) and Cartoon Network’s moody and artistic animated fairy tale Over the Garden Wall (2014). More recently, series such as Infinity Train (2019 – 2021), Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts (2020), and The Owl House (2020 – present) have been explicitly credited to follow this new trend of animated storytelling initially established by Avatar in the 2000s (Motamayor).
While characteristics such as diversity and nuance in representations of culture and identity (both within series as well as in their production) are also regularly noted as staples of this body of work (Motamayor; Phillips; Sholar), this project focuses specifically on the innovative storytelling practices that distinguish these cases from earlier or more traditional forms of storytelling within children’s animated television. Furthermore, this thesis will argue
these storytelling practices to be instrumental to the popularity of these shows with a secondary adult audience. As such, it aims to address the less often discussed narrative dimension of animated children’s television, as well as the particular relevance of narrative to different audience demographics. Three readings, each analyzing one of these main objects, will demonstrate how these series’ storytelling characteristics distinguish them from traditional children’s animated television in both form and content and, consequently, audience engagement.
To develop these arguments, three main sections will discuss each of the three objects of research in depth. Prior to this, a contextual discussion will outline the cultural and industrial background, and the theoretical framework for these analyses. To this end, the section directly succeeding this introduction will first set out a brief overview of the industrial and cultural landscape of children’s animated television in the decades preceding this ‘golden age’ of serial animated television. For the present purpose, the focus will be on audiences, genre, narrative conventions and their relation. For this, it will combine accounts of animation both generally (Pilling) and in the context of television specifically (Messenger Davies; Ratelle; Stabile and Harrison;), as well as its development in terms of genre and audiences (Donnelly; Inglis;
Mittell, “Cartoon Realism”) and cross-cultural influences (Dynon; Wells). This contextual discussion allows the three main sections to compare the works on research to established configurations of storytelling and audience engagement in animated television. Following this, a discussion of the theoretical framework that underlies this project will introduce the storytelling elements that distinguish the series on discussion from these prior dominant conventions. Here, academic work on narrative theory in general (Bal) and within television specifically (Mittell, Complex TV, “Narrative Complexity”, “Phineas & Ferb”, “Previously On”; VanArendonk) will provide conceptual ground for discussion of the narrational mode of narrative complexity that forms a first defining feature of the current objects of inquiry. The same goes for the second aspect of narrative worldbuilding (Jenkins; Lessa and Aruájo;
Robertson; Ryan, “Aesthetics”; Tischleder; Wolf, “Beyond Immersion”). Work on the fictional character in general (Davis; Eder; Margolin; Phelan), and on its use and function in television specifically (Feuer, Mittell, Complex TV; Pearson; Porter et al.) will comprise the theoretical framework for the last chapter on the use of character.
The three main sections of this project, then, consist primarily of close readings of the three main objects of research. As noted above, these objects will be Avatar: The Last Airbender, Adventure Time, and Steven Universe. These close readings will entail analyses of their formal narrative structure, narrative worldbuilding strategies, and the use of individual
character dynamics within their storytelling, respectively. Additionally, the relevance of these individual aspects will be considered in a broader interpretation, discussing their function in relation to different viewing practices, and how they hereby contribute to their crossover audience engagement. This interpretation will also be considered in relation to the storytelling conventions and forms of audience engagement in prior conventions of animated television as set out in the contextual discussion. With the different sections on Avatar: The Last Airbender, Adventure Time and Steven Universe highlighting different but mutually relevant elements, these sections together aim to provide a demonstration of the novel configurations of storytelling strategies and audiences that characterize this innovative body of work within animated television.
Individually, none of these series have remained unexamined within academic context.
However, their similarities and collective relevance in the broader context of contemporary animated television have remained unexamined in academia thus far. The same goes for the specific relevance of their storytelling strategies in relation to crossover audiences. Rather, they have primarily been discussed in terms of their forms of representation and cultural influences.
Elements of Avatar: The Last Airbender, in this respect, have mostly been discussed along postcolonial theory. This includes examination of its treatment of elements from Asian, American and Arctic (indigenous) identities and its portrayal of colonialism (Yao), and discussion of issues of Asian representation in a US-American context in the series and in its consequent film and graphic novel adaptations (Gruenewald). Research on Adventure Time has been relatively varied in focus. This work ranges from examination of its production history (Thomas) to its subversive use of cuteness and problematization of notions of childhood and maturity (Czemiel), as well as its radically subversive presentation of gender stereotypes (Jane).
Similar critical treatment of gender and queerness has been frequently discussed in research on Steven Universe as well (Dunn; Ravela; Vital “Lapis Lazuli, “Water”). However, their narrative complexities, crossover audiences and the relevance of this within the larger context of animated television, while often mentioned and connected within journalism and popular criticism, have thus remained underexamined up until this point.
Discussion of the topics of narrative complexity, narrative worldbuilding and use of character within serial television in general is not unprecedented in television studies. However, rather than focusing on narrative configurations in the territory of primetime dramas and Hollywood productions, as is the case for a majority within this field, this thesis will expand these theoretical fields into the domain of animation and children’s fiction television. In this way, this project aims to position itself within and further contribute to, among others, the
intersection of television studies and narrative theory. Besides this, it engages with audience studies by relating these narrative characteristics to viewing practices and audiences. Taken together, it can also be seen as contributing to genre studies within the context of television, as it aims to trace characteristics and developments in the genre of serial animated television.
FROM CHILDREN’S MEDIUM TO CROSSOVER STORYTELLING:
CONVENTION AND INNOVATION IN ANIMATED TELEVISION
As discussed in the introduction, the mid-2000s arguably saw the emergence of a distinctly new mode of animated television series, inaugurating what has been called a ‘golden age’ for the medium. Far from an isolated phenomenon, however, this trend and the shows that constitute it are embedded within the larger contexts of animation and televised fiction programming and their developments over the preceding decades. As such, they are naturally reliant on and indebted to established forms and conventions of their medium and genre, while also introducing elements progressive or innovative enough to distinguish this body of work from what came before. This section will first outline the state of popular animation up until the early 2000s, focusing on audiences, genre and narrative conventions specifically. After this, a theoretical discussion will highlight the aspects beyond these established conventions that characterize Avatar: The Last Airbender, Adventure Time, and Steven Universe as exemplary of this innovative body of animated television. Simultaneously, this second section hereby sets out a conceptual framework to ground the subsequent analyses of these three series. The focus of the discussion of these series will be on formal narrative structure and complexity, scale and complexity in storyworlds and worldbuilding practices, and complexity and function of character, respectively. For each of the objects, it will be ultimately argued that the innovations of their respective elements of focus are a central factor in the newly configured crossover appeal of these cartoons to both a child and an adult audience.
Animation and Crossover Audiences Before the ‘Golden Age’
A first and central characteristic marking animation as a medium is its long-time marginalized status of being associated specifically and almost exclusively with a child audience. This dominant understanding of animation as a ‘children’s medium’ is noted by Jayne Pilling (ix, xi) in her introduction to A Reader in Animation Studies, in which she provides an overview of the cultural and industrial state and history of animation in a US-American context. Being dominated since the 1920s and 1930s by Disney feature films based on fairy tales and comic stories centered around animal characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (Messenger Davies 225 – 226) it has long received little in the way of serious attention from adult audiences or critics and scholars. Pilling notes an increased popularity of commercial as well as art-house animation feature films during the late 1980s and the 1990s to have given way to a growing interest in the medium (ix), but this has mostly remained limited to the feature film format. In
her examination of the medium of television, conversely, in relation to the child audience, Máire Messenger Davies notes an additional factor in the marginalization of animation with both serious audiences and critics, stating:
Disney’s success notwithstanding, the animation form has suffered not only from being associated with children and families, but also from being associated with a particularly ruthless branch of the American television industry: toy-led cartoons, and the linking of the commercial profitability of the toy industry, with the provision of programmes for children. (227)
During the second half of the 20th century up until the 1990s, the medium of animation has thus been marked by a marginalized status not only as a children’s medium, but also as an explicitly commercial one. In terms of quality of the programming from this era, Messenger Davies states, this resulted in the dominant perspective that “the cartoon form is intrinsically inferior to other kinds of storytelling, because so many of its exemplars are formulaic products of marketing- led corporate initiatives” (228). A similar observation is made by Carol A. Stabile and Mark Harrison in the introduction to their 2003 volume Prime Time Animation (4), who also focus on animation within a television context specifically. However, they additionally note that in comparison to the mode of cinema, which accounted for a significant part of the animation material being produced, the context of television was furthermore considered a
“conventionally devalued medium” (2). As such, animation’s televised context should be considered another factor contributing to animation’s lower status.
Thus, as these accounts suggest, animation television roughly until the 1990s has primarily been produced as children’s programming, such as comedic cartoon shows in what can be called the Disney-tradition. Consequently, it was “inextricably linked to children’s viewing and subsequently infantilized” (Stabile and Harrison 6), or rather seen as formulaic products serving a larger commercial franchise, marked by a “highly lucrative half-life as licensed merchandise” (Stable and Harrison 4). As the seemingly only notable exception to this, Amy Ratelle notes a significant strand of children’s animation serving purely educational purposes since the 1970s (197). These industry conventions have long dominated televised animation production, as well as impacted the general perception of the medium, impeding significant serious interest or consideration from critics and scholars, as well as more serious and adult audiences.
However, the 1990s has seen a significant development in both the production, as well as the perception of and engagement with animated television programming with regards to audiences. Ruth Inglis, who traces the development of children’s television programming in general, notes that by the 1990s, the distinction between child and adult programming and audiences with regard to animation has become increasingly blurred (134). This is in no small part due to the growing popularity of what Inglis terms ‘kidult’ animation, including The Simpsons (1989 – present), South Park (1997 – present), and King of the Hill (1997 – 2010) as some prominent examples. She attributes this appeal to a crossover audience in these cases primarily to the strategically layered or versatile sense of humor that characterizes many of these programs. Taking The Simpsons as an exemplary case, children mainly enjoy these programs’ more traditional aspects of cartoon entertainment, such as the comedic and at times highly absurd storylines and imagery, as well as slapstick humor, while adults may enjoy an additional layer of humor and depth constituted by the series “many political allusions and sexual innuendoes” (135) that go over the head of the child audience. A similar strategy of balancing audiences by such programs is noted by Stabile and Harrison, who define this strand of crossover animated television as “the odd recombinant form of two similarly degraded genres – the situation comedy or sitcom and the cartoon.” (2) In addition to Inglis’ observation of sexual and political references principally constituting these shows’ bimodal address, Stabile and Harrison also note a form self-reflexivity to be instrumental to their dual audience, also using the highly popular The Simpson as their case in point:
[A]t one level, its allusions to the history of television and its metacommentary on genre and media in general are believed to attract an older demographic, while its constant attention to its internal history and its sheer playfulness […] attracts a younger one. (9)
Jason Mittell (“Cartoon Realism”) similarly theorizes The Simpsons as an exemplary case of the shows that characterized animated television with a dual audience throughout the 1990s. He specifically discusses the show’s treatment of genre in relation to its cultural reception and audience engagement, stating that “the issues of genre and target audience are explicitly and inextricably linked” (20). In this regard, he observes that The Simpsons combines the broad appeal and family-friendliness of the domestic sitcom with the generally child-oriented cartoon genre (20). Simultaneously, however, he notes it to be perceived as “intelligent, clever, and sophisticated” for, among other things, its satirical critique of US-American society and mass
media, hereby “moving away from the typical preconceptions of animation” (21). In short, the 1990s thus saw a broadening and growing interest in terms of audience and critical reception with regards to televised animation, due to the growing popularity of the animated sitcom that combined a family-friendly genre and the cartoon’s appeal to young audiences, with adult- oriented humor as well as socially critical satire and self-reflexivity.
While not as widely popular as The Simpsons and similar cartoon sitcoms, other notable strands of televised animation tailored either largely or exclusively to adults have also been present in other contexts during and leading up to the 1990s. This is noted, for example, by K.
J. Donnelly in his contribution to The Television Genre Book on “Adult Animation”. While niche animation specifically targeted toward adult audiences has existed throughout the 20th century, he states that besides the above-mentioned trend of animated sitcoms with crossover appeal, “[i]n the 1990s, a greater number of cartoons have aimed [specifically] at a more adult market”, including animation programming on MTV, for example, exhibiting a “cruel sense of humor” as well as “sex and violence” (156). Additionally, he notes, though occupying more of a cult status than significant mainstream popularity, Asian animation, or anime, started to appear more prominently on Western screens (158). Paul Wells’ contribution to the same volume on “TV Anime and Japanese Aesthetics” also notes the influence of Japanese animation on Western cultural contexts, emphasizing the science-fiction and fantasy elements that stand out as a part of this development (149 – 150). Andrew Dynon, in “Anime, The West and Asian Popular Culture”, similarly notes a significant influx of Japanese television shows on Western television around this time, such as Dragon Ball Z (1989 – 1996), Sailor Moon (1992 – 1997), and Pokémon (1997 – present) (193), comprising a significant influence on Western cartoons (194). Besides this Asian tradition of animation being produced for various demographics (Dynon 191) without the association of a typical children’s medium that marks its Western counterpart, the increase of fantasy elements specifically can also be considered of influence on US-American animation’s crossover appeal, as Sandra L. Beckett notes the genre of fantasy to be particularly fruitful to address a crossover audience (135).
Thus, as this section has aimed to demonstrate, the industrial and cultural history of televised animation has long been marked by a marginalized status, before reaching significant attention and popularity with mainstream adult audiences as well as critics and scholars since the late 1980s and early 1990s. After having long been dismissed as a low-quality, commercially oriented children’s medium (with the exception of a minority of distinctly educational animation programming), introduction of the cartoon sitcom of the 1990s brought televised animation to a broader crossover audience, consequently garnering attention from
scholars and critics alike. Simultaneously, Asian animated series constituted a growing presence on US-American television, more typically being produced for broad and varying audience demographics, and often carrying more fantasy-oriented content. The three series of examination in this project, then, naturally exhibit significant similarities to a number of aspects that characterize the preceding development of televised animation as briefly summarized here.
All, for example, are in the first instance understood as children’s content, although they importantly also draw a significant secondary or crossover audience of adult viewers. Each of the shows also contains prominent fantasy or science fiction elements, with two of them exhibiting particularly overt influences of Japanese anime. In terms of genre and crossover appeal, however, these shows bear little resemblance to the satirical cartoon sitcoms that drew dual audiences to televised animation in the 1990s. Rather, they exhibit a new broadly appealing mode of animation storytelling that is marked by the implementation of elements of narrative complexity, elaborate worldbuilding practices, and innovative use of character. Departing from these preceding conventions and influences, the second half of this section describes these three main components that distinguish the series belonging to the ‘golden age’ of serial animation from their prior cultural and industrial contexts. This next section will draw on theory from within television studies, as well as films studies and more general media studies and narrative theory, to introduce the specific concepts informing the subsequent readings of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Adventure Time, and Steven Universe.
Storytelling Innovations in the ‘Golden Age’
The first field of interest in which these series stand out from their predecessors is their formal narrative structure. Here, I address what Mieke Bal, in her introduction to Narratology:
Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, discerns as the ‘story’ of the narrative, as opposed to the ‘fabula’. While the ‘fabula’, in this understanding, is the “series of logically and chronologically related events” as they (supposedly) have transpired in real-time, the ‘story’
refers to the way these events are treated narratively and presented to the audience (5). The section of this project focusing on this element thus examines how series belonging to the
‘golden age’ of serial animated television deal with formal narrative structure in a way that sets them apart from prior narrative conventions within televised animation.
In the context of televised fiction specifically, Mittell refers to this formal storytelling dimension as the ‘poetics’ of television (“Previously On” 78). He observes that televised fiction since the 1990s has seen a significant development in terms of narrative conventions and their structure and complexity (“Narrative Complexity” 29, “Previously On” 78). Central to this
development is a poetics of ‘narrative complexity’ in primetime drama series of recent decades, that saw a relative high point in the 2000s and early 2010s with now-classic drama series such as The Wire (2002 – 2008), Lost (2004 – 2020), and Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013) (Complex TV 9). Defining it in one of his earlier articles on the topic (“Narrative Complexity”) as a “distinct narrational mode” (29), it entails a “coherent category of practices” that encompasses “distinct storytelling strategies while still referencing one another and building on the foundation of other models” (29). Appearing across genres and movements, and importantly being medium- specific, this mode is “predicated on facets of storytelling that seem uniquely suited to the series structure that sets television apart” (29). The narrational mode of narrative complexity thus consists of a set of medium-specific storytelling practices, that, while distinct, also connects to and draws on previous models, such as the episodic format of genres like the sitcom or the detective drama, and the serial narrative structure that characterizes the soap opera. Unlike its predecessors, however, this complexity is marked by “serialized forms and non-conventional storytelling strategies”, featuring “a balance between episodic and serial form” as well as “more elaborate storytelling techniques, such as temporal play, shifting perspectives and focalization, repetition, and overt experimentation with genre and narrative norms” (“Previously On” 78).
He furthermore posits that these complex narrative strategies “demand that viewers pay attention more closely than typical for the medium” (78). Based on this last assertion, I argue that the elements of narrative complexity, as read in the series on examination, contribute to the series’ appeal to a more dedicated and engaged, and thus most likely older audience, than the typical children’s audience.
One example of narrative complexity in children’s television has already been discussed by Mittell (“Phineas and Ferb”). He notes in his discussion of Disney Channel’s Phineas and Ferb (2007 – 2015) that “the show’s pleasures stem from a complex interplay of repetition and variation” (58) regarding its conventional narrative structure. This interplay is constituted by clever, often self-reflexive treatment of its narrative formula, as episodes play off of their episodic form with comedic situations and narrative premises that foreground its conventions of repetition and standardized storytelling. In this way, the show adds a dimension of metacommentary and invites viewers to reflect on its formal narrative features themselves.
Mittell calls the resulting effect ‘operational aesthetics’, stating that “[s]uch an approach to storytelling that focuses less on ‘what will happen?’ than ‘how will the story be told?’ is part of a larger trend of narrative complexity in television, where savvy viewers marvel at the storytelling machinery as well as getting immersed in the story” (60). While its self-reflexive treatment of narrative conventions adds elements of complexity to this children’s series that
“reward long-time viewers for paying close attention” (59), the show does still maintain a traditional highly episodic narrative structure. In contrast, the current project will examine further possibilities of narrative complexity in children’s television of the ‘golden age’ to constitute more elaborate and complex narrative structures beyond the episodic form.
Specifically, a reading of Avatar: The Last Airbender in the first chapter, will demonstrate how these series implement elements of narratively complex storytelling into a cartoon context by prominently featuring a combination of episodic and serial storytelling, as well as forms of temporal play and shifting perspectives throughout. Besides this, the series occasionally use even more unconventional or experimental stylistic devices, such as dream sequences, clear intertextual references and moments of overt self-reflexivity.
Closer to this in terms of narrative structure is Kathryn VanArendonk’s observation of how in many cases of contemporary primetime drama, the narrative unit of the episode is significantly diminishing in prominence (65 - 66). Here, it is rather the season, for example, that takes a more prominent position in structuring the story of many popular series (74). “Many series” she notes, however, “fall in something like an interim space, with some episodes operating as extremely plot-bounded stories and others relying more on linear storytelling across installments” (72). This use of narrative arcs of different scales will be demonstrated to be a central aspect of the crossover appeal of these series, with episodic narratives allowing for casual viewing by children and longer-form narrative threads providing the opportunity for more dedicated and long-term engagement with the series by an adult audience. This innovation in cartoon storytelling regarding the use of narrative arcs of different scales, as well as other aforementioned elements of narrative complexity, will be discussed at length in the section that follows, specifically along a reading of the first object of interest, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
The second central aspect that will be focused on in the subsequent readings concerns the fictional settings, or storyworlds, that form the contexts of these shows’ narratives and that are developed throughout. To be sure, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Adventure Time and Steven Universe all center around a central protagonist and a limited cast of main characters that at times experience relatively self-contained or localized events within these shows’ episodic plots. However, these series distinguish themselves from the dominant conventions of animated television up until then by additionally developing expansive and often complex fantasy storyworlds over the course of their runtime. These storyworlds, which are explored in terms of both spatial and temporal dimensions, are an important factor along which these shows develop complex and large-scale narrative elements that reward and require more dedicated and engaged viewing practices to fully grasp. In this way, they add to their crossover appeal by
constituting a complex overarching description of their storyworld, or ‘mythology’ (Siegler 74), that provides consecutive and attentive viewers an additional layer of understanding and immersion.
Marie-Laure Ryan (“Aesthetics”) defines a storyworld as developed in works of fiction as “an imagined totality that evolves according to the events told in the story” (33). This thus entails “not just the spatial setting where a story takes place”, but a “totality of things” (33) including elements like its history, inhabitants, flora and fauna, technology and many others.
She also states that “[t]o follow a story means to simulate mentally the changes that take place in the storyworld, using the cues provided by the text” (33). Thus, rather than presenting relatively autonomous events that function with little relevance of and to their larger contexts, works of fiction with prominent storyworlds situate their events within a larger fictional totality that in a meaningful way contributes to a story and to the audience’s experience. She also notes the genres of fantasy and science-fiction to generally be relatively ‘world-dominant’ texts (40), as works of these genres often rely more (though not exclusively) on audiences’ interest in the storyworld within which stories are set for their appeal, than many other genres (41). It is no coincidence, then, that the world-dominant series that are discussed in this project as representative of this ‘golden age’ of serial animated television all contain strong elements of the genres of fantasy, as well as science-fiction at times. As such, the current objects adhere to the storytelling trend observed by Henry Jenkins that “more and more, storytelling has become the art of world building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work” (114). As the second main chapter will demonstrate, these series introduce a style of worldbuilding into children’s animation that is marked by continuity and consistency, often colloquially termed ‘hard’ worldbuilding (as opposed to ‘soft’
worldbuilding) (Fox; Otto), that rewards dedicated and attentive viewing practices as can be associated with an adult audience. However, as a reading of this project’s second object, the fantasy animation Adventure Time, will demonstrate, this doesn’t necessarily entail a rejection of more traditional cartoon-style, ‘soft’ worldbuilding elements, that rely upon an unrestrained openness and ‘randomness’ of its storyworld rather than on strict requirements of continuity and consistency.
For this argument, this chapter will propose an understanding of Adventure Time, its worldbuilding, and the role thereof in audience engagement as functioning similar to worldbuilding in contemporary transmedia franchises. Jenkins argues that within such bodies of work “a [compelling] world can support multiple characters and multiple stories” (114) and that in their increasing engagement with the storyworld, “audiences seek information beyond
the limits of the individual story” (116). Adventure Time, similar in this respect (though not necessarily culturally or industrially indebted) to a transmedia franchise, can be understood as a body of work consisting of many components (in this case episodes) that contain many relatively self-contained stories, but that taken together comprise a larger overarching description or narrative of its storyworld. As such, while almost every episodic narrative allows new viewers to be introduced to the world, it also invites viewers to engage with and immerse themselves more actively within the show’s world by consuming its other components. The concepts of ‘world completeness’ (Robertson), and ‘world consistency’ (Lessa and Aruájo) will further inform the analysis of Adventure Time’s worldbuilding and its relation to different audiences. These concern the comprehensiveness and level of detail to which storyworld is portrayed within a narrative, and the degree to which this portrayal is logically and reasonably coherent, respectively. As the chapter in question will demonstrate, the worldbuilding in Adventure Time contains elements of both high and low ‘completeness’ and ‘consistency’, as it combines a more traditional ‘cartoon style’ of worldbuilding that emphasizes openness and
‘randomness’, with a more consistent and complex ‘fantasy’-style of worldbuilding. These two worldbuilding strategies, I will argue, can in turn be understood along two distinct viewing practices that can be associated with either a child or an adult audience. Finally, this chapter will argue based on Mark J.P. Wolf (“Beyond Immersion”), that these elements of higher
‘completeness’ and ‘consistency’ provide the opportunity for higher levels of immersion than traditional cartoon worldbuilding. For example, its inclusion of continuing and recurring elements between and across episodes and seasons encourages what Wolf terms ‘absorption’
(205). This entails not only momentary immersion, or the ‘entering’ of a fictional world, but also the internalization of this world in the audience’s mind and the remembering of details upon subsequent ‘visits’, “learning or recalling its places, characters, events, and so on, constructing (or reconstructing) the world within their imagination the same way that that memory brings forth people, events, and objects when their names are mentioned” (205). In comparison to conventional cartoon storyworlds, these series’ worldbuilding hereby allows for more immersive audience experiences, in which dedicated and engaged viewers are rewarded for observant viewing and building familiarity with a storyworld, as this knowledge “adds to the story’s depth and nuance, enhancing the reader’s pleasure and understanding” (207). Their common use of long-form narrative threads is understood to be instrumental to this, as Babette B. Tischleder asserts that “the vast narrative scope of serial television affords the creation of complex serial worlds” (122).
The last of three main elements that will ground the subsequent readings, and that will be argued to be a defining feature of this innovative body of serial animated television shows, centers around the characters that occupy these complex animated narratives and their expansive storyworlds. Uri Margolin defines a fictional character as “any entity, individual or collective – normally human or human-like – introduced in a work of narrative fiction”, and furthermore posits that it “can be succinctly defined as storyworld participant” (66). Besides the shows currently on discussion standing out from their predecessors for both their narrative structure and their storyworld, the third and final main chapter will thus argue that their
“storyworld participants” exhibit a similar development in terms of scale and complexity.
Instrumental to this is the serial narrative element of these shows, as present in their common characteristic balance of serial and episodic storytelling that will have been discussed in-depth at this point in the first main chapter. This serial narrative element allows for long-form dynamics that reach across and between episodes and even seasons, constituting what Jane Feuer describes as “the developmental mode of the continuing serial in which both situations and characters change and grow organically” (616). More recently, M.J. Porter et al. similarly note that “[c]haracter development and continuous storylines are the two elements that make TV unique as a narrative system” (3). Along the final object of interest, Cartoon Network’s science-fiction fantasy animation Steven Universe, the third chapter will demonstrate how this formal narrative element allows for a more elaborate treatment of character than conventional in traditional episodic cartoons, which in turn provides the opportunity for more dedicated engagement on the level of character by a secondary adult audience. Furthermore, this chapter will argue how the series defies conventions of the function of character in serial animation and serial television in general by prominently featuring distinctly ‘character driven’ (Davis 71-72) narratives.
For this, that chapter will first develop a theoretical framework that entails two models of individual character dynamics, referred to as character ‘depth’ and character ‘change’, along relevant work by various theorists (Davis; Feuer; Mittell, Complex TV; Pearson; Porter et al.).
These will be further substantiated by two theoretical conceptions of characters based on theorization by Jens Eder and James Phelan. The first of these two theoretical conceptions is the character as ‘textual element’, which considers it a formal component with stylistic, aesthetic and compositional potential within a textual composition. This conception builds upon Eder’s concept of the character as ‘artifact’ (21) and Phelan’s concept of the ‘synthetic component’ (2) of character. The second conception, then, is the character as ‘fictional person’, in which it is understood as a hypothetical but potentially full-fledged person with
corresponding emotional and experiential characteristics. This second conception is informed by Eder’s understanding of a character as ‘fictional being’ (21), and Phelan’s ‘mimetic component’ (2) of a character. In accordance, the two models of individual character dynamics entail what will be termed progression in ‘character depth’ on the one hand, in which characters are fleshed out and deepened through a process of textual elaboration, and ‘character change’
on the other, in which a character exhibits a significant transformation in terms of its personality, thus occurring on the level of character as a ‘fictional person’.
Building on this framework, a reading of Steven Universe will demonstrate how the series’ use of character stands out from traditional cartoon conventions for both its elaborate nature and its narrative function. In terms of the former aspect, it depends upon its serial narrative element to present the two models of individual character dynamics that were elaborated above. These two models, as will be argued, function to constitute narrative threads of different scales on the levels of the episode, multiple episodes and the entire series. Similar to the discussion of these different narrative scales in relation to audience engagement in Avatar: The Last Airbender, this chapter will argue that these differently scaled character-based threads provide the opportunity for different levels of engagement by different audiences. For example, the long-form accumulations of character ‘depth’, are only fully appreciated by dedicated, most likely adult viewers who watch the entire series front to back. Their in-depth and long-term knowledge and familiarity allow for the development of a “long-term relationship” with such a character, which according to Mittell (Complex TV) is “one of the primary ways that viewers engage with programming” (127). However, the stable personality this model entails, also provides continuous familiarity for casual viewers, such as children, who may watch single episodes dispersed over the show’s extensive length. Finally, as is most salient in its mid-sized character threads that run over multiple episodes and sometimes across seasons, the series’ prominently features distinctly ‘character driven’ (Davis 71-72) serial narratives. As such, it defies the conventional separation of causal progression of serial events and character development that is common in much of traditional serial television (Porter et al.
In the three sections that follow, these three components of narrative structure, worldbuilding and use of character will be further developed in an in-depth discussion of the three corresponding main objects. As noted throughout, each of these respective components will be argued to not only significantly differentiate the shows of this group from prior dominant conventions, but also will be demonstrated to explicitly contribute to a newly configured crossover appeal of children’s animated television. Rather than drawing adult audiences to
animated television through layered humor, satire and metacommentary, as was the case with the animated sitcom of the 1990s, these shows combine traditional cartoon conventions with storytelling elements of innovative scale and complexity to speak to both a child as well as an adult audience. Initially establishing this connection between innovative storytelling and crossover audiences, the following chapter will start off the analysis by arguing how Avatar:
The Last Airbender combines cartoon storytelling with elements of narrative complexity to engage children and adult viewers alike.
CHAPTER 1 – EPISODIC ADVENTURES AND AN EPIC JOURNEY:
NARRATIVE COMPLEXITY IN AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER
As summarized in the previous section, up until the late 20th century, US-American televised animation had been characterized by a marginalized status as a means of low-quality storytelling, mainly targeting a subordinate audience of children and often serving a larger commercial franchise. In the 1990s, then, animation had seen an increase in attention from adult audiences, as well as critics and scholars, towards the cartoon sitcom primarily. However, complexity and appeal to a crossover audience in this genre were mostly achieved on the level of content rather than form. This mainly involved socially conscious satire, layered and versatile humor catering to different demographics, and self-reflexivity of its form and medium, while largely remaining within traditional narrative conventions. Furthermore, more ambitious scale and complexity of narratives during this period occurred primarily in the context of high-profile primetime drama programming. However, the airing of Avatar: The Last Airbender in 2005 broke with popular animated television conventions to such degrees that the series has been credited in television journalism as initiating a ‘golden age’ of serial animated television (Romano; Sholars), marked by innovative storytelling and a resulting newly configured appeal to a crossover audience.
An unconventional fantasy tale, Avatar is set in a strongly Asian-inspired fantasy world that is characterized by the use ‘bending’, a form of telekinetic manipulation of the four base elements of water, earth, air and fire. These elements simultaneously divide the series’
storyworld into four corresponding nations, each with its own people and culture. Bridging these four nations is an ancient and sacred figure known as the ‘Avatar’, a reincarnate human who is the only person who can master all four elements, and who is tasked with maintaining the world’s peace and balance. The series follows Avatar Aang, a young ‘airbender’, who, after being frozen in ice for one hundred years, wakes up amidst a long and pervasive war. Together with a small group of friends of different backgrounds, he travels the world’s four nations in order to master all the elements and ultimately restore balance to the world by overthrowing the imperialist Fire Nation. Along this journey, they encounter a wide array of people, locations and situations each with their own story that adds to the overall world and narrative. This colorful hero’s journey is told over three seasons, combining an extensive accumulation of major story arcs with various embedded smaller adventures. Besides this, it also features other more complex narrative devices, such as shifting narrative perspectives and exposition of elaborate backstory through analeptic storytelling throughout, as well as more occasional use
of dream sequences, intertextual referencing and moments of explicit self-reflexivity. On a narrative level, this grants Avatar elements of remarkable scale and complexity in the context of children’s animation at its point.
As the first main section of this project, this chapter will read Avatar: The Last Airbender as a prime example of the ‘golden age’ of serial animated television. Specifically, it focuses on its narrative structure to argue how its implementation of elements from the narrational mode of narrative complexity both distinguishes it from dominant conventions of televised animation storytelling up until then, and importantly contributes to its crossover appeal. For this, it will identify a number of formal narrative aspects that are characteristic of the poetics of narrative complexity (Mittell Complex TV, “Narrative Complexity”, “Previously On”) within the series. Central to the analysis and discussion will therefore be Mittell’s work on this mode of narration, which he theorizes to be the most prominent development within the poetics, or the formal narrative conventions of US-American drama television in recent decades (2-3). Different components constituting these poetics will structure the analysis of this series, further supported by sources from literary criticism and narrative theory as well as other accounts of television narrative. The first aspect of analysis will be the series’ balance of episodic and serial narrative structure (Mittell “Previously On”; VanArendonk), followed by the use of temporal play (Bal; Herman et al., Mittel, Complex TV, “Previously On”), the use of shifting narrative perspectives (Mittell “Previously On”; Porter Abbott; Thon), and finally, the occasional implementation of more experimental narrative devices in different forms (Mittell
“Narrative Complexity”, “Previously On”; García). Additionally, I will argue how the combination of cartoon storytelling with additional elements of narrative complexity as read in this work of children’s animated television add to the series’ crossover appeal, drawing a significant secondary adult audience.
To start with one of its most common defining characteristics, Mittel (“Previously On”) notes that narratively complex television importantly entails a development of series to
“embrace a balance between episodic and serial form, allowing for partial closure within episodes while maintaining broad narrative arcs across episodes and even seasons” (78).
Implementing this narrational mode in an animation context, this combination of episodic and serial storytelling is one of the main characteristics that constitute the element of narrative complexity in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Throughout its three-season runtime, it balances a grand serial narrative with smaller episodic stories, providing various narrative levels and allowing for different degrees of engagement that may connect to different audiences.
On the level of serial narrative, Avatar distinguishes itself from highly episodic conventions of the cartoon sitcom and the traditional comedy animation for example, by developing a cumulative and continuous long-form narrative over its entire runtime. This entails the main story that follows the series’ primary protagonist Aang in his long journey to complete the series’ main quest of overthrowing the imperialist Fire Nation by defeating its leader, and thereby ending the war and restoring balance to the world. This serial narrative element spans the entire length of the series and can be described as its primary story arc, as it constitutes the show’s most prominent narrative thread. Besides this, it occupies most of the series events and progress, and a summary of its premise in the show’s intro sequence precedes each episode.
Also indicative of the prominence of this serial form is the use of recap-, or ‘previously on’- sequences at the beginning of the majority of the series’ episodes, emphasizing the ongoing and cumulative structure of its narrative and the consequent relevance of knowledge of prior episodes’ events. As the series progresses, many episodes are explicitly dedicated to the development of this overall story. The first few episodes of season one, and the four-part series finale, for example, are mainly dedicated in terms of storytelling to developing this larger serial narrative. Clear instances of other ‘story-heavy’ episodes are, for example, the first season’s two-part mid-season finale (“Winter Solstice, Part 1: The Spirit World”, “Winter Solstice, Part 2: Avatar Roku”), and “The Library” in season two, both of which contain vital events that propel the linear narrative of the series as a whole. Here, one can thus observe what VanArendonk describes as “the episode’s diminishing formal weight” (65), as narrative structure in this case has become less reliant on the traditional episodic narrative format but rather adopts the season or even the full series as its most prominent narrative unit. In terms of audience engagement, following this expansive narrative, in principle, requires dedicated consecutive watching of the entirety, and thus, consequently, a more serious and likely older audience. However, the aforementioned summaries and recaps also help the more casual younger viewers to tag along at almost any moment along the way.
Despite this prominence of serial narrativity, however, Avatar far from abandons the episode as a structuring narrative unit, as many episodes throughout the series also feature relatively self-contained stories that are either distinct sections of, or sidetracks to the larger serial arc. An especially illustrative example of the strategic balance can be found in the series’
11th episode “The Great Divide”, in which Aang and his company must cross a large canyon on their season-spanning route from the south- to the north pole. Here, they encounter two rival tribes traveling the same path, whose dispute hinders the journey and hereby becomes the central conflict of the episode. Fulfilling his duty of bringing peace and balance, Aang then
devises an elaborate plan to resolve the tribes’ disagreement and bring them closer together, allowing everybody to continue their journey. As such, this episode features a neatly self- contained narrative with a new and standalone conflict that is resolved within the episode, providing a clear example of an episodic narrative structure. In this way, it exemplifies how the series, though at some points more narratively complex, also retains clear elements of episodic cartoon storytelling that allow for casual viewing of single episodes. However, this episodic story is simultaneously embedded within the series’ larger and ongoing serial narrative, thus providing an example of the narratively complex characteristic of “partial closure within episodes while maintaining broad narrative arcs across episodes and even seasons” (78), as Mittell (“Previously On”) formulates. VanArendonk’s observation that “[m]any series fall in something like an interim space, with some episodes operating as extremely plot-bounded stories and others relying more on linear storytelling across installments” (72) equally captures this narrative strategy.
As such, the series prominently features this balance of episodic and serial storytelling as one of the formal characteristics that shows its influence of narrative complexity in a cartoon context. This balance, then, can be directly linked to its balance of its primary child audience with a secondary adult audience. Whereas the episodic elements allow for casual and dispersed viewing of single episodes by a child audience, the grand serial story is specifically tailored to a more serious and committed audience, such as dedicated adult viewers who watch the series consecutively, or even binge-watch or re-watch the entire series multiple episodes at a time.
Finally, in between these two scales, the series also features a number of mid-sized narrative arcs, that may address, and bridge in a way, both of the aforementioned viewing practices. One example of this is the aforementioned season-length journey of the protagonists from the south- to the north pole, which ends in a spectacular battle that ties together various threads to conclude the first season. Other examples include the search for Aang’s pet ‘sky bison’ Appa, and the protagonists’ uncovering of a corrupt conspiracy within the allied Earth Kingdom’s politics, both of which conclude during the second season’s final episode and span a total of eleven and seven episodes, respectively. For casual viewers, these mid-sized threads provide an incentive to keep watching consecutive episodes to reach a more foreseeable interim conclusion, whereas for dedicated viewers it provides more eventful multi-episode threads that involve more instantaneous resolution than the series’ full arc. As such, they provide a middle ground of sorts for both casual and serious viewers.
Besides this balance of episodic and serial narrative form, Mittell (“Previously On”) defines narrative complexity to be further characterized by “more elaborate storytelling
techniques”, the first of which on discussion here being what he terms “temporal play” (78).
This storytelling strategy capitalizes on the distinction within a narrative between the original events of the ‘fabula’ and the way they are presented in a ‘story’ (Bal 5). This can be relatively naturalistic, retelling events as they transpired, or rather stylized, reordering events of the
‘fabula’ within the ‘story’ as the author sees fit. Such temporal play thus disconnects these two components to retell events out of order, in an elliptical fashion or using flashbacks, for example. This can constitute a stylized and at times complex narrative structure, significantly altering the narrative’s experience. While not as overt and intricate as some of Mittell’s prominent examples of narratively complex US-American primetime television dramas such as Lost and Breaking Bad (Complex TV), Avatar exhibits further influence of this narrational mode by featuring forms of temporal play throughout the series, most prominently with the use of elliptical storytelling, and implementation of backstory through flashbacks and frame narratives.
A first and recurrent case in which temporal play importantly characterizes the narrative of Avatar is incorporated in its initial premise, which is retold in the introductory sequence at the start of each episode. Besides fulfilling a guiding and informative function for casual or first-time viewers as mentioned above, the content of this opening is marked by a combination of backstory and elliptical storytelling. In short, it consists of an introductory montage, combined with a voice-over by one of the main characters reciting the following:
Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed, and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang, and although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he's ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world.
As becomes clear in this short introduction, even before the series starts and before each episode throughout, the viewer is informed of crucial events of the past, or backstory, that have set the stage for the beginning of the current narrative. As such, Avatar’s narrative can be understood as commencing ‘in medias res’, or ‘in the middle of things’. This narrative strategy, described by David Herman et al. as “a device used to begin the story at a crucial point in the middle, usually close to the end of the fabula” (242), thus positions the narrative present, and hereby the audience, after many crucial events of the ‘fabula’ have already transpired. This then leaves
these events that are initially skipped over to viewers’ speculation until they are later clarified by the series, if at all. Leaving crucial information of past events initially omitted, this premise is thus also highly elliptical, aptly signified by the further unspecified statement that ‘A hundred years passed’.
This introductory and elliptical use of backstory from the onset of the series, then sets the stage for a mode of storytelling that gradually reveals parts of its backstory throughout. The use of this form of temporal play is accurately summarized by Herman et al., who define backstory as:
A type of exposition often involving analepsis or flashback; a filling in of the circumstances and events that have led to the present moment in a storyworld, and that illuminate the larger implications of actual or potential behaviours by characters occupying a particular narrative ‘now’. (39)
One such central illumination of the narrative’s initially omitted backstory can be found in the series’ 12th episode titled “The Storm”, in which Aang retells the final events before his disappearance one hundred years ago. His story constitutes a frame narrative within the episode’s narrative present, and fills in part of the initially obscured backstory that was alluded to in the series’ introduction by merely stating that “he vanished”. This illumination of backstory through the use of frame narratives is a prominent narrative strategy throughout the series, and is used from the level of individual characters’ pasts, to larger world history of the preceding war and even origin myth-like stories that elucidate the world’s cultural and natural phenomena. As such, the show continually features an interplay of retelling events occurring in the narrative present and past, constituting a mode of storytelling that, rather than following the linear run of events, jumps between different moments in time to create a complex narrative whole.
Another one of the “more elaborate storytelling techniques” that may contribute to narrative complexity according to Mittell (“Previously On”) is what he describes as “shifting perspectives and focalization” (78). H. Porter Abbott, in The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, summarizes the narrative device of focalization as “the lens through which we see characters and events in the narrative” (66). This lens at times can constitute a highly subjective perspective, as is the case with internal focalization in which events are presented through the perception of a character, for example, which is generally more common in literary works.
Extending this to audiovisual media specifically, however, Jan-Noël Thon considers such
narrative representation, which he also terms “perspective” (78), to be “particularly salient with regard to the representation of local situations” and notes that it may contribute to “the construction of complex global storyworlds entailing multiple substories” (76). Avatar prominently features an added element of narrative complexity by, as Mittell terms it, “shifting”
between various narrative perspectives within, and at times even between episodes, presenting various localized narrative threads for the viewer to keep track of and connect.
The most prominent and recurrent example of shifting perspectives in Avatar is a continuous alternation of two points of view that make up the series’ narrative from the start.
Besides prominently featuring Aang and his friends as the main protagonists, the narrative regularly switches to a storytelling perspective that closely follows the series’ first main antagonist named Zuko. As the banished prince of the antagonistic Fire Nation, it is his mission to capture the Avatar in order to restore his honor in the eyes of his father and his homeland.
Consequently, the majority of the series features the two factions involved in a constant game of cat-and-mouse. More than merely being perceived from the protagonists’ perspective as a pursuing villain, the series’ narrative regularly switches to a perspective centered around this antagonist. This reaches a high point in the second season’s seventh episode “Zuko Alone”, which completely leaves out the main protagonists to dedicate the entire episode to this opposite character’s perspective. Besides contributing on the level of content to the portrayal of and viewer’s connection with this character, these focal shifts importantly add to the series’
complexity on a formal level, creating what Thon calls “multiple substories” (76). Other examples of this can often be found within single episodes, such as “Appa’s Lost Days” which retells the events since the abduction of Aang’s pet ‘flying bison’ from the animal’s perspective, and “The Tales of Ba Sing Se”, which features as much as five separate stories each centered around the experience of different characters. In this way, the series’ alternating narrative perspectives together constitute a multifaceted narrative, in which viewers have to keep track of multiple storylines simultaneously, and continually consider events of each thread in the light of the other’s and the series’ whole. As such, this shifting of narrative perspectives significantly adds an element of narrative complexity to the storytelling of Avatar, as it balances different narrative perspectives that together constitute a relatively complex whole.
As a final point in this case, there are a number of featured storytelling devices and narrative characteristics that, while they might not constitute dominant or persistent narrative strategies throughout the series, do testify to the occasional use of more experimental or unconventional approaches to storytelling. These are all understood as examples of what Mittell (“Previously On”) calls “overt experimentation with genre and narrative norms” (78), and will