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Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender Quickly Got Renewed For Seasons 2 And 3, But The Original Animated Series Actually Struggled A Lot During The Same Period

 From left to right: an animated Aang and Gordon Cormier as Aang.
From left to right: an animated Aang and Gordon Cormier as Aang.

Considering Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the best animated series and how quickly its Netflix live-action adaptation was renewed for Seasons 2 and 3, you’d think the OG show wouldn’t have had issues telling its full three-season story about Aang and his quest to defeat the Fire Lord back in the day. However, Aaron Ehasz, the head writer on the OG Avatar: The Last Airbender, has a different story to tell about the making of the Nickelodeon series and how they actually struggled a lot to get picked up season after season.

Zach Tyler Eisen in Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005)
Zach Tyler Eisen in Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005)

Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender Was Never Garunteed Its Three Seasons

According to Ehasz, Avatar’s future was never guaranteed. In an interview with Slash Film, the head writer of the animated series spoke at length about the struggle to get this series picked up year after year. Speaking about Season 1 and the fact that they were not guaranteed the 20 episodes they eventually got, he said:

When I got brought on, they had just gotten greenlit for five scripts, and my job was to make sure those five scripts were strong enough that they would order a season of the show. So we did those scripts, and then we got greenlit for 13 episodes. It wasn't even 20.

When they were put in this position, they developed stories for Episodes 13 and 20 that would pack a punch. This led to the beloved “The Blue Spirit” installment serving as Episode 13, and the epic “The Siege of the North” as the finale. Today both stories are considered two of Avatar’s best episodes. Through this, they proved that they deserved a Season 2, however, they were not guaranteed a Season 3, despite having a plan for the show’s future.

The article noted that those behind the scenes were certain of where the story was going, as they always knew Aang would eventually master all four elements and Zuko would become good. However, they still didn’t know if they’d get to put those ideas on screen. Ehasz spoke about this situation and how uncertain things got, explaining:

They did not pick it up after Season 2. The ratings were not strong enough! They did not pick it up. We laid off all the writers after Season 2. Everybody was sent home for three or four months.

In hindsight, this is crazy to think about. Watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, it feels like one giant story that was supposed to be exactly three seasons. Aang’s quest is plotted out meticulously, and everything builds up perfectly to his final battle with the Fire Lord. However, Nickelodeon was always on the fence about if the show should continue. This led to the team behind the animated series feeling like it had been canceled after Season 2, as Ehasz said:

So there was a rolling hiatus through all of season 3, where all the storyboard artists had to take a couple months off, all the designers had to take a couple months off. Everyone did, because we had to catch up again on the scripts. So 'Avatar' was essentially default canceled between season 2 and season 3. People do not know that. So there was always love, but there was not always obvious success and ratings for 'Avatar.'

Season 2 ends with Aang in grave danger and terribly injured. Leaving the show there with no definitive ending would have been truly tragic. However, luckily they eventually got picked up, and Avatar got to bring its story to a close in the perfect way and on its own terms.

Avatar: The Last Airbender has always been beloved by fans and critics alike, however, clearly it was ratings that caused the commotion behind the scenes. And this story becomes even more interesting when you think about how quickly Netflix’s live-action ATLA adaptation got renewed for Seasons 2 and 3.

Avatar: The Last Airbender. Gordon Cormier as Aang in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Avatar: The Last Airbender. Gordon Cormier as Aang in season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

However, Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender Got Its Three Seasons Quickly

Despite Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender’s mixed reviews, the series was renewed less than two weeks after its premiere on the 2024 TV schedule. Not only was it renewed, but it was also announced that they were going to make Seasons 2 and 3, meaning they will get to see this story out to its planned end.

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Knowing this, it’s fascinating to consider why the beloved animated series struggled so much to keep going when its live-action recreation was picked up without nearly as much critical acclaim. While I don’t have a full answer to this, I would guess that it happened because Netflix knows exactly where the Avatar story is going and back in the day Nickelodeon didn’t.

When I spoke to Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender showrunner, Albert Kim, he told me about how they condensed the show into 8 episodes and how they created the finale. In both cases, he mentioned the power of hindsight and how they know exactly where the series is headed. Having the animated show as a guiding light has helped the live-action team immensely, and it also gives audiences and Netflix a roadmap as to where it’s going next.

So, between knowing exactly how the show progresses and having the stellar legacy of the animated series behind it, it makes sense that Netflix had the confidence to renew Avatar: The Last Airbender for not only Season 2 but Season 3 too. Sadly, the OG series didn’t have either of these things because they were laying the groundwork and doing something we hadn’t really seen before in a series on Nickelodeon.

Overall, learning that the animated Avatar: The Last Airbender almost didn’t get its full three seasons is truly stunning. I never would have guessed it either, considering the love people have for it almost two decades after the premiere. Luckily, everything worked out, the team persisted, and it ended up giving us three perfect seasons of television.

To go back and watch the animated version of Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as its live-action adaptation, all you need is a Netflix subscription.