Week 5-6: Cult TV

Wilcox and Lavery (2002) identify nine defining characteristics of “quality television” – can you apply any of these to other television series that you have viewed recently? Are there any others that you could add to the list?

Although there is no way to definitely say what is and what isn’t “quality television”, Wilcox and Lavery took a good stab at it in their 2002 article, wherein they listed nine defining characteristics of what makes good television. While looking at the list, I found that I could apply to one of my favourite television programmes of all time, Avatar: the Last Airbender.

Originally premiering in 2005, the show has garnered a cult following of children and adults alike. Many adults have grown up with the programme, whereas others have found it as they’ve grown up. It has many themes and storylines that do not age and appeal to all audiences whilst also maintaining a light and funny side to it so as not to make it too heavy.

The first point that I will be focussing on is the third that Wilcox and Lavery make in their article; quality television will have an ensemble cast. Whereas Avatar focuses on the main three characters – Aang, Katara and Sokka – in the first season, in the second and third seasons this is expanded to include their group with the addition of Toph, the opposition of Princess Azula accompanied by Mai and Ty Lee, as well as Prince Zuko and his uncle Iroh. Through these three groups – two of which join forces in the third season – we see a huge amount of character development and some very serious topics. With things like PTSD, emotional and physical abuse, loss of loved ones, the pressure of being a prodigy and many other matters of this kind, Avatar is able to tackle them in various ways as they are portrayed by several characters.

The point immediately after this is that the programme must have a lasting memory. That is, the characters must be able to recall past events in order to maintain continuity. Avatar is a perfect example of this, as the whole series documents Aang’s journey to becoming a fully realised avatar and mastering all four elements. As he has already become an air-bending master before the events of the first episode, each season or “book” focuses on his learning a new element. What happens in one episode is always immediately continued in the next, often being named the same. The best example of this are the last four episodes which make up and over arcing finale. Episodes fifty-eight to sixty-one are each named Sozin’s Comet part 1-4 and show what the whole show has been leading up to as an end game. The events continue directly on one from the other as the different characters fulfil different parts of their final mission, with Aang gearing up with his final face-off with the Fire Lord Ozai, Iroh and his friends of the White Lotus take back Ba Sing Se and Katara and Zuko prepare to battle his sister Azula. This type of episode naming happens in various other points in the programme’s seasons and shows exactly how the show runners wanted to show memory and continuity.


DiMartino, M. D. and Konietzko, B. (2005). Avatar: the lengend of Aang [television series]. USA: Nickelodeon Animation Studio.

Wilcox, R. & Lavery, D. (2002). Introduction, in R. Wilcox & D. Lavery (eds) fighting the forces: what’s at stake in buffy the vampire slayer. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.


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