by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & Avatar: The Last Airbender (Weekdays,4:30pm, Nickelodeon) & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, you can watch dozens of different animated kid shows, with new ones springing up all the time. Back in my day, it was pretty much Flintstones reruns, so the variety is amazing. But quantity does not equal quality, and there's too much annoying crap -- jittery animation, smart-ass characters, fart jokes. Parents, beware of junk food for the brain.
But there's good stuff, too -- even great stuff. SpongeBob was hilarious in its early seasons, and Dora the Explorer is actually educational for toddlers. But for the past two years, it's been a drama (with only sprinklings of humor) that has been the best of all. Avatar: The Last Airbender delightfully breaks the mold -- it doesn't try to get noticed by being obnoxious, it requires intelligence and curiosity of its audience (boys ages 9-14), it has real, three-dimensional characters (even the villains) and it seems to sell spirituality more than any line of toy tie-ins (although you can get them -- there are even Avatar Legos).
Set in a mishmash world of Asian mythology where the Fire Nation seeks to rule, only the Avatar -- master of the martial arts-based "bending" of earth, water, fire and air -- can bring peace. But he's been missing for 100 years. The story starts when a brother (Sokka) and sister (Katara) discover a 12-year-old boy named Aang alive in an iceberg. Aang is the reincarnation of the Avatar, and he's supposed to save the world, but he'd rather goof off with Sokka and Katara. Hot on their trail is Prince Zuko, the wayward son of the Fire Lord. All these kids must find their own way, parentless, in a world torn apart by war.
The adventures -- 40 episodes so far, with another 20 coming soon -- follow the kids (who ride the flying bison, Apaa) as they try to get Aang trained to bend all the elements. Avatar sticks in your head -- even if you're a grown-up -- because of its mystical, Miyazaki-esque side, with elements of Asian religions that preach a respect for nature. In one early episode, a panda's spirit lashes out after the Fire Nation burns down his forest; Katara and Aang soothe him by showing him an acorn -- a sign of nature's rebirth. Scenes like that make this one show you can be happy your kid is watching. n
With Bill Maher
After getting booted from his primo post-Nightline slot on ABC, comedian/pundit Bill Maher landed at HBO. With a live format, and four (usually) lively guests, Real Time is what Meet the Press could be like if it had to compete for ratings. Topical new episodes start up again on Friday night. (Friday, 2/16, 11 pm, HBO)
This has been the most underrated of the reality shows to spring up in the wake of Survivor-mania. All Stars is your chance to see the also-ran, fan-favorites from past seasons get another globetrotting shot at a million bucks, and a new race begins Sunday night. (Sunday, 2/18, 8 pm, CBS)
On the island of Borneo, you'll find one of the most exotic -- and threatened -- rainforests in the world. As part of the Discovery Channel's "Quest" series, you can take a two-hour trip there with a team of experts as they catalog dozens of new species and explore cave systems featuring 10,000-year-old human drawings. (Sunday, 2/18, 9 pm, Discovery)