Only a few short months ago, I declared to pretty much anyone that would listen that “Legend of Korra” was set to outstrip its predecessor, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” My evidence for this? The lack of filler.
“Avatar” took a while to find its groove, especially in season one. There were a lot of random daytrips, a healthy dose of sillyness, and a lot of character expansion.
Going into “Korra,” the writers decided they wanted to take a more streamlined and direct approach to the show, diving right into the action and staying with the main plot. I thought that this would be a change for the better. The action popped, the intensity didn’t let up, and the fight scenes were to die for.
But after a while, it felt like something was missing.
While filler does little to advance the plot, it works wonders for underdeveloped characters. Often you get to see the world of the story from a different perspective, or characters learn something important about themselves that will change the rest of their journey.
For instance, Sokka in “Avatar” would still be an obnoxious sexist if he hadn’t met Suki in the Kyoshi Warriors episode. Toph and Katara would still hate each other if they hadn’t come to understand each other in “The Runaway.”
As awesome as the first season of “Korra” was, it was sorely lacking in that department. Asami is struggling under a lack of personality—pretty much she has daddy issues and drives cars. Just one Asami-focused episode might have pulled her out of that. And come on, Commander Iroh had what, three lines? Not cool, man.
Prepare yourself, I’m about to make a weird analogy.
So the way I see it, the plot is like a water snake. At first you’re like, oh, it’s a stick. Then it becomes increasingly clear that it’s a snake. You can only see the coils that break the surface occasionally. Then finally the head rears up and attacks you.
The first five seasons of “Supernatural” nailed the balance between the overarching plot and the week-to-week story.
Take season two of Supernatural. [SPOILERS AHEAD] The snake under the surface are the kids with psychic powers. Every so often, coils of the snake break the surface—a psychic kid here, a revelation there—until BAM, good ol’ yellow eyes (a plot snaking through since season 1) throws the psychic kids into a crazy deathmatch and (literally) all hell breaks loose. [END SPOILERS]
Because “Supernatural” knew exactly when to reveal the larger plot and when to focus more on their monster-of-the-week format, we got both character and plot development.
In Avatar, the snake was always on the surface. We didn’t have time to think we were safe, or go on a side adventure, or wonder where the series finale was headed.
When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 came out, a lot of reviewers were enamored with the quiet little scene where Harry and Hermione dance in the tent. The moment meant nothing to the plot, but it offered us a glimpse of what these characters mean to each other and reminded us that they’re just kids dealing with a terrifying situation.
Which leads us to another intangible: Heart.
You’ll hear it all the time in movie reviews, but it’s really hard to pinpoint what gives a story “heart.” I’ll probably go into more detail in a later post, but for the purposes of this one, well-done filler helps give a story heart. It gives you a chance to slow down and dwell in the world of these characters, kind of like hanging out with co-workers over coffee instead of in the office.
We got plenty of great character moments in “Korra,” but no full episodes. The closest thing to a filler episode was “The Spirit of Competition,” which was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise all-action series. It didn’t advance the plot, but it gave us insight into Mako and Bolin’s relationship, and let’s be honest: Who doesn’t want to see more of Bolin?
Exploring the balance between meandering filler and plot can alter the flow and feel of a series. Chime in with your comments and let me know what you think of filler episodes/moments in movies/TV/books!