How "Avatar: The Last Airbender" makes filler episodes good
Updated: Mar 19, 2022
We all hate it when a TV show leaves us on a cliffhanger and we wait for a week for the next episode, only to be scammed and waste thirty minutes of your life while something completely unrelated to the storyline happens and takes up the entire length of the episode. However, there is one show that manages to make its "filler" episodes not only good, but some of many peoples' favorites–and that's Nickelodeon's "Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
The two episodes that first come to mind, and the ones I'll discuss here, are The Tales of Ba Sing Se and the Ember Island Players. Neither of them advance the plot or the character arcs very much and could be removed from the show without making it seem like anything was missing.
One reason these two episodes are good is the characters–in fact, the whole show is heavily character-focused. Because it's a show primarily targeted towards kids, it doesn't have any complex plots that are hard for little kids to wrap their heads around. The show was able to take advantage of this, and chose to spend its effort and screen time on building and developing the characters. Every single major character, hero and villain alike, has a complex, powerful, three-dimensional character arc for older people to enjoy, while still letting little kids watch them fight the bad guys with their cool bending powers and whatnot.
In these two episodes, the characters we've grown so fond of throughout the show get to exist without having to save a suffering village or avoid being murdered. We get to see them just… be. Without anything in the way of that. It sounds like it would be boring, but it isn't. This only works because these characters are so fleshed out and likeable.
Take episode two of season two of The Mandalorian (the one where he has to fight all the giant spiders in the snow). The episode was met somewhat negatively upon release, with many people saying that it was a filler episode or a side quest, and I agree. In terms of progressing the storyline, it's the same as The Tales of Ba Sing Se. But I don't watch The Mandalorian to see Din Djarin live his life, I watch it to find out where Baby Yoda came from, what the Empire wants with him, and whether or not Ahsoka is actually going to show up. So when the whole episode is just about becoming a space Uber driver for this Frog Lady, it's going to be somewhat disappointing. Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike Din or anything, but he's not the reason I like the show so much. You can compare this to The Last Airbender, in which the characters are the primary thing that make it so good.
The second reason that these episodes work, and this is especially true of The Ember Island Players, is the comedy. For a kid’s show, it's surprisingly funny. Except for maybe the first few episodes, there's a refreshing lack of farts and the jokes are actually pretty well-written. I don't find this episode boring, even though not much happens, because it's really funny. Comedically, it's similar to Phineas and Ferb, in which most of the jokes have a lot of wit and are oftentimes more funny to older people than little kids.
The Ember Island Players reminds me of a certain episode from Community. The show was known for making fun of or paying homage to all sorts of genres and tropes, and this episode was no exception. It was towards the end of season two, and mocks those end-of-season clip show episodes where all the characters spend the entire time "reminiscing about their time together" before they go onto the finale. The catch, though, was that all of the flashbacks were bizarre things that had never actually happened in the show before: A competitive jump rope tournament, a trip to a ghost town, filling in for glee club - actually, now that I think about it, they weren't that weird by the show's standards.
The Ember Island Players was similar in that it retold the story of the show up to this point, except it did so in a way that was unique and hilarious, as well as self-aware. I was surprised by how meta it got at some points.
A small, "second-and-a-halfth" reason people enjoy these episodes so much is the worldbuilding. The world of this show is really creative, expansive, and I always love to see more of it (It would be a great setting for a tabletop RPG or something. Has someone created that? That would actually be really cool). Anyway, the world has a lot of things to enjoy, from its inspiration from Asian cultures to its history and lore.
If you asked me to make a tier list of all the TV shows I'd ever seen, I would have to put "Avatar: The Last Airbender" up at the top (along with maybe Community and The Clone Wars or something). It's a great show with some of the best characters of all time, the animation is beautiful, and the fact that it did all of this while airing on the same network as Dora the Explorer is astounding.
If you haven't seen the show yet, go and watch it on Netflix, and also why did you click on this article? Speaking of this article, I hope you enjoyed it, and were able to enjoy another one of the many things that are to be appreciated about "Avatar: The Last Airbender."