Filler. Filler. Filler. Anyone who’s seen a show and/or movie knows what it is, even if they don’t know it by name. Moments or episodes that take a step away from the main plot for a certain amount of time. TV Tropes defines it as “entries in a generally continuous serial that are unrelated to the main plot, don’t significantly alter the relations between the characters, and generally serve only to take up space”.
In movies, these could be moments to help fill up a run time. In shows, these could be episodes that might not relate to the main plot, but serve some sort of person. In content that is based on a book, video game, etc., filler could be used to give the show/movie more character and/or length. In anime, it’s usually used when it’s caught up with the manga and is keeping audiences entertained until there is enough of the manga out to get back to the main plot.
Filler can last any where from a few minutes to a few episodes. Even full seasons in the case of anime. And depending on the type of filler, it’ll be received well or hated.
That said, not all filler is bad. Small doses can help patch thing out. Season long filler can help entertain people for a while as an in process story has time to get more content out. Where it’s placed can impact how good or bad the filler is. That’s what I’d like to look into today.
I’ve narrowed it down to two things. Two things that can make or break filler: length and placement. Not all filler will be enjoyed, but those that are, benefit a filler. I will be using anime several times during this, since it is notoriously known for filler, but will throw in a few other examples as well.
The thing with length is that, depending on the show, filler may need to be an episode or two here and there or an entire season. And while neither are entirely bad, if the filler is bad/uninteresting, it will feel like it drags.
For example, Ember Island Players from Avatar the Last Airbender and Goku’s Ordeal are good examples of single episode filler. Avatar has a few filler episodes spread out throughout the series. While Dragon Ball has both filler episodes and filler seasons.
In Ember Island Players, it’s an episode that gives the viewers and the cast a chance to breath. With the series finale looming over the corner, and episode where we get to see a play parodying the series is a fun, light heartened episode. The viewers know that the climactic finale is coming, but this gives them a chance to relax before it does. Plus, it gives the characters to get a few moments in to interact in a way that feels natural (Toph punching Zuko as a means of affection, the Gaang taking jabs at their parodied selves).
In Goku’s Ordeal, it’s an entertaining little episode that takes a moment to step away from all the training and action to have a little fun. The episode revolves around the idea of Chi Chi forcing Goku and Piccolo to drive. They reluctantly agree and shenanigans ensue as they crash and fail, quite literally, until saving the day later on. It’s an episode that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but fits perfectly in the Dragon Ball universe.
An example of a bad episode long filler piece would be The Great Divide from Avatar the Last Airbender. This is an episode that is notorious for being one of, if not the worst episode of the series’ three season run. The show is certainly, and rightfully praised, and some might argue that even a bad episode could have it’s pluses. That said, this is an episode that people will pick on and tear down. Whether it be Aang lying, the characters, it being a weak episode, or any combination, this is an episode that doesn’t do it for a good number of people. It still fits as a filler episode and proves that, even a single episode of it could potentially be bad.
However, that’s not conducive of all filler that lasts for an episode or two. It really depends.
Season Long Filler
As previously mentioned, anime is well known for doing this. If the manga is still ongoing when the anime is running, the anime will take some time to make a filler season in order to wait for more manga chapters to be released. These filler arcs aren’t canon to the manga, but are a good way to fill time while they wait.
Filler seasons may be criticized a bit more because of it’s over all story or it feeling like a waste of time. However, if it fits into the series to the point it doesn’t feel too jarring, filler seasons can be okay. Or completely skipped if the viewer feels like it.
Yu-Gi-Oh, the card game and Ancient Egypt mixed anime series had a few filler seasons (not an uncommon trend depending on the anime). There was the Virtual World arc, the KCG Championship arc, and the Doma/Waking the Dragons arc, as well as one or two smaller filler arcs. And while most of it’s filler has a mixed reception, the Waking the Dragons arc could be the original series best. Yes, it’s weird and may feel like it drags, but it conceptually isn’t too far of a stretch for this kind of show.
While Yu-Gi-Oh has a mixed bag filler as far as reception, but I would argue this arc is the show’s best. From a placement perspective, it didn’t abruptly halt certain arcs like the Virtual World arc did with the Battle City Finals. Nor did it wedge itself needlessly between a filler arc and the ready canon arc like the Grand Prix arc. It sat after the Battle City Finals and the Ancient Egypt arc (if Grand Prix didn’t exists, it fit even more perfectly).
From a story perspective, it worked. The concept of Atlantis and the Seal of Orichalcos works well in this universe. We get to see Yugi and the gang challenge a new organization with a mythical power of their own. And when the Egyptian God Cards get stolen, they find old friends as new foes, a mysterious villain tied to the organizations power, monsters in the real world, and our main three duelists (Yugi, Kaiba, and Joey), destined warriors that need to wake the dragons at their disposal and stop the resurrections of the Great Leviathan before it’s too late. The series itself may not be necessary and takes away from the whole Ancient Egypt angle of dueling/duel monsters, but it’s not so far of a stretch to include. Plus, if there is one way to throw Atlantis this arc certainly did a great way of doing so.
It also has some solid enough villains. Dartz was a compelling and intriguing villain, as a man who fell from grace and was overcome with power and the desire to revive Leviathan. Rafael was a tragic yet interesting character and Alister had a reasonable motive at the time. Valon had a different story as someone who was incarcerated at a young age though his reasons for wanting to go after Joey could be seen as faulty or oddly out of jealousy. Mai may have been the weaker link in this cast of villains, but her motivation was sound enough in some aspects (trauma from her duel with Marik and fame).
Overall, I would say that the Waking the Dragons filler arc was solid. Maybe not a perfect arc, but a solid enough arc that works within the universe it was thrown into.
On the flipside there’s the Garlic Jr Saga for Dragon Ball Z. Dragon Ball is known for good and bad filler. A few episodes to a season long. The Garlic Jr Saga is certainly one of its least well received filler pieces. For those unaware, Garlic Jr was a character introduced in the first Dragon Ball Z movie, Dead Zone, and the only villain to get their wish of immortality.
As a movie villain, Garlic Jr is fine. Most of the movies in Z’s lineup weren’t really canon, with the Bardock: Father of Goku and History of Trunks specials being the real exceptions (and well Battle of the Gods and Resurrections of F, which kind of set up Super). But as a season wide villain, not so much. While the Garlic Jr Saga certainly had use (giving the viewers content as the manga got a few more issues out) and a few good moments (like the climax and Gohan, Piccolo, and Krillin going on an adventure), it isn’t one that holds up well.
A few reasons people may not like this saga includes, it being filler, it dragging, and it feeling dull. Filler episodes/seasons don’t exactly have the best reputation. While there are exceptions, most filler can be seen as unnecessary, despite having a reason outside of the story (i.e. being caught up with the manga/story/etc.). While not a set assessment, people who are comic/manga/etc., may not like filler disrupting the canonical story. That, however, does not apply to all people who dislike filler however.
Some people seems to think that the Garlic Jr Saga drags on. A case could be made for it being an episode or two shorter. The saga itself is only ten episodes long, however, as I’ll touch on a bit more in the next point, those ten episodes could feel long due to it being uninteresting. Or maybe it feels like it doesn’t need ten episodes.
Dull filler is some of the worst kind of filler. Whether it be the characters, the story, and/or the length of the saga, if it feels dull, it won’t make these episodes any more enjoyable. And that coupled with it being ten episodes long may make the Garlic Jr Saga feel long. Speaking from personal experience, this is probably what got me. That and wanting to get to the Future Trunks and later stuff. Younger me had no idea what filler was, or that the Garlic Jr Saga was filler (having not read the manga at the time). It was boring to me and I didn’t care for Garlic Jr.
Filler episodes can be good or bad regardless of length. While a episode or two long filler may not carry the risk of feeling dragged out, a bad filler episode can be annoying. And just because a filler season is long, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a purpose or fit into the story. Filler can be good or bad. Long or short. Enjoyable or Dragged out.
Placement is another thing that can make or break filler. Placing it where there is a natural pause is a better option than throwing it in the middle of the action. Regardless of how good or bad a filler is, where it’s placed makes it all the more mixed. Filler is supposed to work well in quiet moments and in between action, but sometimes, it is placed in an odd position. This is more likely to effect season long since they are longer. The average single episode or few episode filler probably won’t have as problematic of a placement, but it can be possible.
The Shūsuke Amagai arc is and example of a filler season placed at the wrong time. While the arc itself is not inherently bad (I’d argue that it’s a solid arc focusing on the Third Squad after Gin Ichimaru’s defection and had an interesting character in Shūsuke), it was placed at a really awkward spot. It was set up right after the fight between Ichigo and Grimmjow and Nnoitra’s fight.
If there was ever a case of tonal/action whiplash, this would be the filler season. Putting a filler season right in the middle of the action is going to turn a few heads. As well as irritate viewers who just want to get to the next fight.
Again, the season itself is fine. The story it tells is interesting and its plot is fine. However, it would have fit a lot better if it was placed not that long after Aizen, Gin, and Tōsen defected or before Orihime left for Hueco Mundo. That way, it gives the manga some time to get some more issues out, while not putting a halt to a battle at hand.
An example of a filler season placed in a good place would be the Garlic Jr Saga. As disliked as it is, it at least was placed during a period of nonurgency. Yes, Goku and Vegeta were not in the saga, but at the very least, the audience wasn’t being abruptly pulled away from an action sequence. If it was placed between Goku turning Super Saiyan and his fight with Frieza then the audience would have more of an issue.
The Grand Championship (a.k.a. the KC Grand Prix) arc is another example of poor placement. When this arc came around, it was directly after the filler arc (and season) that was the Waking the Dragons arc, and before the Ancient Egypt/Dawn of the Duel arc (a.k.a. the second part of season 5). While I won’t say the arc is entirely bad (I also haven’t watched all the way through), viewers were probably tired or done with season four and were probably ready to get into the concluding arc that they’ve been waiting for since the end of the Battle City Finals. One would assume Waking the Dragons managed to last long enough for the manga to be in a safe spot for the anime to pick it back up, but instead they got a few more episodes of filler.
Another good example of filler being placed in between canonical material would be the Orange Islands arc in Pokémon. Technically speaking, the Pokémon anime didn’t really follow the video games to a tee. However, it does follow each game release. So while it may not follow the games storylines (outside of the gyms, leagues and contests), it kept enough of each generations’ Pokémon and concepts for it to be a canonical retelling of sorts.
The Orange Islands League is pretty much a filler arc. Due to the original Johto games getting delay, they needed to do something while they waited for it to be released. So a season long arc with a filler league was a good way to approach it. It also gave them the chance to promote the likes of Marill and test the waters for a character like Tracy. Tracy would replace Brock for the season. Part of the reason he was cut was because some people working on the anime weren’t sure if Brock would come off as a stereotype/problematic in America (and as it went global). However, Brock would not be perceived as such and would eventually returned to the anime when the Johto anime was released.
Placement, just like length, can effect filler. When placed in the right spot, it can be okay, regardless of whether or not it’s enjoyed. However, a good (or bad) filler piece can suffer from being placed at the wrong place in a series.
Filler is certainly and old and controversial subject. And while not all filler is created equally, not all filler is bad. Good filler can have an enjoyable story and a solid placement (though not always). Bad Filler can be dull and not have the best of stories, regardless of placement.