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The 10 Best Bottle Episodes of Your Favorite TV Shows

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Those of us who are old enough to vividly remember the plot lines of such so-bad-they’re-good television shows as The Brady Bunch, Three’s Company, The Dukes of Hazzard, Benson, MacGyver, and Magnum P.I. probably recall that characters always seemed to be accidentally locking themselves in a meat locker/elevator/fill-in-your-favorite-tiny-contained space. Sometimes once per season. While it may have seemed like honest-to-goodness laziness on the part of the shows’ writers, the more likely reason for these single-location episodes was simply lack of money.

Here’s how it works: Television shows are divided into seasons, and each season has its own individual budget. The bulk of that money is spent on the season’s tent pole episodes, i.e. the season premiere, the season finale and any episode that requires a top-dollar guest star, exotic locale, or extensive special effects. Which means that at some point in the season, a showrunner is going to be scrambling to come up with an idea that can be shot on the cheap. Enter “the bottle episode.”

Purportedly coined by the makers of the original Star Trek series, the show’s frequent battles with budgetary constraints resulted in many stripped-down scenarios for the Enterprise, which they referred to as “ship-in-a-bottle” episodes. A typical bottle episode features just one or two regular cast members working together to solve a single problem. Locations, too, are limited to ideally just one. And there are no expensive special effects to be found. Just a couple of actors spending 30 to 60 minutes playing off of each other. 

As television has continued to up its game in the entertainment department, competing with movies both narratively and aesthetically, producers have gotten smarter about their bottle episodes. Like their low-budget Hollywood counterparts, they’re replacing money with creativity, creating more personal, character-driven pieces to drive the season forward and create some of the most beloved episodes in a show’s run. Here are 10 of the great ones.

1. Breaking Bad—Season 3, Episode 10: “Fly” (2010)

If the teaser for Breaking Bad’s final season—which premieres on AMC on Sunday—is any indication of its pace, you’re going to want to bring along an inhaler. It’s the show’s typical breakneck speed that makes “Fly” such a standout episode. Tensions are running high between meth-makers Walter and Jesse, and both of them are keeping secrets. When a fly finds its way into the lab, Walter—sleep-deprived and already teetering on the edge—sets about killing it to avoid any contamination. But this sucker won’t die and the ceilings in that meth lab are high. (No pun intended.) As Jesse looks on and eventually assists Walter in his mission, their inner turmoil plays out in subtle yet gripping ways, both in their dialogue and actions. That virtually every second of the episode’s 47 minutes happens in one location with just the two leading actors makes it a perfect example of television at its barest. That they hired moviemaker Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) to direct the episode makes it truly cinematic.

2. Community—Season 2, Episode 8: “Cooperative Calligraphy” (2010)

As out there as some of its plotlines may stray, Community has succeeded in becoming one of television’s most self-aware shows. The cast and crew seem to revel in the fact that they’re still on the air (and with good reason, as they’ve been on the scheduling chopping block since the show’s debut). Their boldest move yet may have been “Cooperative Calligraphy,” which is best described as a bottle episode about bottle episodes. As the study group of misfit co-eds packs up their belongings to depart for an on-campus puppy parade, Annie realizes that yet another one of her precious pens has gone missing and insists that no one will leave the room until she uncovers the culprit. Minutes later, Abed realizes what is happening and declares, “I hate bottle episodes. They’re wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance. I might as well sit in a corner with a bucket on my head.” As the episode continues to unfold, the classmates learn more than they needed to know about each other—like that Abed keeps track of the menstrual cycles of the female group members—and do their best to stay true to Abed’s description of what a bottle episode looks like.

3. Family Guy—Season 8, Episode 17: “Brian & Stewie” (2010)

Okay, so it probably doesn’t save any money to set an animated show in one location and feature just two of the regular actors. But Seth MacFarlane’s ode to the “trapped in a bank vault” trope as part of Family Guy’s 150th episode is worth noting for the sheer audacity it takes to force this setup upon a talking dog and a wise-beyond-his-years baby. Like any great bottle episode, the show is completely character-driven (it’s the only episode that doesn’t feature any cutaways), with Brian and Stewie eventually revealing how much they care about each other—but only after they get drunk, partake in a fair amount of gun violence, and devise an innovative (and disgusting) way to make sure Stewie doesn’t end up with diaper rash.

4. The Sopranos—Season 3, Episode 11: “Pine Barrens” (2001)

Note to the networks: Indie film directors make fantastic bottle episode directors. Before he became a series regular in season five, Steve Buscemi directed what is arguably one of The Sopranos’ single best episodes: “Pine Barrens.” Though it’s not a one-location episode, the bulk of the action centers on Paulie and Christopher getting lost in the woods after an attempt to collect a debt from a Russian mobster goes horribly wrong. Totally unprepared for facing the elements, right down to their unlined leather jackets, the duo must overcome bad cell phone reception and the possibility that there’s a highly-skilled solider attempting to hunt them down to find their way out of the forest (or at least lead mob boss Tony Soprano to them for rescuing). Paulie’s relationship to Christopher was always one of the show’s most interesting, alternating between fatherly and competitive. This episode forces them to confront their issues head-on, in a language and with a humor that is completely their own.

5. Mad About You—Season 6, Episode 9: “The Conversation” (1997)

Though it aired for seven seasons, Mad About You—starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt as married couple Paul and Jamie Buchman—has been largely forgotten. Which is unfortunate, considering that it often pushed the conventions of typical sitcom-making. In the show’s sixth season, director Gordon Hunt channeled his inner Ingmar Bergman to do the unthinkable: drop a camera on the floor of the Buchmans’ apartment and leave it there. For the entire show. Whether the actors were in the shot or not. The only image that stays constant is the door of their baby daughter Mabel’s room, as they attempt to let her cry herself to sleep, leaving the audio to drive the narrative. The result is a 20-minute conversation filmed in one take that was broadcast uninterrupted so as not to lose the flow. It was pretty revolutionary stuff, and they knew it (and made a clever nod to it in the closing credits).

6. Homicide: Life On The Street—Season 1, Episode 5: “Three Men And Adena” (1993)

The bottle episode made an early appearance on the police drama Homicide: Life on the Street. Midway through the first season, Martin Campbell (who refreshed the James Bond franchise with Casino Royale) directed this Emmy Award-winning episode, in which detectives Frank Pembleton and Tim Bayliss have 12 hours to solicit a confession from Risley Tucker for the murder of an 11-year-old girl. The episode plays out almost entirely in the interrogation room as a single conversation between the two officers and their suspect. And it’s one big power play, with each man taking a turn in the hot seat. This is an example of a police procedural at its most gripping: partners playing the good cop/bad cop game, and a suspect turning the tables on his interrogators. In the end, there is no confession, and the case (which is based on the real-life murder of Latonya Kim Wallace) remains unsolved; but the detectives’ impressions—of each other and Tucker’s guilt—have been forever altered. It’s a near-flawless example of the power the camera holds and how a simple shift of an angle can add a new dimension to the viewer experience.

7. The X-Files—Season 1, Episode 8: “Ice” (1993)

Like a television version of John Carpenter’s The Thing, “Ice” slowed the sci-fi juggernaut down just long enough for audiences to see what would happen when their beloved special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were forced to work against each other. After being called to Alaska to investigate the mysterious deaths of a group of geophysicists, Mulder and Scully determine that an alien parasite is to blame, and they’ve got the samples to prove it. But the agents disagree on whether to preserve or destroy the deadly organisms and just about everything else. No one is sure who has been infected and who hasn't, and the agents each have different methods for figuring it out. The divisive nature of this particular mission helped to introduce the often-complex relationship these two would have throughout the series, and gave them the dramatic flexibility to establish that early on.

8. Seinfeld—Season 2, Episode 6: “The Chinese Restaurant” (1991)

When Seinfeld co-creator Larry David originally pitched the idea of “The Chinese Restaurant” to the executives at NBC, they rejected it outright, believing that the audience would be bored by the lack of storyline, which consisted of Jerry, George, and Elaine waiting for a table—in real time—at a Chinese restaurant before hitting up a screening of Plan 9 from Outer Space. But for a series that was popularly referred to as “a show about nothing,” an episode that was literally about nothing seemed apropos. So David wasn’t about to let the idea die so quickly, even threatening to quit if the show didn’t air as written. The execs relented, and the episode was a hit. While not a bottle episode from a cost-savings standpoint (the restaurant was unique to this storyline), the close quarters/couple of friends formula became a staple of the series, and was repeated just a few months later in the next season with the equally funny “The Parking Garage.”

9. All in the Family—Season 8, Episode 19: “Two's a Crowd” (1978)

Like so many other sitcoms of its time period, this late-season episode of All in the Family used the “locked together in a room” device as its setup. But where it stands out among the show’s nine seasons is in its humanization of the irascible Archie Bunker. When Archie and his son-in-law Mike accidentally lock themselves in the storeroom of a bar, they decide to pass the time by depleting the supply of alcohol that surrounds them. After a few drinks too many, Archie talks about his difficult upbringing, complete with an abusive father. Archie’s monologue on his life—and why he is the man he is—is a genuinely moving piece of drama in an otherwise comedic series that brings the show’s two male leads closer together (even if Archie doesn’t remember it when he wakes up).

10. Star Trek—Season 1, Episode 14: “Balance Of Terror” (1966)

If you’re going to invent the terminology, you’d better have a list of episodes that fit the bottle bill. Star Trek certainly does, beginning in season one, when the Romulans make their first appearance in “Balance of Terror.” When Captain Kirk learns that a Romulan ship has destroyed several nearby outposts, he sets about finding it so that he may destroy it (despite the vessel’s invisibility shield, of course). The episode morphs into a game of cat and mouse between Kirk and his Romulan counterpart, as the two ships race each other toward the neutral zone. Relying on banter over visuals, the episode is refreshingly dialogue-heavy, giving Kirk and his cronies (including Spock, Sulu and Uhura) the chance to explore more than just the great unknown; they get to talk about their feelings. Fun side note: Mark Lenard, who played the Romulan captain in this episode, would later return to play Sarek, Spock’s father.

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20 Things You Might Not Know About Mr. Show
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You never need an excuse to look back at Mr. Show with Bob and David, but given that today is co-creator Bob Odenkirk's 55th birthday, now seems to be as good a time as any.

1. BOB ODENKIRK AND DAVID CROSS’S FIRST MEETING DID NOT GO VERY WELL.

Following four years of writing on Saturday Night Live, Odenkirk was in Los Angeles in 1992 as a writer for the Chris Elliott Fox cult classic Get a Life. David Cross was a comedian in L.A. after performing for years in Boston. One boring afternoon, Cross asked friend and fellow stand-up Janeane Garofalo if she knew anybody that played basketball. The two went to Odenkirk’s house, and Garofalo introduced David to Bob and then asked if he wanted to play basketball. He said no.

2. ODENKIRK AND CROSS FIRST WORKED TOGETHER ON THE BEN STILLER SHOW.

Despite their inauspicious beginning, the two ended up having numerous fruitful collaborations, starting with their work on The Ben Stiller Show. Odenkirk was a writer/performer on the short-lived but Emmy award-winning sketch show with Garofalo, Stiller, and Andy Dick. Cross was brought in in the middle of the show’s 13-episode run as a writer.

3. THE CO-STARS FIRST PERFORMED ON STAGE TOGETHER AS "THE THREE GOOFBALLZ."

Odenkirk and Cross performed sketch comedy together at the Diamond Club in Los Angeles, with a third improviser that, the joke went, would either be deceased or out elsewhere getting high.

4. "THE THREE GOOFBALLZ' WAS ALMOST THE TITLE OF MR. SHOW

Odenkirk also pitched the title Grand National Championships, but David Cross was never a fan of it.

5. JACK BLACK, SARAH SILVERMAN, AND OTHER FUTURE STARS APPEARED ON THE SHOW BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS.

Black was in four episodes of Mr. Show, starring in the classic Jesus Christ Superstar parody “Jeepers Creepers.” Silverman was a performer in 10 episodes. Mary Lynn Rajskub, best known as Chloe on 24, was a featured actress in the first two years. Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, was a series regular for a majority of the run. Scott Adsit, a.k.a. 30 Rock’s Pete Hornberger, was in six episodes.

6. PATTON OSWALT WARMED UP THE MR. SHOW CROWD.

In addition to performing stand-up before tapings and keeping the studio audience interested in between scenes, Oswalt played Famous Mortimer in the episode “Operation: Hell on Earth” (but was credited as “Patton Oswald.”)

7. HOMELESS PEOPLE WERE NOT KIND TO THE ORIGINAL SETS.

Because the pilot episode was shot at a “down and dirty,” small Central Hollywood club, the sets had to be placed outside, where homeless people defecated on them.

8. YOU MIGHT ALSO RECOGNIZE SOME OF THE WRITING STAFF.

Dino Stamatopoulos was already on the original writing staff of Late Night with Conan O’Brien and had written for David Letterman before writing for Cross and Odenkirk. He would later create three shows and play Starburns on Community. Writer/performer Scott Aukerman co-created and executive produces Between Two Ferns, and created and stars on Comedy Bang! Bang!. Writer/performer Paul F. Tompkins hosted VH-1’s Best Week Ever! and currently hosts the satirical debate show No, You Shut Up!, where he moderates discussions by a panel full of puppets. Bob Odenkirk’s brother Bill has written ten episodes of The Simpsons.

9. THE DIRECTORS OF LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE LEARNED HOW TO DIRECT COMEDY FROM MR. SHOW.

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton were known for directing music videos like The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” and Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing,” and decided to direct two Mr. Show episodes to expand their filming vocabulary. The husband and wife team were behind the camera for the classic sketch “Monk Academy.”

10. ONE SKETCH WAS INFLUENCED BY LOUIS C.K.

One of the first sketches in the show’s history involved Odenkirk playing a priest forced to do rather unpleasant and un-priestly things. The idea sprang from a conversation David Cross had with fellow young Boston comic Louis C.K., where Louis talked about annoying people that try to claim a prize on a bet that their friends never agreed to in the first place.

11. HBO ONLY CENSORED THE SHOW ONCE.

Throughout four years and 30 episodes, the lone note Odenkirk and Cross got from HBO was to get rid of a line where one character tells another to have sex with a baby. Odenkirk admitted that being told to edit it out “wasn’t too much to ask.”

12. THEY ONLY RECEIVED ONE VIEWER COMPLAINT.

The only angry letter that Odenkirk and Cross were ever made aware of was from a military veteran who was offended by the sketch in “Who Let You In?” where Cross’s performance artist character attempts to defecate on the American flag. The two stars actually called the viewer and discovered that he didn’t watch the entire sketch, and therefore never realized that Cross’ character was never able to actually go through with it.

13. ONE SKETCH WAS CUT FROM THE SHOW SIX TIMES AND NEVER MADE IT TO AIR.

A sketch called “Party Car,” a joke on old, low-quality shows filled with '70s celebrities was cut from half a dozen scripts and never filmed. It would have featured Nipsey Russell, Zsa Zsa Gabor, (or reasonable facsimiles), and a baby in a balloon-filled car.

14. BOB ODENKIRK GOT IN TROUBLE FOR USING A PICTURE OF HIS DEAD GRANDFATHER.

Because the sketch “Old Man In House” needed a photo of an old man, and the elderly gentleman was not the butt of the joke, Odenkirk thought it would be fine. Instead, some Odenkirks were “very upset.”

15. CROSS WAS PAYING OFF HIS STUDENT LOAN DEBTS THROUGHOUT MOST OF THE SERIES.

David Cross and Amber Tamblyn
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Despite executive producing and co-creating a series on television, Cross had trouble paying off his student loan debts from his time at Emerson College. Figuring that the person calling from the bill collection agency wouldn’t believe that he couldn’t pay if he knew his job status, Cross pretended that he worked at Mr. Show as a messenger.

16. ONE PERSON WAS GIVEN A "SPECIAL THANKS" IN THE CLOSING CREDITS OF EVERY EPISODE AS A JOKE.

As Cross once explained, Rick Dees was thanked in the credits of the pilot episode, even though he was “certainly nobody we would ever thank, or be in a position to thank.” Some personalities that were thanked for no discernable reason were Greg Maddux, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Gabe Kaplan, and Howard Zinn.

17. HBO CHANGED THE TIME SLOT FOR ITS FINAL SEASON, AND IT WAS "DEMORALIZING."

After airing Fridays at midnight for the first three seasons, HBO moved the show to Mondays at the same time, confusing some loyal viewers, and the ratings decreased as a result. Bob Odenkirk told a reporter that, after 30 episodes, HBO was still treating the cast and crew as “second-class citizens,” and that they were “demoralized” by the slot shift.

18. BOB AND DAVID TOLD A STUDIO AUDIENCE THAT THEY HAD JUST WITNESSED THE FINAL EPISODE, AND THEY WEREN'T JOKING.

“Patriotism, Pepper, and Professionalism,” the 40th and final episode of Mr. Show, was taped on November 21, 1998. After the final sketch was filmed, Odenkirk and Cross made their announcement, although the show’s cancellation wasn’t made official for another few months.

19. THERE WAS A MR. SHOW MOVIE THAT WENT STRAIGHT TO VIDEO.

Run Ronnie Run focused on David Cross’s redneck criminal character Ronnie Dobbs. It was filmed in 2001, but never made it to theaters. Bob Odenkirk admitted that the movie wasn’t perfect, but he blamed the poor quality on director Troy Miller, for not allowing himself and Cross to edit the movie.

20. THE TWO HAVE REUNITED A FEW OTHER TIMES.

David Cross and Bob Odenkirk star in 'W/ Bob and David'
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

In 2002, Bob, David, and Mr. Show writer/performers Brian Posehn, John Ennis, and Stephanie Courtney (Flo in the Progressive commercials) toured the country to perform some of the show’s sketches and material from their unproduced screenplay Mr. Show: Hooray For America! The next year, Odenkirk guest starred as Dr. Phil Gunty on a season one episode of Arrested Development, alongside Cross’ character Tobias Fünke.

In 2012, Odenkirk, Cross, and Posehn went on a six-city tour to promote their book filled with more unproduced material. Bob and David appeared briefly together the next year on an episode of Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! In 2015, 20 years after Mr. Show's debut, Netflix premiered W/ Bob and David, a five-episode sketch comedy show created by and starring the duo.

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30 Memorable Quotes from Carrie Fisher
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Just days after suffering a heart attack aboard a flight en route to Los Angeles, beloved actress, author, and screenwriter Carrie Fisher passed away at the age of 60 on December 27, 2016. Though she’ll always be most closely associated with her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher’s life was like something out of its own Hollywood movie. Born in Beverly Hills on this day in 1956, Fisher was born into show business royalty as the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.

In addition to her work in front of the camera, Fisher built up an impressive resume behind the scenes, too, most notably as a writer; in addition to several memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels, including Wishful Drinking, Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, The Best Awful, Postcards from the Edge, and The Princess Diarist (which was released last month), she was also an in-demand script doctor who counted Sister Act, Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Wedding Singer among her credits.

Though she struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness, Fisher always maintained a sense of humor—as evidenced by the 30 memorable quotes below.

ON GROWING UP IN HOLLYWOOD

“I am truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.”

“I was born into big celebrity. It could only diminish.”

“At a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever-increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“I was street smart, but unfortunately the street was Rodeo Drive.”

“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That's my word for it.”

ON AGING

“As you get older, the pickings get slimmer, but the people don't.”

ON INSTANT GRATIFICATION

“Instant gratification takes too long.”

ON THE LEGACY OF STAR WARS

“People are still asking me if I knew Star Wars was going to be that big of a hit. Yes, we all knew. The only one who didn't know was George.”

“Leia follows me like a vague smell.”

“I signed my likeness away. Every time I look in the mirror, I have to send Lucas a couple of bucks.”

“People see me and they squeal like tropical birds or seals stranded on the beach.”

“You're not really famous until you’re a Pez dispenser.”

ON THE FLEETING NATURE OF SUCCESS

“There is no point at which you can say, 'Well, I'm successful now. I might as well take a nap.'”

ON DEALING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

“I'm very sane about how crazy I am.”

ON RESENTMENT

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

ON LOVE

“Someone has to stand still for you to love them. My choices are always on the run.”

“I've got to stop getting obsessed with human beings and fall in love with a chair. Chairs have everything human beings have to offer, and less, which is obviously what I need. Less emotional feedback, less warmth, less approval, less patience, and less response. The less the merrier. Chairs it is. I must furnish my heart with feelings for furniture.”

“I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.”

ON EMOTIONS

“The only thing worse than being hurt is everyone knowing that you're hurt.”

ON RELATIONSHIPS

“I envy people who have the capacity to sit with another human being and find them endlessly interesting, I would rather watch TV. Of course this becomes eventually known to the other person.”

ON HOLLYWOOD

“Acting engenders and harbors qualities that are best left way behind in adolescence.”

“You can't find any true closeness in Hollywood, because everybody does the fake closeness so well.”

“It's a man's world and show business is a man's meal, with women generously sprinkled through it like overqualified spice.”

ON FEAR

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

ON LIFE

“I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to be art.”

“No motive is pure. No one is good or bad-but a hearty mix of both. And sometimes life actually gives to you by taking away.”

“If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

“I shot through my twenties like a luminous thread through a dark needle, blazing toward my destination: Nowhere.”

“My life is like a lone, forgotten Q-Tip in the second-to-last drawer.”

ON DEATH

“You know what's funny about death? I mean other than absolutely nothing at all? You'd think we could remember finding out we weren't immortal. Sometimes I see children sobbing at airports and I think, 'Aww. They've just been told.'”

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