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.