Just like movies, television series have a budget. Typically, each season has a specific budget, the bulk of which gets spent on 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, that 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, crafting 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 great bottle episodes, which you can stream right now.
1. Star Trek // “Balance Of Terror” (Season 1, Episode 14)
Where to stream it: Netflix
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.
2. Breaking Bad // “Fly” (Season 3, Episode 10)
Where to stream it: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix
Tensions are running high between meth-makers Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, 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.
3. The Sopranos // “Pine Barrens” (Season 3, Episode 11)
Where to stream it: Amazon, HBO Now
Before he became a series regular in season five, Steve Buscemi directed what is 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 with Christopher was always one of the show’s most interesting dynamics, 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.
4. MAD MEN // “THE SUITCASE” (SEASON 4, EPISODE 11)
Where to stream it: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix
Considered by many to be one of Mad Men’s finest episodes (which is saying a lot), the bulk of “The Suitcase” is spent watching Don Draper and Peggy Olson duke it out, creatively speaking, to come up with a pitch for Samsonite. Though the series is very much an ensemble drama, Don and Peggy could be considered the heart of the show, as it’s their journeys that seemed to overlap and collide most often (not always in positive ways). While the two don’t always see eye to eye, there’s a deep affection between them. More importantly, they know each other’s darkest secrets and this tête-à-tête—which begins in the office and moves to the bar—gives them each a chance to remind the other one of that. It also gave Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss the opportunity to really delve into their characters for a solid near-hour. (Both actors submitted the episode for Emmy consideration.)
5. Seinfeld // “The Chinese Restaurant” (Season 2, Episode 6)
Where to stream it: Hulu
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.”
6. The X-Files // “Ice” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Where to stream it: Amazon, Hulu, Netflix
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.
7. FRIENDS // “THE ONE WHERE NO ONE IS READY” (SEASON 3, EPISODE 2)
Where to stream it: Amazon, iTunes
Truth be told, Friends rarely got super inventive or exotic with its show locales. For the most part, each episode took place in just a handful of locations—usually one or two of the gang’s apartments, plus Central Perk. But this third season episode, which is often credited with popularizing the phrase “going commando,” never leaves Monica and Rachel’s apartment. Nor does it feature any actors beyond the main cast. It simply watches as Ross attempts to get everyone out the door to attend an event at his museum.
8. DOCTOR WHO // “MIDNIGHT” (SEASON 4, EPISODE 10)
Where to stream it: Amazon
In the world of Doctor Who, there are two kinds of bottle episodes (though they’re never called that): “Doctor-lite” episodes focus more on the Doctor’s companion, while “Companion-lite” episodes are just the opposite. This fourth season episode is firmly in the latter category, as the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) heads off on holiday, but soon finds himself trapped on a shuttle and seemingly in the presence of an invisible monster that can take control of the passengers’ bodies, including his own.
9. Community // “Cooperative Calligraphy” (Season 2, Episode 8)
Where to stream it: Amazon, Hulu, iTunes
As out there as some of its plotlines may have strayed, Community succeeded in becoming one of television’s most self-aware shows. Their boldest move 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.
10. Family Guy // “Brian & Stewie” (Season 8, Episode 17)
Where to stream it: Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix
Okay, so it probably doesn’t save any money to set an animated show in one location. 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.