Last night’s episode of Community was fantastic. After a front part of the season heavy with expensive, high concept episodes, they produced a bottle episode – an episode based in mostly one room, usually close to real time, featuring nearly no extras or guest stars. Shows do bottle episodes when they’ve produced a lot of really expensive episodes and now need to pinch pennies. In eight episode, the study group of Community have gone to space (sort of) and fought zombies, so it’s understandable why NBC would want them to do a bottle episode.
Well, it turned out to be, by far, the best episode of the season so and easily one of the best of the series. The characters are best when they’re really dealing with each other, actually being friends, and this episode brought all kinds of ugly things to the forefront. But our study group made it through, and were stronger in the end because of it. And a season that felt wildly uneven and somewhat untrue to its characters finally feels like its back on track.
When a good show does a bottle episode – it’s usually great. And Community made me think of some of my other favorite bottle episodes.
First of all, I want to praise HBO’s In Treatment, which is basically a series of bottle episodes. Each episode takes place in one room – Paul’s home/office – and takes place in real time. Each episode is a session with one of his patients. That sounds like it might be boring, but the characters are so incredibly well-written and brilliantly performed, each half hour is an extremely intense exploration of the human mind. So, well done HBO, for essentially making a bottle series and a damn good one at that.
One of the most amazing examples of a bottle episode is Seinfeld‘s Chinese Restaurant episode. The entire episode takes place in a – you guessed it – Chinese restaurant, and takes place over a half hour while the friends wait for a table so they can eat before going to a movie. A simple enough premise – as so many episodes of Seinfeld were – but it’s one of the funniest episodes of the show. It doesn’t have the kind of emotional revelations that Community’s Cooperative Calligraphy had, but…. it’s Seinfeld. What it lacks in emotional resonance, it makes up for in “Oh my god, that has happened to me and it’s SO TRUE.”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer did a good bottle episode in the sixth season entitled Older and Far Away. There were a few scenes early in the episode that took place at the school and in the graveyard, but the majority of the episode took place in the Summers home for Buffy’s birthday. Birthday’s were never good things for Buffy – something bad always happened, and this was no exception. Thanks to a wish Dawn unintentionally made to a vengeance demon, Buffy and her friends end up trapped in the house. The episode doesn’t take place in real time, but with most of the episode taking place inside the house, it still qualifies. Being trapped in the house makes everyone a little crazy and some things are brought to light – Dawn’s shoplifting, Anya’s feelings about Willow’s addiction to magic. Season six was a dark season (which brought a fair amount of hate from fans), and this episode was no exception, delving into the way the group had fractured after Buffy’s return from the dead.
It might be a bit of a stretch to call The West Wing‘s 17 People a bottle episode, since it takes place in several different rooms. But the episode does take place on a single set, and it takes place in real time, so yes, it counts. It’s also probably my favorite episode of the series. It’s a masterful episode, one of the most intimate of the series, and the beginning of the explosion of the most important storyline of the show’s first four seasons. Toby has figured out that something is up with the Vice President’s behavior – that he’s making appearances that suggest he’ll be running for President in the next election – which leads Toby to wonder if, for some reason, Bartlet might not be running again – which leads to the President finally confessing to one of his staff that he has MS. The scenes between Toby and Bartlet are stunning and filled with tension. Neither really knows how to react to the situation. Toby’s not sure whether to be worried, upset, or outraged at being lied to, and the President isn’t sure whether or not he should be apologetic. This heavy storyline is then balanced out by two lighter ones. Several members of the staff – Josh, Donna, Sam, Ainsley, Ed, and Larry – stay late to punch up some jokes for the Correspondents Dinner, and Josh and Donna and Sam and Ainsley each have glorious shipper B-plots. Sam and Ainsley fight, adorably, over the Equal Rights Amendment, while Josh and Donna argue over their anniversary and when it actually is. Really, aside from the episodes in season 7 when they FINALLY get together, this is probably the best J/D episode. “I’m just saying, if you were in an accident, I wouldn’t stop for a beer.” “If you were in an accident, I wouldn’t stop for red lights.” Yeah, I’m saying it now… Best Bottle Episode Ever.
I have a soft spot for Christmas episodes, and when Bones was good (way back in its first season), they produced an awesome Christmas episode that was also an amazing bottle episode. When Hodgins does a messy job cutting something open or somesuch, since he’s been partaking in the Christmas party, the lab gets locked down with Brennan’s team – plus Booth – locked inside. It was still fairly early in the show’s run, and this episode was needed, I think, to really solidify the chemistry between the cast and tie the team together tightly, which was what made the show so good for its first few seasons. Also, Booth tripping as a side effect to the treatment? “It’s Christmas Eve Day! The only day that’s both a day and an eve! It’s Christmas miracle!” Amazing.
Firefly was an amazing show, and the very premise – life on the run from the Big Brother government in deep space – naturally produced a few bottle-type episodes in its half season run. The very best one – and probably my favorite episode of the series – is what is now considered the show’s final episode, Objects in Space. It takes place over the course of one night. A night during which the crew finally decides that, yes, River is some kind of goverment created psychic super assassin. Later that night, after they’ve all gone to bed, a bounty hunter climbs on board to find River, and ends up engaging Simon and River in some serious mind games. It’s a beautiful episode, where we finally get to see inside River’s head, to see things as she sees and perceives them. And we finally get to see her really become one of the crew. It actually hurts that – with the exception of the movie – we never got to see what happened to her relationship with the crew next.
Frasier is one of my all time favorite television comedies. It’s absolutely fucking brilliant. Total, all out, unabashed farce that’s so smart it’s scary. It’s like a Neil Simon play that lasted a decade. It had more than one bottle episode, but the best was definitely The Dinner Party. This episode is what Frasier did so damn well. The episode starts out with a plan, and then one thing goes wrong, and then another, and then another, and then it’s all out chaos. This one was even more hilarious and more chaotic because it was a bottle episode, taking place in real time, and it was just totally NUTS. I really miss Frasier. It was such an awesome show, and it plays just as well on rewatch as it did the first time.
Much like Firefly, the fact that the Doctor and his companions in Doctor Who were traveling in a time machine/space ship through time and space kind of lent itself to bottle-type episode. Sometime they’d on a planet somewhere, where they could explore the landscape and the villages and the whatnot. And sometimes they’d land on a space station, or someplace confined where they couldn’t really go anywhere. There really are a lot of bottle-type episodes. Most people, when talking about them, go with Midnight, which is a really good episode. But I’m going to go with something else, just to be different. I was tempted to go with The Long Game, but for some reason just the fact that it’s such a HUGE freaking space station with so many extras makes it feel not at all like a bottle episode. New Earth is a pretty good one, too. But I’m going to go with Dalek from the first season. The Doctor and Rose find themselves in a big, locked down, personal museum of alien stuff, where a mean and kind of crazy collector keeps his prized possessions – among them a Dalek, the Doctor’s greatest enemy. It’s great because for the first time we get to really, truly see the Doctor lose his cool because of his anger and fear of the Daleks, and we really get to see the Doctor’s feelings for Rose when he thinks he’s lost her. It’s a really good episode.
I do have to mention the Angel episode Spin the Bottle. It’s not one of my favorite episodes, but it is a classic and excellent example of a bottle episode. It features only the main cast and takes place entirely in the hotel. And it is pretty fun. Lorne does a spell to help Cordelia recover her memory, but it ends up just making everyone revert to their teenage selves. It’s almost comforting to see Cordy the way she was when she was on Buffy, before all that character development, and it’s just delightful to see what everyone else was like before they all met.
Deep Space 9 is my favorite of the Star Trek series. Being set on a space station there’s not as much action as there is on the other Star Trek shows. But what it lacks in action it more than makes up in some awesome and intense character relationships. In its first season the show produced a bottle episode, which was basically an interrogation by Kira of a Cardassian. The tension continues to mount slowly and brilliantly. It’s SO good.
So, there we go. My favorite bottle episodes! What are your favorites? Did I forget some that you really love? Let me know! Post some comments!