In episodic television, a bottle episode is produced cheaply and restricted in scope to use as few non-regular cast members, effects, and sets as possible.
Bottle episodes are usually shot on sets built for other episodes, frequently the main interior sets for a series, and consist largely of dialogue and scenes for which no special preparations are needed.
They are commonly used when one script has fallen through and another has to be written at short notice, or because of budgetary constraints.
Bottle episodes have also been used for dramatic effect, with the limited setting and cast allowing for a slower pace and deeper exploration of character traits and motives.
The term ‘bottle show’ was coined by Leslie Stevens, creator and executive producer of 1960’s TV series The Outer Limits, for an episode made in very little time at very little cost, “as in pulling an episode right out of a bottle like a genie”.
The earliest known use of “bottle episode” is 2003.
Bottle episodes are sometimes produced when a show has a mid-season cliffhanger or an expensive season opener/closer, to allow as much of the budget as possible to go to the more expensive episodes.
Scott Brazil, executive producer/director of The Shield, described bottle episodes as “the sad little stepchild whose allowance is docked in order to buy big brother a new pair of sneaks”.
Examples of Bottle Episodes
Seinfeld’s ‘The Chinese Restaurant’ was reportedly refused by NBC numerous times, almost causing Larry David to leave the show. The episode, the only pure Seinfeld bottle episode, is viewed as a classic and “broke new ground” for both the show and sitcoms.
The third season premiere of The West Wing was delayed by the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US. When the season did return, the first episode was a bottle episode titled ‘Isaac and Ishmael’, in which the main cast paid tribute to those affected by the attacks and informed viewers about what to expect from the delayed premiere. Set almost entirely in the White House Mess Hall, the main characters explore the motivations and nuances of terrorism.
The popularity of the Friends bottle episode ‘The One Where No One’s Ready’ led the producers to create at least one bottle episode in each season.
The bottle episode on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, ‘The Box’, is rated as one of the best by its viewers. It is currently (August 2020) the joint highest-rated episode of the series (9.5/10) on IMDB.
Several early episodes of The X-Files were conceived as bottle episodes, including ‘Space’, ‘Darkness Falls’, and the well-received ‘Ice’, although these ran over budget.
Bottle episodes from Star Trek: The Original Series (Star Trek: TOS) are known for occasionally becoming popular with fans. Examples include ‘Charlie X‘, ‘Journey to Babel‘, ‘The Changeling‘, ‘Elaan of Troyius‘, and ‘Is There in Truth No Beauty?‘. The phenomenon has persisted to a lesser extent in later incarnations, with ‘Duet‘ (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) being celebrated by Startrek.com and Amazon.com – among other sources – as “[a]rguably one of the best episodes of Deep Space Nine and a jewel in the entire Trek canon”.
The third story of Doctor Who, The Edge of Destruction, was a bottle episode created in different circumstances from most. The series had been picked up for thirteen episodes by the BBC, and the previous two stories had contained eleven episodes between them; hence, a two-part story was needed. It only featured the main cast of four. Doctor Who has also had occasional bottle episodes since then, most notably ‘Midnight’, which, apart from bookend scenes at a holiday resort, is set entirely on a shuttle bus, with a monster depicted only via sound effects and the acting of the guest cast.
The third-season episode ‘Fly’ of Breaking Bad features only two members of the main cast (plus a few extras) and takes place almost exclusively in the secret laboratory used to cook crystal methamphetamine. Although widely acclaimed by critics, this episode was the lowest rated episode of the entire series. Series creator Vince Gilligan has referred to this as a bottle episode, noting that the limited setting and cast allowed for a slower pace and deeper exploration of character traits and motives:
“Even if financial realities didn’t enter into it, I feel as a showrunner that there should be a certain shape and pace to each season, and the really high highs that you try to get to at the end of a season – the big dramatic moments of action and violence, the big operatic moments you’re striving for – I don’t think would land as hard if you didn’t have the moments of quiet that came before them. The quiet episodes make the tenser, more dramatic episodes pop even more than they usually would just by their contrast.”
Archer’s Season 6, Episode 5, ‘Vision Quest’, features seven of the eight major cast members stuck in an elevator in real time.
The comedy-drama series Leverage had three bottle episodes. ‘The Bottle Job’ (season 2, episode 11) uses only three locations: Nathan Ford’s (Timothy Hutton) apartment; McRory’s, the bar it sits over; and the bar’s backroom. It also alludes to the concept by forcing the Leverage team to execute a late betting or ‘wire’ con, which normally takes days or weeks just to set up, in only an hour and a half; Ford explicitly calls it “the wire in a bottle”. (Ford, a recovering alcoholic, also reverts to drinking as part of the con; ‘hitting the bottle’ is an expression for heavy drinking.) ‘The Cross My Heart Job’ (season 4, episode 9) sees the team confined to an airport with no equipment or other resources, fighting to stop a transplant heart from going to a terminally ill defence contractor who has had it stolen from its intended recipient. And finally, ‘The Broken Wing Job’ (season 5, episode 8) has Parker (Beth Riesgraf) working to foil a kidnapping while stuck at home with a broken leg, while the rest of the team is on a job in Japan.
A meta-example is Community’s Season 2, Episode 8, ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’. After the opening, characters Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) and Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) both refer to the situation as a bottle episode. The entire episode is set inside a study room of the college with only the main cast. Its plot centres around the pen of the character Annie Edison (Alison Brie) going missing as she refuses to let anyone else leave the study room until they come forward with it.
Another meta-example is Teen Titans Go!’s Season 3, Episode 29, ‘Bottle Episode’. Its plot centres around the main characters being trapped in a literal glass bottle, and passing the time by reminiscing about previous episodes (making it also a clip show). The episode breaks the fourth wall multiple times with dialogue referencing the expense of television production, giving production staff a break, and the need to fill episodes that fall through.
The adult-animated sci-fi sitcom Rick and Morty has a bottle episode called ‘Rixty Minutes’. In it, the Smith family alternates between watching the lives of alternative versions of themselves on special goggles and commercials on the TV, the latter being entirely improvised sketches by co-creator Justin Roiland.
The anime series Hyouka has a bottle episode titled ‘Anyone Who Knows’. In it, Hōtarō challenges Eru to come up with a random mystery to prove that a theory can be created out of anything. The entire episode is set in a school classroom and focuses on the two main characters.
The episodes ‘My Coffee With Niles’ and ‘Dinner Party’ of the sitcom Frasier are notable bottle episodes, each taking place entirely on a single set (the fictional coffee shop Cafe Nervosa, and Frasier’s apartment, respectively) and featuring minimal or no guest actors.
The episode ‘Train Station’ of the BBC mockumentary This Country is a bottle episode almost entirely set on a bench on a railway station platform. It features the two main characters, Kerry and Kurtan, bickering as they await the return of their friend the Vicar from a week away in Bristol.
The Peep Show episode ‘Nether Zone’ (series 7, episode 4) takes place almost entirely inside a block of flats, as Mark and Jez are locked inside, unable to get to Mark’s baby’s christening.
In the seventh season of the American comedy television series Parks and Recreation titled ‘Leslie and Ron’, the Parks & Recreation gang finds Leslie and Ron’s rivalry cumbersome and locks them in a room together to hash things out.
The BoJack Horseman episode ‘Free Churro’ features the title character giving a monologue in front of a static background for 20 minutes of the episode’s 26-minute runtime. The entire episode was voiced by a single voice-actor.