The term ‘bottle episode’ is not something that is commonly known amongst casual viewers of any series, and yet a very high percentage of people have watched one at least at some point in their lives.
You may have noticed on certain occasions that your favourite series might air an episode that involves only a few of the main cast members and be set in just one secluded location, barely moving out of the confines of that setting. That is a general example of a bottle episode, for which there are various uses and reasons behind it.
Coining of the term
Leslie Stevens, the creator and executive producer of the 1960s TV series The Outer Limits, coined the term ‘bottle show for an episode made in very little time at very little cost, attributing it to ‘pulling a genie out a bottle’.
The earliest known use of the term ‘bottle episode’ dates from 2003. Yet another colloquial comparison is to a ‘ship in a bottle’ scenario which some people claim is the true origin of the term.
Uses of a bottle episode
A bottle episode is produced cheaply and restricted in scope to use as few regular cast members, effects, and sets as possible. It is 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.
This keeps production costs down because no one needs to scout locations, build new sets, or create fancy CGI graphics of the outside of the spaceship. Bottle episodes are often a chance for a slow, characterization-filled episode before/after a big special-effects-laden action episode.
Bottle episodes often place a higher burden on the writers than a normal episode. Due to limitations in locations and cast, the writers have to lean heavily on inventive situations and dialogue to carry the show. One advantage of a bottle episode is that it comes equipped with its own reason for why the characters need to stay together and communicate, an essential part of screenwriting.
They can also be used to incorporate major current events into the flow of a long-running series, such as the episode of The West Wing following the September 11 attacks, or the episode of Chicago Fire in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seinfeld’s ‘The Chinese Restaurant’ was refused by NBC numerous times, almost causing Larry David to leave the show. The episode is viewed as a classic and said to have “[broken] new ground” for both the show and sitcoms.
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.
Community, a comedy series that regularly broke the fourth wall and has became cult phenomenon amongst fans produced a meta-example titled “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 centers 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.
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 and is considered one of the greatest bottle episodes of all time.
Breaking Bad’s ‘Fly’ makes 47 compelling and deeply moving minutes of television out of Walt and Jesse’s frustration with a pesky insect. Though the episode was borne from production budget restrictions, it remains one of the series’ highlights.