What Is a Bottle Episode? (Definition and Examples)

What is a Bottle Episode (Definition and Examples)
'Community'Credit: NBC
The bottle episode is one of TV's great delights. 

Television is such a fun medium. The ability to tell ongoing stories allows writers to be unique, daring, and fresh. They can play with story tropes like having two dates to the dance, or they can forge ahead on unique ideas. 

Eventually, no matter what, almost every TV show has a bottle episode. At this point, they're really exciting for writers to tackle, and many shows find new and inventive ways to do them. 

Today, we'll define "bottle episode" for you, take you through some of the best episode examples, and let you in on all the info we can, so you can impress your friends the next time you're wall watching a show. 

Looks like we're stuck together for a bit, so let's hash this out.  

What Is a Bottle Episode (Definition and Examples)

Like I mentioned in the opening, bottle episodes occur in all sorts of TV series. They cross comedy, genre, and prestige shows. At some point, the topic of writing one is brought up, either by executives on the show or in the room. 

So what does "bottle episode" mean? 

Bottle Episode Meaning and Definition 

A bottle episode is an episode of television that is produced for a limited amount of money and with limited sets, characters, and locations. It usually involves all the primary cast members, with limited storylines as well.

Bottle episodes are driven by dialogue and usually have people trying to deal with situations in real-time. They are cheap and don't require a ton of prep or work in post (like VFX). 

Why Write Inside a Bottle? 

Sometimes they occur because a previous episode was scrapped and the writers are on a time constraint. Other times, the show needs to save on budget, so writers plan for a bottle episode to keep the cash for a more expensive outing down the line. 

Outside of both those reasons, sometimes people just enjoy writing them. They are great changes of pace that can challenge a room to think outside the box and distill character and their relationships down to the basics.

The limited setting and cast allow for a slower pace and deeper exploration of character traits and motives. 

Where did the term come from? 

The original term was "bottle show." It came from Leslie Stevens, creator and executive producer of The Outer Limits.

He saw it as a form of magic to make a show episode that cost almost nothing and needed little prep, "as in pulling an episode right out of a bottle like a genie."

The Best Bottle Episode Examples 

I find that the best way to learn about these things is to look at several examples of popular episodes to see what goes on in each of them.

I tried to pull an array of shows that prove many different reasons for these special episodes and show how much fun they can be. 

Seinfeld Bottle Episode 

Perhaps the most famous bottle show of all time is Seinfeld's "Chinese Restaurant" episode.

As the legend goes, NBC actually thought it was a bad idea, and Larry David threatened to quit over them not greenlighting it. Obviously, it became a classic. The show's premise is that the gang is headed to the movies but stops off to eat first. The entire episode is spent waiting for a table at the Chinese restaurant. 

Community Bottle Episode 

Community is a show that plays on the tropes of other sitcoms. "Cooperative Calligraphy" is the eighth episode of the second season and features the cast in the study lounge.

A pen is lost, and they decide to stay in the room until the thief is found. This escalates over the course of the episode as more and more ridiculous things are introduced, including a guys-versus-girls standoff. Most importantly, they never leave the room. 

Breaking Bad Bottle Episode

Maybe the second in line for "famous bottle episodes" is season 3, episode 10 of Breaking Bad. It's called "The Fly" and features Walt and Jesse working to make meth in their underground lab. Of course, they get distracted when a fly enters the laboratory, and they have to kill it.

This episode helped deepen the relationship between Walt and Jesse, and shows them confronting each other with pent-up issues they've had over the series. 

Series creator Vince Gilligan has referred to this as a bottle episode. He told the AV Club, "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." 

Friends Bottle Episodes

One of the benefits of having a long-running show is that you can do multiple bottle episodes, not just as a gimmick but as a way to save money over the course of a long season. These were especially favorable for shows that cranked out 22-24 episodes a year. They needed time to catch up or needed to fill the gaps when networks threw scripts away. 

Check out this list of Friends bottle episodes over the course of the series' run. 

Season 3

Season 5

Season 6

Season 7

Season 8

Season 9

Brooklyn 99 Bottle Episode 

"The Box" is Brooklyn 99's season 5 episode 14 excursion into the interrogation room. Jake and Holt spend the night interrogating Phillip Davidson, a dentist who is accused of being the prime suspect behind his partner's death.

The interrogation turns out to be more difficult than expected when Davidson manages to have excuses for everything. Seeing the cast dealing with the dentist's issues while confronting their own insecurities at their jobs provided for a lot of comedy, and allowed them to riff on interrogation tropes as well as the bottle. 

The one-off episode also allowed them to write a juicy cameo role as the dentist, who was portrayed by Sterling K. Brown. Brown received an Emmy nomination for this performance. 

Supergirl: The Bottle Episode 

Sometimes, writers like to acknowledge the idea of a bottle without ever intending to use it. Season 5, episode 10 of Supergirl brought us an episode entitled "The Bottle Episode." This was not an actual bottle episode, but a play on words, given that the joke was Brainiac's head was in a bottle.

This inside baseball title is fun, and I knew we had to mention it here. 

Summing Up What a Bottle Episode Is

As I stated in the beginning, I think these kinds of episodes are the distillation of everything that's fun and exciting about television. They force writers to think outside the box and force characters to confront themselves over the course of the story. The practical uses are tangible, but the bottle episode gets viewers excited as well. 

When you're stuck in one place, sometimes it still seems like anything can happen. I love how creative these shows usually are and how many networks, cable, and streaming shows try them out today.

Have you tried? What are some of your favorite bottle episodes? Let us know in the comments.      

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