How's your quarantine going? COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, has us cooped up in our homes, wearing PJs all day and eating mac and cheese for breakfast. No? Just me? Huh. Anyway, I thought now might be the perfect time to explore the "bottle episode," that television tradition in which episodes take place in only one location with the characters trapped there for one reason or another.
Although the bottle episode was originally probably designed to save the production company some money, it's become an art form all its own. Some of the best episodes in television history happen while the characters are stuck in one place, just like we are now.
Let's face it: "bottle episode" sounds better than "mandatory quarantine."
If you think of your coronavirus quarantine as your very own bottle episode, that might make this whole thing a little more bearable. And who knows, maybe you'll win a (self-appointed) Emmy at the end of this whole thing.
In case you need a little inspiration for your own real-life bottle episode, here are the best that TV has to offer.
'Community' – "Cooperative Calligraphy"
As someone who loves my writing utensils, I related hard to the premise Community's classic bottle episode, "Cooperative Calligraphy." Annie loses her pen and decides that no one will leave the study room until she finds it.
What starts as a simple premise quickly devolves into madness, plus it's complete with Abed's self-conscious references to bottle episodes. In true Community form, "Cooperative Calligraphy" is really a bottle episode about bottle episodes.
'Friends' – "The One Where No One's Ready"
There are a lot of frustrating Friends episodes, but "The One Where No One's Ready" might just take the cake. In it, Ross is trying to get everybody else ready to leave for an important event. He's in a tux, ready to go, and one by one, the rest of the crew ruin their chances to make it on time. Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, and especially Joey are all in rare form in this episode.
But it also illustrates each of their characters pretty completely. If you are even a fare weather Friends fan, this is one you'll want to watch.
'Seinfeld' – "The Chinese Restaurant"
"The Chinese Restaurant" was a defining episode for Seinfeld. The episode, in which Jerry, George, and Elaine wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant, was, according to Mental Floss, rejected by NBC executives at first because they believed that "the audience would be bored by the lack of storyline." Little did they know that lack of storylines would be exactly what the show became known for.
The story goes that Larry David threatened to quit if they wouldn't air the episode as he wrote it. He knew what he was doing. Eventually, the execs gave in, and it became one of the most iconic episodes in a show full of iconic episodes.
'Parks and Recreation' – "Leslie and Ron"
We pretty much watch Parks and Recreation on repeat in my household, and I always bristle at the beginning of the last season, when Leslie and Ron aren't friends anymore. But three episodes in, the tension finally comes to a head and then breaks in a bottle episode appropriately titled, "Leslie and Ron."
In it, the gang traps Leslie and Ron in the parks department office until they can get over their beef. These two start out at a stalemate and by the end of the episode, well, you see the picture. It's just the best to watch one of the best TV friendships of all time repair itself over one episode.
'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' – "Chardee MacDennis"
It's Always Sunny often pairs off the gang for its episodes, but in "Chardee MacDennis," they're all in the same place...and pitted against each other in a homemade board game. In a world of total insanity, "Chardee MacDennis" stands out as even more bonkers than the standard Sunny episode.
We're talking hands being impaled by darts, Frank in a dog crate, and a totally nonsensical game that's impossibly to hollow. It's hilarious, a standout episode in a show that's been on the air for 14 seasons now.
'Broad City' – "Hurricane Wanda"
Broad City has a lot of inventive episodes, but none are as contained and full of feces as "Hurricane Wanda." The conceit is fairly simple. Abbi, Ilana, and their friends are bunkered in an apartment during a scary storm. They play drinking games, truth or dare, and more, but it officially goes off the rails when Abbi, well, does her business, and it won't flush.
She enlists Ilana to help get rid of the evidence, but of course, things go wrong. The best part of the episode comes at the end, where it rewinds and we see exactly how the night played out in the background. Sure, the episode might be about hiding a poop, but that doesn't mean it isn't one of the funniest, cleverest bottle episodes on TV.
'Star Trek' – "The Enemy Within"
Star Trek might be responsible for the invention of the bottle episode, so the show had to be included on the list. According to Film School Rejects, the cast and crew used to refer to episodes that took place completely on the ship as "ship-in-a-bottle episodes."
In "The Enemy Within," Captain Kirk battles his own evil doppelganger, and any episode of television that has two William Shatners in it deserves to be in the TV Hall of Fame.
'Atlanta' – "Teddy Perkins"
"Teddy Perkins" is not only a defining bottle episode for Atlanta, but it's also one of the creepiest episodes of television in the history of the medium. Atlanta is one of the most groundbreaking shows out there. In this episode, Darius goes to a mansion to pick up a piano and ends up face-to-face with Teddy Perkins (Donald Glover in horrifying makeup), a ghostly figure with disturbing stories.
"Teddy Perkins" is like a dream... a really terrifying dream.
'Frasier' – "Dinner Party"
Not only does "Dinner Party" take place completely in one place, but it also transpires in real time as Frasier and Niles try to plan a dinner party. Needless to say, things don't quite go smoothly. They try to schedule the night and construct an ideal guest list, but they somehow end up with a group of weirdos to entertain for the night.
It's a delicately written and performed episode that clearly illustrates the waking nightmare that is being an adult who's trying to have a social life.
'The West Wing' – "17 People"
Folks, The West Wing is so good. And "17 People" is one of the best episodes of the show. There is an entire (very impressive and well-designed) website dedicated to it. Let me be clear. This whole website isn't just about The West Wing but about this specific episode of the show.
Jon White, the author of the website, says it best: "In words said and unsaid, a lot happens in this hour, though it never feels rushed. It just unfolds, convincingly, over the course of one late evening. It is, simultaneously: a story of intrigue, of persuasion, of drama, of comedy, and of romance."
'Mad Men' – "The Suitcase"
Not only is "The Suitcase" a great piece of TV, it's also one of the best Don and Peggy episodes of all of Mad Men. In this episode, it's Peggy's birthday, and she's about to leave work to meet her boyfriend for dinner. Don is the only one left in the office, and it soon becomes clear that she's going to be trapped with him for the night.
But it becomes so much more than that. Don and Peggy learn all about each other that night. "The Suitcase" solidified their relationship and also proved that Mad Men is one of the most carefully constructed shows of all time.
'Master of None' – "Mornings"
Putting the controversy about Aziz Ansari aside, there's no denying that Master of None was a feat, and the bottle episode "Mornings" was no small part of that. The episode takes place in one apartment, but it spans years of a relationship, showing us all the ups and downs that couple Dev and Rachel experience.
According to Film School Rejects, part of the success of the episode came from the improv that Aziz and Noel Wells did on set. Their chemistry is adorable and undeniable, not to mention integral to the emotion the episode evokes.
'Breaking Bad' – "Fly"
You know Rian Johnson? The director of The Last Jedi and Looper and Knives Out and more? Yeah, well, he directed this bottle episode of Breaking Bad, which is probably why it makes pretty much every list of iconic TV bottle episodes. "Fly" is 47 minutes of Walt and Jesse being annoyed by a fly. But at the same time, it's so much more.
According to Film School Rejects, the idea of the episode was actually born out of a need to restrict the production budget. But sometimes, tight boundaries is just what one needs to create their best work.
'Community' – "Remedial Chaos Theory"
Yes, I put two Community bottle episodes on this list, and no, I'm not sorry about it. This episode might take place in one apartment, but it also takes place in six different timelines, including the darkest one. It all starts when Jeff roles a six-sided die to decide who will go pick up pizza.
His roll creates six parallel realities. So much happens in this 21-minute piece of television; I truly don't know how they did it. It's complex but also hilarious but also sweet and wonderful. Basically, it's a blueprint for what makes Community so beloved.
'Mad About You' – "The Conversation"
Mad About You gets forgotten about, but this Paul Reiser / Helen Hunt sitcom was once a staple of primetime television. And "The Conversation" brings a totally unique, very interesting approach to a bottle episode.
For this entire episode, the camera doesn't move. It's on the floor of the couple's apartment in one position the entire time, no matter if the actors are on screen or not. The camera focuses on their baby Mabel's bedroom as they try to let her cry herself to sleep. The whole episode happens in and around that one shot.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this revolutionary episode of television is that they filmed it in one take, and they broadcast it uninterrupted (without commercials) to preserve the effect. Take that, 1917!