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How the Bottle Episode Went From Frugal to Flex

Paring down a cast and limiting a TV installment to one location used to be a challenge initiated by budgets—now it’s one thrown down by the creators themselves

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As we approach the 10th anniversary of Mad Men’s “The Suitcase” on Saturday, join us in celebrating the highs and lows of one of television’s greatest exercises/flexes/budget-saving tricks: the bottle episode.

According to Merriam-Webster—you’re damn right I’m doing this—the term “bottle episode” has been in use only since around 2003. The form it describes, however, began as a fix to problems as old as television itself: finite budgets, lengthy episode orders, the need to generate new and inventive stories to fill said orders. But over the years, television itself has changed. Budgets, in extreme cases, can be comparable to those of feature films; seasons, borrowing from the British model, can be as short as eight or even six episodes long; stories are still hard, but showrunners are often given more resources and less pressure to execute their visions.

Consequently, the nature of the bottle episode has changed. What was once an unglamorous cost-saving measure is now an opportunity for series to flex their financial and creative muscles. In half a century, the bottle episode has gone from a byproduct of TV’s shoestring production practices to a distilled example of its cultural resurgence. The history of the bottle episode, aptly enough, works as a history of television writ large.

Zooming out: What is a bottle episode? The term is both a piece of jargon and a disputed one, making it doubly opaque to casual viewers. In its most classical sense, a bottle episode is a chapter of TV that uses only regular cast members and preexisting locations, though typically just one. The reasons for the bottle episode’s existence are almost entirely practical; with no guest-star fees or need to construct new sets, a bottle keeps costs to a minimum while still producing more content. But like many developments in TV, the structural constraints of the bottle gave rise to artistic innovation. There’s not much to do with the same people and places as usual except have characters talk to each other in a room—and “people talking in rooms” is at once immensely difficult to get right and a description of some of the most riveting scenes ever filmed.

Bottle episodes were initially known as “bottle shows,” a term attributed to ’60s-era producer Leslie Stevens, then of the Twilight Zone–esque science-fiction anthology The Outer Limits. Stevens penned the episode “Controlled Experiment,” in which two Martians investigate a murder on Earth using a device that allows them to observe and replay past events. “Controlled Experiment” took just four and a half shooting days and cost $100,000, a result Stevens likened to “pulling the episode right out of the bottle like a genie.” (In reality, Stevens banged out the script on a single cross-country flight, a similarly supernatural feat.)

“Controlled Experiment” isn’t remembered as an all-time episode of television, but the technique it pioneered was soon applied to more enduring effect. In “Two’s a Crowd,” Normal Lear’s seminal All in the Family boiled itself down to just cantankerous patriarch Archie Bunker and his liberal son-in-law Mike, locked in the storeroom of a bar and forced to talk out their differences. (Having appeared in both of these episodes of TV, 14 years apart, Carroll O’Connor is basically the godfather of the bottle episode.) In “The Chinese Restaurant,” Seinfeld’s gang of misanthropes wait in almost real time for a dinner table, wasting the half-hour in predictably petty ways. (For all the bottle episode’s network-friendly penny pinching, it took Larry David threatening to quit over the episode for NBC to agree to air it.) In “The One Where No One’s Ready,” the Friends never leave their dubiously spacious West Village abode, a setup so successful the producers recycled it several times over the show’s 10-season run.

In the prestige era, however, the bottle episode has expanded to accommodate stories that contain themselves only in a narrative sense, without sparing any expense—or episodes that fit the definition in letter, though arguably not in spirit. Game of Thrones’ “Blackwater,” for example, is far more compact than most chapters of the map-skipping fantasy epic, concentrating on a single night in the capital city of King’s Landing. But it’s also a battle episode with spectacular explosions and crowded, noisy fight scenes. Far from paring down Game of Thrones, “Blackwater” threw down the gauntlet, setting a precedent for future showdowns like “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards.” Breaking Bad’s “Fly,” meanwhile, locks Walter and Jesse in a lab, an Archie Bunker and Mike for the meth wars of the American Southwest. But Rian Johnson’s camerawork makes the episode as visually arresting as any of its desert vistas. Breaking Bad’s bottle wasn’t a necessity; the challenge was self-imposed.

And in the context of animated shows, the concept of the bottle episode gets stretched to the point of absurdity. With no physical actors to film or locations to shoot, there isn’t a material benefit to squeezing the entire cast into a broken elevator, as Archer did with “Vision Quest.” It’s a purely comic enterprise with highly entertaining results. In “Free Churro,” a widely celebrated episode of BoJack Horseman, the effect of having the title character monologue uninterrupted is more emotional than playful. (BoJack thinks he’s giving his mother’s eulogy; in the episode’s final gag, he realizes he’s at the wrong funeral.) Will Arnett is the sole speaking voice in “Free Churro”—not because the rest of the cast wasn’t available, but because it serves the story of BoJack reckoning with his trauma. And in “Rixty Minutes,” the namesakes of Rick and Morty technically never leave the house. They’re just treated to psychedelic imagery through the interdimensional cable box in their living room.

The Shield producer Scott Brazil once described the bottle episode as the “sad little stepchild” of conventional TV production. That may once have been true, but as TV itself has become more accepted as a site of artistic ambition, the bottle episode has become a place for that ambition to be realized, not a corner to cut. Bottle episodes were once a way to make up for going over budget elsewhere in the season; these days, they’re one of the places where expense is not to be spared. Think of the makeup and prosthetics that transform Donald Glover into Teddy Perkins, or The Leftovers turning into a full-blown espionage thriller for an hour in “International Assassin.”

The most traditional strain of bottle episode survives, in modified form. You’ll find it most often on network sitcoms—not where the medium technically began, but certainly where it hit its stride. Black-ish’s “Hope” is a many-sided political debate staged in a Sherman Oaks living room, as befits a show inspired by All in the Family creator Norman Lear. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s “The Box” is an extended riff on the police interrogation, itself an old-school template given new life by a silly experiment. The difference is that the bottle episode is now expansive enough a category to encompass both “The Box” and something like “Pine Barrens,” the famous Sopranos hour that takes place entirely outside the show’s typical North Jersey environs. In some ways, “Pine Barrens” is the exact opposite of what a bottle episode is supposed to be. In others, it’s the epitome of what the bottle episode has become, a moonshot that countless showrunners have tried to mimic in the nearly two decades since that episode aired. Even as the bottle episode is more central to TV than ever, its definition has also never been hazier. Like a different kind of omnipresent entertainment, you just know it when you see it.