There is a point where the financial needs of television collide with the artistic desire to tell interesting stories, and some episodes will be relegated to just one room or a pre-existing set in order to cut costs. This should be a recipe for tedious dialogue and awkward attempts at making excuses for being stuck in one place. (In the words of Community’s Abed, “I hate bottle episodes. They’re wall-to-wall facial expression and emotional nuance. I might as well sit in the corner with a bucket on my head.”) However, often times these episodes get to the very heart of the characters and allow nuanced epiphanies of the relationships that draw people back every week.
These are called “bottle episodes” and in a new installment of its “Secret History of Television,” Vulture examines the history of the phrase (thanks, Star Trek!), some contemporary examples, and what is accomplished by the best of bottle episodes. Sure, there’s a glossing over of lesser fare (basically any time characters have been stuck in an elevator—excluding Archer, of course) or the bottle episode’s annoying nostalgic cousin, the clip show. But by examining how bottle episodes reveal new depths when characters are forced into tight proximity, Vulture is able to shine a light on what was once a cost-cutting measure and has since become a chance for writing and acting to shine to critical acclaim. This means a review of shows like Mad Men, Homicide: Life On The Street, The West Wing, Breaking Bad, Star Trek, and Community. Sadly, The Middleman’s excellent bottle episode, “The Clotharian Contamination Protocol,” is not used, but it appears that even time and listmakers have forgotten that excellent TV series.