17 Amazing Bottle Episodes of TV

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A bottle episode was originally used as a tool to save money. It was always defined as an episode of a show that takes place in only one or two locations, often with limited regular cast members or as few guest and background actors as possible.

The definition of a bottle episode has expanded as television series play with form and writing.

Some shows use bottle episodes to explore their characters' psyches rather than as an inexpensive way to make an episode. Seinfeld's two examples on this list, for instance, were some of the most expensive episodes of Seinfeld ever produced because the new sets were so expensive.

In other cases, a bottle episode will take place in more than a few settings, but it will keep the characters trapped together for the plot. 

Almost every show has a bottle episode at some point, and some series are made up almost entirely of bottle episodes (Cheers, for example, takes place almost exclusively in the bar).

For some shows, bottle episodes can be some of the best of the series. For others, bottle episodes fail miserably.

Let's celebrate 17 of the best bottle episodes in television history! Be sure to let me know your favorites! 

Disclaimer: Two shows appear on this list multiple times because they mastered the concept of the bottle episode. If you know the shows, you'll understand! 

1. "Hope" - Black-ish

"Hope" - Black-ish
"Hope" is not a hilarious episode of Black-ish. The episode keeps the Johnson family in their living room and kitchen as they wait for news on a grand jury indictment in a police brutality case.

Black-ish Seaosn 2 Episode 16 explores the heavy topic of police brutality against people of color through the eyes of the black family. Dre and Rainbow struggle to explain the complex situation to their children and have deep discussions with the entire family about race in America. It's a beautiful and complicated episode with a masterful performance by Anthony Anderson.

2. "Fly" - Breaking Bad

"Fly" - Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad Season 3 Episode 10 locks Jesse and Walter in their meth lab when Walt becomes obsessed with getting rid of a fly that is contaminating his perfect product. The fly is a symbol for Walt's insecurities and guilt over the life he is leading. He has lost control over his life, and he takes it out on this fly that would not actually contaminate a deadly drug, as Jesse points out to him.

Walt unravels quickly in this bottle episode, as Jesse looks on with confusion and concern. "Fly" gives the audience various points of view throughout the episode, including the meth lab from the point of the view of the miniscule fly. It is riveting, heartbreaking, and creative. It is Breaking Bad at its very best.

3. "Cooperative Calligraphy" - Community

"Cooperative Calligraphy" - Community
Community Season 2 Episode 8 is one of the most meta bottle episodes in the history of television. The group is trapped in the study room because Annie is looking for her purple pen and believes one of her friends took it. She refuses to let them leave until the pen is found, causing them to miss Greendale's puppy parade.

Abed, Community's resident television addict, comments frequently on this being a "bottle episode." Annie requires her friends to empty their bags so she can check their belongings, and at one point, they even have to do semi-strip searches to convince her that they did not take the pen.

As they look through everyone's belongings, secrets are revealed, and their psyches begin to unravel. It is a comedic and self-referrential take on Breaking Bad's "Fly." It will probably forever be remembered as one of the greatest bottle episodes of all-time.

4. "Secrets and Lies" - ER

"Secrets and Lies" - ER
ER Season 8 Episode 16 takes the audience out of the emergency room when five of the characters are sent to sexual harassment training after Dr. Weaver witnesses them being inappropriate with a patient's belongings. Their training is delayed when the teacher is late for class.

Since the five are stuck in a room together, they begin revealing intimate details about their lives and mocking each other. "Secrets and Lies" is a welcome change-of-pace for ER and a great relationship building episode for Drs. Lewis, Carter, & Kovac and Abby.

5. "The Dinner Party" - Frasier

"The Dinner Party" - Frasier
Frasier Season 6 Episode 17 happens in real time and only in Frasier's apartment. Frasier decides he wants to throw a dinner party for a prominent couple in Seattle, and he and Niles spend the 22 minutes of the episode planning the party. They argue over who to invite and struggle to decide which date to host the party.

When one of the invitees returns their phone call and leaves a message, they accidentally leave their phone on while talking about Frasier and Niles' unconventional brotherly relationship. The two main characters start to psychologically break down as they realize they have become overly dependent on each other.

The unique phrasing and wit of the show is stronger than ever in this episode, making it an enjoyable 22 minute peek into the minds of the Crane brothers.

6. "The One Where No One's Ready" - Friends

"The One Where No One's Ready" - Friends
Friends frequently employed the bottle episode plot device to great success. Their first, "The One Where No One's Ready," has the group in Monica's apartment as they prepare for an event where Ross is speaking. Ross is stressed becuase no one is ready, except for Phoebe. Chandler and Joey are fighting over a chair, and Rachel does not want to go because Ross was being rude and condenscending to her.

Friends Season 3 Episode 2 takes place in real time, with the six friends only having 25 minutes until they have to leave. It provides the audience with some of Friends most quotable lines and is the beginning of a number of effective bottle episodes for the show.

7. "The One Where Ross Got High" - Friends

"The One Where Ross Got High" - Friends
Friends produced some of the most classic Thanksgiving episodes in the history of TV. Friends Season 6 Episode 9 is arguably its best.

This bottle episode has the group spending their holiday at Monica and Chandler's apartment, with Monica and Ross' parents coming for dinner. Her parents are unaware that Monica is dating Chandler because they do not like him, and Chandler wants to know why. Meanwhile, Rachel is tasked with making dessert, and it goes horribly wrong.

This episode is fantastic no matter what time of year. From the instantly quotable "It tastes like feet!" to the fast-paced argument where Monica and Ross spill all of their secrets to their parents, it is laugh-out-loud goodness every time you watch it. I highly recommend watching it every Thanksgiving. It is my favorite holiday tradition.

8. "The Limo" - How I Met Your Mother

"The Limo" - How I Met Your Mother
How I Met Your Mother Season 1 Episode 11 takes place in the back of a limo that Ted has rented for his friends on New Year's Eve. It is daring, and somewhat claustrophobic for the audience, to do an entire episode in such a small space, but How I Met Your Mother does it well.

It goes through the disappointment many people feel on the holiday. They miss their parties, pick up a guy they think is Moby but is definitely not, and get stood up by their dates. It is certainly not the most laugh-out-loud episode of How I Met Your Mother, but it is a bold and fun way to celebrate a holiday that is often overlooked in favor of Christmas and Thanksgiving episodes.

9. "CharDee MacDennis: The Game of Games" - It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

"CharDee MacDennis: The Game of Games" - It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Season 7 Episode 7 begins with the gang discussing how bored they are on a rainy day. This episode, though, is anything but dull. The group decides to play the game they made up called CharDee MacDennis. Charlie does not want to play because as he points out, "it's not just a game...it's a war."

Charlie loses the battle and eventually has to play this ridiculous game, complete with mind games, body challenges, and spiritual humiliation. Frank has never played before so the group must describe it to him, and thus to the audience. The whole concept is insane, but "CharDee MacDennis: The Game of Games" is 22 of the most entertaining minutes of television you will ever see.

10. "The Conversation" - Mad About You

"The Conversation" - Mad About You
Mad About You was a show about Paul and Jamie's marriage for its first five seasons. Then, they had a baby. On Mad About You Season 6 Episode 9, Paul and Jamie are using the "cry it out" method to get their baby daughter to sleep. The two are distraught over listening to her cry, but they decide it is for the best. The entire episode takes place in real time, as they have an entire 20 minute conversation standing in front of Mabel's bedroom door.

Many people do not like this episode, but I believe it is one of the most challenging and well-executed bottle episodes ever made. The episode was shot all in one long take, and the camera never really moves from its spot. There is the occasional tilt, pan, or zoom when Paul and Jamie sit down or shift, but the shot remains focused on the baby's door the entire time. It is a funny and heartwarming look at the stresses of being new parents.

11. "The Suitcase" - Mad Men

"The Suitcase" - Mad Men
In Mad Men Season 4 Episode 7, Don Draper and Peggy Olson spend Peggy's birthday together to develop an ad idea for Samsonite luggage. Only the first bit of the show involves other characters. The majority of the episode forces us to spend time with only Don and Peggy.

Don and Peggy argue, cry, and bond over this advertisement for a piece of luggage. Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss give superb performances in "The Suitcase." In fact, I would argue that this is Moss' finest acting in the entire series.

12. "Fight" - Masters of Sex

"Fight" - Masters of Sex
When Masters of Sex was good, it was really good. Masters of Sex Season 2 Episode 3 is one of the best of the series. Bill and Virginia spend the episode in the hotel room they rent so that they can carry on their affair. Bill is stressed after delivering a baby who is sexually ambiguous, and the two watch a boxing match that frames the episode.

Virginia and Bill struggle for power over one another as they talk, argue, box, and have sex. It is often compared to Mad Men's "The Suitcase," with good reason. The acting of the two main cast members is equally impressive in Masters of Sex, and the writing provides important insight into the minds of Bill and Virginia.

13. "Leslie and Ron" - Parks and Recreation

"Leslie and Ron" - Parks and Recreation
When the final season of Parks and Recreation began, Leslie and Ron were in the middle of a massive fight. The former friends had become hostile towards one another, which made their other friends and the audience uncomfortable. Parks and Recreation Season 7 Episode 4 fixes that in a delightful way.

Ron and Leslie are locked in their former Parks Department office by their friends, who will not let them out of the room until they fix their problems. Ron refuses to talk until Leslie begins doing outrageous things to annoy him.

Her passion convinces Ron to tell her the reason. The two reconcile, and by the end of the episode, they are setting up the Parks office into its old setting and doing insane things together due to sleep deprivation. It is hilarious and sweet and probably the best episode of season 7.

14. "The Chinese Restaurant" - Seinfeld

"The Chinese Restaurant" - Seinfeld
On Seinfeld Season 2 Episode 11, Jerry, Elaine, and George are not-so-patiently waiting for a table at a busy Chinese restaurant. The episode takes place in real time, and the three slowly start to lose their minds as the wait for a table threatens to make them miss their movie.

The characters of Seinfeld may be some of the worst people on the planet, but the excruciating wait to eat when you are hungry is a universal annoyance. "The Chinese Restaurant" is a relatable and hilarious look at a part of life that is incredibly mundane.

15. "The Parking Garage" - Seinfeld

"The Parking Garage" - Seinfeld
Seinfeld Season 3 Episode 6 is another fantastic bottle episode, though it is not as good as The Chinese Restaurant. In this episode, the four characters venture to a mall in New Jersey so Kramer can buy an air conditioner. While there, Elaine buys two goldfish, but the entire episode takes place as the group looks for their car in the parking garage.

This episode has some classic physical comedy from Michael Richards, but my favorite moment in the entire episode is when Jerry is complaining that they did not write down the location of their car. He exclaims that they should always carry a pad and pen with them for this, and Kramer takes a pen out of his pocket. Kramer holds it up silently, and no one else comments on it. The moment is so classically Kramer, and this episode is classic Seinfeld.

16. "17 People" - The West Wing

"17 People" - The West Wing
"17 People" is a bit of an unconventional bottle episode because it does take place throughout the White House rather than in just one or two rooms. It is still considered one, though.

Aaron Sorkin never made an episode of The West Wing under budget. The White House set was expensive enough, but the show frequently shot on location for long hours of time. Plus, there were thousands of background actors to fill the desks of the West Wing, which drove the costs up. Warner Brothers told Sorkin he needed an episode in season 2 that used as few actors as possible, with no extras, and no locations outside of the White House.

"17 People" is that episode, and it is one of Sorkin's most outstanding pieces of work. The West Wing Season 2 Episode 18 locks Toby in the Oval Office with the President and Leo as he finds out about the president's undisclosed illness. Elsewhere in the West Wing, Josh, Donna, Sam, Ainsley, Ed, and Larry are trying to come up with jokes for the Correspondents' Dinner.

This bottle episode has intense drama, comedy, sweet romance (including the most defining quote of Josh and Donna's relationship), and incredible performances, all without regular cast members Allison Janney and Stockard Channing.

17. "First Response" - Veep

"First Response" - Veep
Veep Season 2 Episode 8 keeps the characters, and the audience, in the residence of the Vice Presidence for the entire episode. Allison Janney guest stars as a television reporter interviewing Selina in her home. The plan was for the interview to be a "puff piece" for Selina. Instead, Janney's character traps Selina with "gotcha" questions, angering the VP and her staff.

Selina comments that the house feels like a jail for dolls at one point, a subtle nod to how most bottle episodes are supposed to make the characters and audience feel. "First Response" is Veep at its most awkward and comedy, with one of Anna Chlumsky's strongest performances of the series.

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