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!
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.