"I hate bottle episodes. They're wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance. I might as well sit in the corner with a bucket on my head."
A 'bottle episode' is designed to take up as little money as possible. The easiest way to go about this is to use only the regular cast (or even just part
of the regular cast) and set it in a single location, especially if you have a main standing set. This keeps production costs down, because no one needs to scout locations, build new sets, or create fancy CGI graphics of the outside of the spaceship. Bottle episodes are often a chance for a slow, characterization-filled episode after a big special-effects-laden action episode. Of course, all this doesn't mean the episode will
be cheap, just that it's meant
to be; like any regular episode, unforeseen complications
can cause the show to run over the scheduled budget.
Note that the term has become synonymous with "single-location" episode, even though bottle episodes can (theoretically) have as many locations as a normal episode. All that matters is that it costs less, because the money is having to pass through a "bottleneck". The Star Trek
cast and crew call this a 'ship-in-a-bottle' episode, which is where the name originated.
Typically, effects-heavy shows such as Star Trek
will hold off on the bottle episodes until near the end of a given season, saving the Big Money for mid-season cliffhangers and special guests.
Bottle episodes are known as a challenge and/or a chore, depending on the writer. Since most/all of the episode is set in a single location (sometimes even entirely in one room) with a smaller than usual cast, the dialogue (regarded as one of the harder things to write) needs to be better and tighter than in other episodes since the writer can't really do anything else with the cast. Depending on the writer and how well the premise works out, bottle episodes can range from terrible, to some of the best episodes of their shows and even their franchises.
Sometimes, writers create single-location episodes just as an exercise to see if they can
, like in the case of one of the first bottle episodes, Seinfeld
's "The Chinese Restaurant", which actually ended up costing as much as a regular episode due to the expense of the new set. In any case, this generally results in either one of the most boring episodes of a series, or one of the best. In britcoms
especially, they tend to be one of the better episodes.
Some plots lend themselves to the nature of a Bottle Episode
, such as Sinking Ship Scenario
, "Groundhog Day" Loop
, Locked in a Room
, or Episode on a Plane
. Die Hard on an X
, though limiting the episode to one location, rarely fits this trope, since the other elements of that trope often negate the budget-saving aspects of a Bottle Episode. Also, a bottle episode may or may not involve a Minimalist Cast
Almost all Clip Shows
(and, by extension, Recap Episodes
) fit this trope, despite not strictly being an actual Bottle Episode. Not to be confused with Drowning My Sorrows
, nor with sending out messages in bottles
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Anime and Manga
- The Haruhi Suzumiya episode "Someday in the Rain" takes this idea and runs with it including a long shot of Yuki reading a book motionless as language lessons and radio programs play in the background. Oddly the budget was clearly substantial and the episode has no connection to the light novels the rest of the anime is based on — implying that it may have been done either for the hell of it or as a deliberate reference to the typically conservative animation styles in anime.
- Episode four of Kamichama Karin has possibly the most Off Model art of the whole series, but the story was actually quite well-written.
- Episode 11-B "Nothing To Room" of Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt. The episode consists entirely of a single shot with no variations in camera angle or location (with some minor modifications to depict different times of day), and the majority of the episode is just the characters talking with each other about nothing in particular. Even the plot is minimal; it's basically "Panty and Stocking sit on the couch and waste an entire day." It still manages to be entertaining, though.
- In the first season of Pokémon, the episode "Pikachu's Goodbye" was thrown together during the hiatus following the "Electric Soldier Porygon" seizure incident, and was the first aired when the show returned from its hiatus. To take pressure off the animators, the only Pokemon included were Meowth and Pikachu (the latter in large numbers). The end result was arguably the first season's Crowning Moment of Heartwarming.
- One chapter of Hunter × Hunter is solely about a conversation between a blind girl and her friend, a dying king. As it's from the point of view of the blind girl, every panel is pitch black except the speech bubbles. The perspective returns to normal third-person at the end of their conversation to show that the king has died.
- "The Waiting Game" (aka Spotlight: Hoist) from Transformers: More than Meets the Eye. The issue stars four mismatched Autobots and their pet Insecticon trapped in shuttle on an uninhabited world. They cannot venture out for fear of being killed by an extremely powerful Decepticon and are unable to call for help. They wind up spending most of the issue swapping stories and getting on each others nerves.
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a bottle episode, as much as a movie can be. After Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which Development Hell and special effects turned into an extremely expensive project ($46 million, including development on the aborted Star Trek: Phase II TV series), the studio gave the next film a considerably lower budget. It resulted in what is still typically considered the best Trek film - despite costing only a quarter of what its predecessor did. Harve Bennett hired a production team with mainly TV movie experience, most of the ship footage is Stock Footage reused from the first movie, and Meyer wrote the script so that a majority of the scenes would be set on the Enterprise bridge set (which was also redressed as the Reliant bridge). The space suits worn by Terrell and Chekov as well as the uniforms worn by extras were also leftovers from the first film. Kirk and Khan also never physically meet in the film; they are always on different ships or planets. The two actors had busy schedules and working around them would have been much more expensive. Yet Khan is often cited as the greatest opponent Kirk ever faced, despite the fact that their scenes were filmed months apart from each other.
- Alfred Hitchcock liked to experiment with this format:
- Except for a shot of the ship sinking at the beginning, the entirety of Lifeboat is set on the lifeboat, the plot driven solely by the survivors' increasingly hostile bickering among each other.
- Rope begins with an Establishing Shot of the apartment building where the rest of the movie takes place. Not only does the whole story unfold in one room, the movie was edited in such a way to conceal as many cuts as possible, making it feel like the whole movie was a single shot.
- Paralleling the protagonist's voyeuristic tendencies in Rear Window, the camera in this movie never ventures more than several feet away from Jeffries's room's window. Until the climax, the camera never even leaves his room.
- The majority of the original Halloween movies take place over the course of the titular day, with brief prologues set the day before. In particular the first two—the second even picks up right where the first one ended.
Live Action TV
- Episode 4 of Psychoville features only David and his mother attempting to avoid getting caught by a police inspector in a flat in Hammersmith, London. It's an homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (with nods to Psycho and Frenzy) and mostly consists of two long continuous shots joined by a concealed edit.
- "Hawkeye" has Hawkeye confined to a Korean family's hut after having crashed his jeep and gotten a concussion. Alan Alda is the only one of the main cast to appear in the episode.
- "O.R." was shot entirely in the operating room. And since the Laugh Track wasn't used for any shot taking place in the O.R., this is the first M*A*S*H episode to omit the laugh track completely (although when M*A*S*H was shown in Britain initially the series omitted the laugh track - this is not the case nowadays).
- "A Night at Rosie's" takes place entirely at Rosie's Bar.
- "The Bus" takes place entirely on and around the title conveyance (which has broken down in the countryside behind enemy lines), and only five of the eight regular characters appear.
- LOST: between the on-location filming and narrative structure that constantly calls for new sets, it's almost impossible to have an episode filmed on just one or two standing sets. But by having each episode focus on just one or two characters, some of the actors can disappear for weeks at a time, possibly saving the producers money over the season.
- "The Constant" is one of the most widely loved episodes though only six (out of sixteen) regulars appear, with only two of them being original cast members.
- An interview mentioned that the Hydra arc of season 3 was meant to be this due to the network's concerns about the show going over budget in season 2.
- The season 6 episode Across The Sea is possibly. It features none of the regular cast whatsoever save a brief piece of archive footage from the first season, only prominently features 3 characters, 5 actors with big speaking parts (two of whom are child versions of two of the characters) and takes place entirely on the island.
- Leverage's main premise are elaborate cons, but they manage to fit a few Bottle Episodes into the format.
- The Porridge episode A Night In takes this concept to an extreme — it's 25 minutes of two men talking in a darkened room.
- Subversion: The episode "The Chinese Restaurant" took place entirely in a Chinese restaurant, in which the characters do nothing but hang around bitching about not being able to get a table and worrying about offscreen issues. The concept of an episode like that was so groundbreaking at the time that the network executives couldn't understand it, thinking that the only explanation was that production ran out of money. This wasn't the case; it was just an experiment by the writers, and "The Chinese Restaurant" became Seinfeld's Grow the Beard episode, introducing the unique plot and humor styles that made the show a hit later on.
- Other bottle episodes include "The Parking Garage", which never leaves the titular location, and its second-to-last episode which takes place over a few hours.
- In Babylon 5, the Season 4 episode "Intersections In Real Time", the main character (Sheridan) was in a cell, being psychologically tortured to make him break. It is widely regarded as the most emotionally-charged episode of all the series. It is also notable in having been done with one continuous take for each act of the show, and having only one main character (Sheridan) speak. The only other main character who appears is Delenn, who appears only as a non-speaking hallucination.
- Breaking Bad
- The season 3 episode "Fly" - with only Walt and Jesse appearing, and set almost entirely in one room, the lab. It saw Jesse and Walt chasing a fly for the full forty-something minutes. Better than it sounds, thanks to the extraordinary levels of tension present throughout, coming to a peak when Jesse is balanced precariously at the top of a ladder while at least three potentially relationship-destroying secrets are on the brink of being revealed during the course of an absolute Tear Jerker of a monologue by Walt.
- To a lesser extent "...And the Bag's in the River" in season 1 which takes place mostly in Jesse's house.
- Season 2's "4 Days Out" subverts the idea as far as cost lowering goes. It revolves around Walt and Jesse being stranded in the desert and was intended to take place entirely in the RV. But the plot ended up requiring more and more scenes outside and it eventually became one of the season's most expensive episodes.
- The season six Christmas episode of The X-Files was this; the other episodes were getting so expensive that Fox was getting antsy. Therefore, "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" takes place almost entirely in one room and has only four cast members.
- The aptly titled ReGenesis episode "Unbottled". The lab is deserted except for the main cast and the terrorists holding them captive, and the protagonists spend most of the episode locked in a storage room.
- In the Adam-12 episode "Light Duty", the whole episode takes place entirely inside the police station, as Malloy (sporting an injured wrist) and Reed man the front desk and listen to the day's action through the radio while dealing with assorted people who come in for assistance.
- The Dragnet episode "B.O.D.-DR-27" also had Friday and Gannon manning the front desk.
- Community has a lot.
- The most notable being the episode "Cooperative Calligraphy", which takes place entirely in the study room that the main characters meet for their study group. Abed and Jeff even refer to the "Bottle Episode" concept by name. (It's also the only one actually referred to as being "The Bottle Episode" by fans and crew alike.)
- Also, the second season episode "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" took place almost entirely in the study room with the group playing D&D. Like, dice-rolls-and-described-actions D&D, not elaborate-dream-sequence D&D.
- And Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts, the entire episode was shot in the anthropology room, due to the two/three expensive episodes it was between.
- Season 3 has "Remedial Chaos Theory" which takes place entirely in Troy and Abed's apartment (save for one scene in the study room at the end) that involves Jeff rolling a die to decide who has to go downstairs to let the pizza delivery man in the building and each way that it lands creates an alternate timeline.
- "The Suitcase" from Mad Men, in which Don and Peggy spend a whole night trying to come up with an idea for a suitcase commercial. It was pretty much immediately hailed as one of the show's best single episodes.
- "Just Act Normal", episode 5 of series 2 of Miranda, is set entirely in a psychiatrist's office.
- In The Monkees:
- "Monkee Mother" and "A Coffin Too Frequent" both take place entirely in the Monkees' apartment.
- There's also the episode "Fairy Tale", which takes place on a minimalist cardboard set.
- The Season 6 episode "Blackout in the Blizzard" has an abridged cast of the main characters; 2 of which spend the majority episode stuck in an elevator with a 3rd overlooking. The remaining 4 characters in the episode solve the entire crime in the standard "Jeffersonian" set...in the dark.
- The season 1 Christmas Episode had the cast quarantined at the Jeffersonian.
- In one of the few childrens' show examples, season 1 Victorious episode "Wifi in the Sky" takes place entirely on an airplane—though subverts the idea a little with webcam interaction with her friends.
- While ranging quite a bit through various Seattle locales, episode #11 "The Missing" from The Killing's first season strikes many as being a bottle episode in spirit. It features only the two main characters, with generous helpings of heretofore basically absent character development. While some dismissed the episode for venting whatever narrative urgency the main murder plotline still had going, others were grateful for a reprieve from those most frustrating elements of the show.
- The classic sitcom Barney Miller was nothing BUT bottle episodes. Every episode took place in the same squad office at the police station, which consisted of three small rooms: the main office, the holding cell, and Barney's office. That's it. Characters would come and go, but their interactions with the world outside the office were almost always implied and not shown. About once a year they would do an episode where characters actually went outside, but after a few seasons, even this was dropped. The show was never a big ratings hit but managed to last eight seasons because it was incredibly inexpensive to make. Word of God says that the whole philosophy behind Barney Miller was to make a show that resembled a classic stage play. The economic benefits were just a happy side effect.
- Most episodes of the Mexican sitcom El Chavo del ocho are this, taking place in "La Vecindad" with occasional scenes inside Dońa Florinda's or Don Ramón's apartments. There were also occasional episodes (or in some cases, single scenes) set in the school that El Chavo, Quico (before Carlos Villagrán left the show), and La Chilindrina attend. There was however, one two-part location episode where the characters are on location in Acapulco.
- The Brit Com dinnerladies. Every episode took place entirely on a single set. (The only time a character appeared elsewhere was in two short inserts of film (one a home video, one an in-universe TV show) that the other characters were watching)
- The eighth season of Scrubs had to bring down its budget, in part by setting most of its 18 episodes in the hospital, and giving each cast member (including the main character, Zach Braff's J.D.) at least two episodes off. Thus, a lot of the episodes come off a little bottle-y, but a few episodes especially so. "My Full Moon", for example, only features cast members Sarah Chalke & Donald Faison, as well as a few recurring characters, and takes place over one night on one floor of the hospital.
- Police, Camera, Action!:
- The Liver Run, which was a Very Special Episode featuring the Metropolitan Police, Eli Kernkraut, Aliza Hillel - filmed in one room, and entirely footage-based (apart from interviews with officers).
- Helicops (1995 episode) - only filmed at a police airfield in London - with the Metropolitan Police - and around Surrey (mainly Sunbury-on-Thames, Hersham and surrounding streets), but nowhere else.
- The episodes Don't Look Back In Anger (aired 13 November 1997) and Learning the Hard Way (March 1999) zig-zag this trope; the first one is almost a Clip Show with some new footage added, whilst the second one is an entire Clip Show / Recap Episode. Both are Very Special Episode episodes
- Less Lethal Weapons - set almost entirely in one room with police weaponry.
- Death Wish Drivers (which has 2 edited versions) - this episode has no Stock Footage, and does not go out "on report" with the police unlike the rest of the 2007 - 2010 series.
- The NCIS episode "Trojan Horse" mostly takes place within NCIS headquarters.
- Criminal Minds has the episode "Seven Seconds", which took place within the same shopping mall almost the entire time.
- A handful of Cold Case episodes did this, with the flashbacks that filled in the blank between when the audience meets the victim and his/her murder taking place only over a matter of hours and/or in the same location ("Blood On The Tracks", "Blackout")
- Any episode of Merlin that centres on Gaius will be that season's Bottle Episode.
- "Sand Franscisco Dreamin" takes place almost entirely inside the Manor and features a plot about the sisters' dreams coming to life. None of the lavish special effects the show normally used were required (Piper's dream was a man romancing her, Paige's was her clown doll coming to life, Phoebe's was being chased by a masked chainsaw killer and Leo's was being pregnant himself) and hardly any other cast members were used.
- "Cat House" from season 5 is another contender. The majority of the episode is Piper and Leo at a marriage counsellor where they have cast a spell to relive their memories that ends up sending Phoebe and Paige into the past to relive them. Most of the episode has clips of Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan superimposed over clips from previous episodes.
- H2O: Just Add Water has "The Siren Effect" in season 1. The episode takes place in both the Juice Cafe and Cleo's house, two regular sets on the show. None of the girls use their powers and it's the only episode of the series not to feature a mermaid transformation.
- "Sunday Best" from Boardwalk Empire, about little more than how various characters spend Easter.
- Power Rangers Samurai
- Did this with "Trickster Treat", which may have been a contractual obligation; shot well after production had wrapped and not long before Power Rangers Megaforce started shooting. The episode uses almost no original footage ( save for a couple of shots), recycling stuff from other episodes of Samurai, even recycling stuff from Samurai Sentai Shinkenger that normally would've been edited out, such as the Kuroko. It even features Mako standing in for Mia at one point, with only clever editing attempting to hide it. Only the main 6 Rangers were in this with no supporting characters.
- "Stuck on Christmas" did it as well, though it actually used original footage, mainly the Megazord cockpit and the Shiba house intertwined into a Clip Show. Also of note this episode used very little Shinkenger footage and the main unmorphed fight scene was recycled from an earlier episode. Plus none of the actors minus those for Ji, Bulk and Spike appeared in this with the ranger actors once again confined to the audio booth with Antonio mysteriously missing most likely due to the Shinkenger footage not featuring Shinken Gold.
- The Castle episode "Cuffed" takes place almost entirely in a little room where Castle and Beckett are handcuffed to each other, with a few flashbacks as they tried to remember how they'd gotten there. In the DVD commentary, writers Andrew Marlowe and Terri Miller acknowledged that they'd deliberately planned a bottle episode because they needed it to be under-budget after the last few episodes had gone over-budget.
- The episode "Still" revolves around Beckett standing on the trigger plate for a bomb while she and Castle discuss their relationship and adventures over the years interspersed with flashbacks to previous episodes.
- The vast majority of ER episodes took place over the course of one day and had the majority of its action set in the titular hospital. Several (among them the show's best known episodes—"Love's Labor Lost", "Hell & High Water", etc) even focused only on one story and one even took place in real time, with the patient's admission, treatment, and death, taking all of 45 minutes.
- Ocarina of Time: The Water Temple, as theorized here.
- The latter half of Devil May Cry 4 could also count, since you are replaying the same levels/bosses as the first half, the level structure is just reversed.
- The remakes of Final Fantasy II have included post-game bonus content in which 2 of 3 dungeons are mirror images of the levels at the end of the regular game.
- Sonic Generations resolves about Sonic and his friends being caught in a simplistic white world reliving memories of past games, using designs and concepts that were already there years before.
- Echo Chamber, the TV Tropes webseries, had an episode on Walk and Talk which was substantially shorter and simpler than a normal episode. Tropers were divided on whether its brevity was an asset or a liability, compared to the previous episode.
- KateModern tended to follow a schedule of one episode every weekday, with Bottle Episodes on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and a more special effects-heavy episode on Friday. This was sometimes subverted, either by having the bigger budget episode earlier in the week or by showing an additional, often more dramatic episode at the weekend.
- Clerks: The Animated Series:
- In one episode they made a point of keeping Dante and Randal inside the store while incredible happenings occurred just outside, with the whole purpose being to hang a lampshade on how dissimilar the series was to the original movie.
- The very second episode, "The Clipshow Wherein Dante and Randal are Locked in the Freezer and Remember Some of the Great Moments in Their Lives", was both this trope and a fake Clip Show.
- The Invader Zim episode "Zim Eats Waffles", with the exception of the first minute and about twenty seconds at the end, consisted entirely of two camera angles. May have been due to a relatively large portion of the budget allocated to the second season finale (which was never made due to the series being canceled), although that remains unclear. The commentary actually states that this was the writer's intention.
- By the same token, the episode "A Third Dad Cartoon" from Dexter's Laboratory uses a single camera angle, and consists entirely of Dad setting up a golf shot while the kids watch. Luckily, this was one of the shorts.
- The My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Look Before You Sleep" fits this trope and may have been intended to conserve the budget, since it has only three speaking parts and is set mostly inside Twilight's treehouse.
- It might be a subversion. It's rumored they originally were well into another episode which had to be scrapped, and what we got was what they made in about a third of the time they'd normally have to make an episode.
- The Ren and Stimpy DVD commentary says that "Rubber Nipple Salesmen" was a Bottle Episode. The only fully-animated scenes were Ren and Stimpy driving the truck and standing outside someone's house whenever they had to sell rubber nipples. The animation budget they had for the episode was really tight, so John K. and the good people at Spumco couldn't animate Ren and Stimpy actually getting out of the truck or driving away.
- SpongeBob SquarePants's "Gary Takes A Bath". 8-minute season 2 finale with one voice actor, only three characters (Mr. Krabs doesn't even talk) and a simple plot.
- The Sealab 2021 episode "Fusebox" consists almost entirely of one exterior shot of Sealab while the power is out.
- According to Word of God, The Venture Bros. episode "Tag Sale...You're It!" was meant to be one of these by keeping the action on the Venture compound. Then the plot of the episode called for Loads and Loads of Background Characters, and the amount of work for the animators didn't really diminish.
- The 150th Family Guy episode "Brian & Stewie", which is about Brian and Stewie coming to terms with each other while locked in a bank vault. The entire episode was free of the show's normal conventions (cutaway gags, recurring characters, burns against celebrities, flashbacks). It's basically just Seth MacFarlane Talking to Himself — no Alex Borstein playing Lois, no Seth Green as Chris, not even Mila Kunis as the Designated Monkey Meg — for 22 minutes. It's about as minimal as an episode can get.
- Adventure Time has several.
- "Marceline's Closet", where Finn and Jake spend the majority of the episode trapped in Marceline's closet.
- "Still" is also one, as evident by the fact that Finn and Jake are frozen the entire episode. One of the workers on the show even called it a Bottle Episode.
- The Fairly OddParents had "Lights Out", following action mostly by sound-effects and following the characters By the Lights of Their Eyes.
- Littlest Pet Shop (2012) has at least two such episodes, though in different senses:
- "Frenemies" is set almost entirely in the day camp room, with a handful of short scenes in Blythe's room and at the storefront. Nevertheless, the episode is indoors from beginning to end, and only the main characters are present.
- "Eight Arms to Hold You" shows a lot of locations, more so than most other episodes, but only six characters have screentime longer than five seconds. These six are also the only characters in the episode with speaking roles and thus half of the voice actors for this show sat this episode out. To save on animation, a power outage means a few scenes are also set in total darkness.