Sometimes you want to go on a little side adventure to a single location.
The concept of a bottle episode is simple: a single set of characters in a single space for an entire episode. The format was originally used to keep costs low in between more expensive episodes. But the bottle episode has evolved from a money-saving workaround to a creatively liberating setup. Many series’ best — and most divisive — episodes take place within a bottle. Drama or comedy, sci-fi or romance, every show can mine bottled situations for brilliance. Without further ado, here are the 20 best television bottle episodes of all time:
20. “Dinner Party,” Frasier
“Dinner Party” feels more like a work of farcical theatre than an episode of television. Not only does it take place in one room, but it transpires in real time as Frasier and Niles attempt to plan a dinner party. It depicts with depressing accuracy the anguish of adulthood – namely, the logistical nightmare that is trying to have a social life. For 22 minutes, the brothers thumb through planners, schedule and reschedule their evening, and struggle to assemble a guest list. The Venn diagram of desirable guests and available guests turns out to has little overlap, and their intime soiree ends up to be an ill-attended and poorly catered gathering of undesirables.
It’s almost disturbing how precisely “Dinner Party” captures the hard labor required to have friends as an adult. The episode is well-written and well-acted, surely, but its thematic content is what really makes it stand out as a special bottle episode. The entire 22 minutes, I couldn’t stop thinking about John Mulaney’s take on the perils of social planning: “I want to write songs for people in their 30s called ‘Tonight’s No Good. How About Wednesday? Oh, You’re in Dallas Wednesday? Let’s Not See Each Other for Eight Months and It Doesn’t Matter at All.’”
19. “The One Where No One’s Ready,” Friends
I never much cared for Ross. But throughout the episode “The One Where No One’s Ready,” I really do feel his pain. Watching him struggle to rally his friends to get ready and get going to an important event struck a nerve with me; punctuality, it would seem for Ross and me, is a blessing as a curse. It brings with it the satisfaction of knowing you’ll never be fired for being late and no one will ever complain about your tardiness behind your back. But it brings with it the agonizing pain that is attending events with decidedly unpunctual loved ones.
But besides its profoundly personal relatability, “The One Where No One’s Ready” also captures in its bottle the essence of why Friends worked: the piquant chemistry between all six Friends. They’re sometimes rivals, sometimes bedfellows, but always steadfast companions. In real time, we watch their brand of zany friendship unfold, as frustrations bubble, anxieties heighten, and resolution is reached. The episode so thoroughly encapsulates the core of Friends, that Jay-Z recreated its opening scene in his music video for “Moonlight” (with a stellar cast to boot).
18. “Vision Quest,” Archer
Boy oh boy do Archer, Lana, and the rest of the employees at ISIS hate each other. That’s why it’s no surprise that being briefly trapped in an elevator can quickly devolve into a scene out of “Lord of the Flies.” In real time, Archer’s central characters experience the full spectrum of human emotion. With little in the way of plot, the characters bear the entirety of the comedic burden. But through simple conversation unaided by flashbacks or cutaways, their pure chemistry – or rather, their lack thereof – provides ample raw material for maximum humor.
Within 20 minutes, each elevator rider reverts to their truest and rawest selves, tossing rules of civility to the wayside to poorly handle their mild emergency. By the episode’s end, Archer’s fired his gun, Pam’s poorly peed in a bottle, Cyril is masturbating. Has this all been an elaborate team building exercise? It’s not exactly clear. What is clear is that this bottle episode is a testament to Archer’s biggest asset: its characters. Despite its flashy spy missions, exciting action sequences, and aesthetically pleasing animation, the lovably dysfunctional colleagues at the heart of the series are the real reason to watch.
17. “Pine Barrens,” The Sopranos
Many critics have declared “Pine Barrens” to be the best episode of The Sopranos, and it’s not hard to see why. I’ve never been a bit Sopranos fan, but “Pine Barrens” – directed by Steve Buscemi – is a technical and narrative feat that is undoubtedly impressive. The plot is simple: Chris and Paulie are “just two assholes lost in the woods.” When a hit on a Russian mobster goes south, Chris and Paulie end up stranded in the snowy woods, disoriented and freezing. In all the commotion, Paulie loses a shoe.
Some see the episode as an extended allusion to Beckett’s Waiting for Gadot, others see a nihilistic depiction of the universe’s indifference to our suffering. But above all, “Pine Barrens” is a great character study. Paulie, for example, spends the beginning of the episode getting a manicure, requesting the “satin finish.” By the end, he is shoeless and undone, slurping up sauce packets for sustenance and accepting death in a freezing car. For the first time, he understands he is not invincible. As we throw these two hyperaggressive mobsters into direct opposition, the explosive tension and high stakes make for excellent characterization. By the episode’s end, we understand them and they understand each other better than before.
16. “Leslie and Ron,” Parks & Recreation
In its seventh season, Parks and Recreation jumps ahead three years into the future. A lot has changed: Andy has his own TV show, Tom’s Bistro has taken off, and holograms have become commonplace. But most jarringly, Ron and Leslie’s friendship has fractured – for reasons unexplained. For three long episodes, their rancorous feud drags on, until “Leslie and Ron” blesses us with sweet, sweet backstory and, ultimately, resolution. Trapped together in the parks department office by their friends and coworkers, Leslie and Ron are forced to see their disagreement from opposite sides. After Leslie employs some torturous tactics to get Ron to start talking towards resolution, including a heinously funny rendition of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Ron divulges a secret that unlocks their feud. This secret – one that thoroughly captures the ache uneven friendship – makes Ron even more lovable and deepens the relationship he shares with Leslie.
By the next morning, they’re singing an awful rendition of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” together, with Duke Silver’s sax and all. This is a perfect example of putting the strengths of a bottle episode to great use. It serves a clear narrative purpose (to get Ron and Leslie back on the same team) and pairs two of the show’s strongest characters. “Leslie and Ron” furthers the plot, further characterizes our leads and is damn funny. That makes for a worthy bottle episode.
15. “The Enemy Within,” Star Trek
The term “bottle episode” purportedly originated with the original Star Trek series, where cast and crew referred to episodes that were contained within the ship as “ship-in-a-bottle episodes.” For a series constantly struggling with budget issues, it would make sense for Star Trek to create an episodic format to save money without sacrificing story. “The Enemy Within” is one such bottle episode. When trouble with the transporter creates an evil doppelganger of Captain Kirk, the confined space of the Enterprise heightens the suspense as Evil Kirk runs into various crewmembers. “The Enemy Within” features countless iconic moments, including but not limited to: the debut of the Vulcan nerve pinch, an adorable unicorn space dog, and Evil Kirk’s fantastically deranged declaration that he is indeed the Captain Kirk.
The episode’s central conflict poses quite the acting challenge for Shatner, who laps it up with delight. Sweaty, lit from below, and rocking eyeliner, Evil Kirk is a frantic and often hysterical scene stealer. Yet there is something weirdly touching about the resolution between Kirk’s two halves. There is, of course, the symbolic meaning – a promise that it is possible to unify our conflicting internal desires. But I also just love the visual of Kirk holding his defeated clone in his arms, showing him mercy although he is undeserving. “The Enemy Within” is certainly silly, but it’s also one of Star Trek’s most enduring episodes.
14. “First Response,” Veep
To prove this episode’s greatness, I really shouldn’t have to say anything more than Alison Janney and Julia Louis Dreyfus are in the same room for 26 minutes. But to suggest the “First Response” coasts on the brilliance of Janney and Dreyfus’ comedic chemistry would be a disservice to Veep’s multi-faceted genius. When a presumed puff piece at the residence turns out to be more hard-hitting than expected, Selina and her interviewer, Janney’s Janet Ryland, engage in some deliciously passive-aggressive back-and-forth. It’s a kind of comedy Veep does best: tense, simmering interactions between people who loathe each other.
Selina and Janet’s battle is a severely uneven match, with Selina’s hubris tripping her up at every possible step. Dreyfus revels in Selina’s gaffes and delivers the richest comedy from extreme discomfort. And boy, is “First Response” full of extreme discomfort. Throughout the interview, Janet remains an image of collectedness as Selina struggles to manage her public image, her private frustrations, her subpar mothering, and her distracting horniness. Trapped in her marble-laden mansion with a nosy intruder and omnipresent cameras, Selina has no escape route. But in classic Veep style, she manages to get out of the interview relatively unscathed. “First Response,” like every other episode of Veep, is a rich half-hour of close calls, thinly veiled insults, and lots of HBO-sanctioned profanity.
13. “Unfinished Business,” Battlestar Galactica
I’ll have to bust out a looser definition of the bottle episode for this one, since “Unfinished Business” is so chock full of flashbacks. But regardless of how closely it adheres to the bottle format, “Unfinished Business” remains one of Battlestar Galactica’s most emotionally impactful episodes. This pick, however, may be the most subjective of the list. Full disclosure: much of my personal enjoyment of the episode stems from my deep-seated shipping of Kara and Lee. If you feel rather dispassionate towards the series’ will-they-won’t-they Starbucks/Apollo romance, then you may want to skip this one altogether. But if you’re still reading – welcome. How amazing is it that Kara and Lee beat the shit out of each other and sleep together all in the course of a single episode?
“Unfinished Business” is beautifully and uncomfortably crafted. A ruthless boxing match interspersed with heartrending flashbacks, it provides the perfect stage for passionate violence, tacit catharsis, and boatloads of sexual tension. For a crew as emotionally incompetent as that of the Battlestar Galactica, the ring is as apt an arena as any to settle grudges, make peace, or just blow off steam. The episode as a whole is emotionally arduous and visually unrelenting, but really, that’s what Battlestar Galactica is all about.
12. “Hotel Inspectors,” Fawlty Towers
I’m hard-pressed to think of anything funnier than seeing John Cleese get frustrated to the point of suffocation. As the misanthropic hotel owner Basil Fawlty, Cleese turns frustration into an art form. “Hotel Inspectors” is a classic Fawlty Towers episode because it hinges entirely on a mix-up. When Basil gets word that a hotel inspector is in town, he mistakes not one but two different guests as the incognito inspector. The 6’5” Cleese carries the episode with his signature physical comedy, choking out a guest, taking a behind-the-counter beating, and dissolving into an ugly fit of tears. “Hotel Inspectors” is a hilarious jaunt through Basil’s every state, from hubris to panic to paranoia to, finally, defeat.
Like all the best episodes of Fawlty Towers, “Hotel Inspectors” moves swiftly, masterfully combining screwball and slapstick comedy. And of course, every episode of the series revels in the tenets of British humor, from sarcasm to self-deprecation to social satire. There have been repeated attempts to adapt Fawlty Towers for American audiences with little success. The original, it would seem, is singular and inimitable, thanks almost entirely to John Cleese and Connie Booth’s incredible writing and Cleese’s masterful performance. The timelessness of the series – despite the timeliness of comedy – is a testament to Cleese and Booth’s talent. Though it premiered 43 years ago, “Hotel Inspectors” remains totally fresh and gut-bustingly hilarious.
11. “Fight,” Masters of Sex
Narrative subtlety can be nice, sure. But sometimes there is nothing more satisfying than being hit over the head with theme. “Fight” is, in no uncertain terms, a meditation on masculinity. The only bottle episode of Masters of Sex’s four-season run, “Fight” dissects Bill Masters’ character and past in concert with the thematic question of what it means to be a man. Playing out parallel to each other are two stories: Bill struggles to enlighten the parents of an intersex child, and Bill and Virginia spend the night at a hotel to conduct “research” while the Moore vs Durelle match rages in the background. I repeat, there is little room for nuance here, but that doesn’t make the episode any less great.
By stressing character over plot, “Fight” elevated the series as a whole and gave the incomparable (and I mean incomparable) Michael Sheen a chance to shine. Now, it stands out as one of the show’s best episodes and remains a compelling consideration of masculinity. At its most profound, it examines the role of masculinity in a personal light, revealing how Bill’s childhood – and now his adulthood – was shaped by the pressures to be manly and virile. And at its most intoxicating, it graces us with lots of close-ups of Michael Sheen being tortured and horny. What more can you want in an episode of television?
10. “Fly,” Breaking Bad
Rian Johnson is an excellent filmmaker. End of story. Do you want more proof besides The Last Jedi? Johnson’s “Fly” makes 47 compelling and deeply moving minutes of television out of Walt and Jesse’s frustration with a pesky insect. Though the episode was borne from production budget restrictions, it remains one of the series’ highlights. Flies, of course, can be many things from reminders of our mortality to the embodied encroachment of our conscience, to the catalysts of insanity. This episode’s titular insect inhabits all those roles, and then some. Stuck inside the lab with each other and a fly, Walt, and Jesse have no choice but to bounce off of each other in a dazzling dramatic tour de force.
But their bug hunt within the enclosed lab also creates a microcosm for the series itself. Over the course of an evening, we experience obsession, nihilism, introspection, and guilt. It’s a whirlwind cat-and-mouse chase and a twisted teacher-pupil dynamic. An explosive forced collision between Walt and Jesse, where both men skirt around opportunities for growth. The fly, more than anything, places a much-needed moral mirror in front of Walt: “It’s all contaminated,” he observes in defeat, as the fly roams freely around the lab.
9. “Cooperative Calligraphy,” Community
There’s a puppy parade happening right outside the library, full of adorable dogs that, with every passing moment, “grow older and less deserving of our attention.” But no one in Community’s lovable misfit-filled study group will be attending, because Annie can’t find her pen, and no one is leaving until she finds it. An internal pressure to stay in the study room? An external incentive to leave? A conflict that will turn our characters against each other? “Feels like a bottle episode.” And Abed is right – “Cooperative Calligraphy” isn’t just Community’s most explicit bottle episode, but an examination of the bottle format itself. “I hate bottle episodes,” Abed clarifies. And that’s understandable; bottle episodes were initially a way for sitcoms to save money in between more expensive episodes.
But “Cooperative Calligraphy” takes the format and milks it for all its worth: fierce arguments, compulsory nudity, a monkey in the vents, cutting open an old leg cast. And good God, is it hilarious. With no external stimuli for our study group members to interact with, they have to mine each other for conflict, complication, and resolution. It’s Community at its most meta and also at its purest.
8. “Out of Gas,” Firefly
In its tragically brief run, Firefly made a profound impression on many viewers. To better understand what made the short-lived series so special, you need only to watch its sole bottle episode, “Out of Gas.” A beautifully structured piece of television, “Out of Gas” finds Captain Malcom Reynolds wandering the interior of Serenity alone and on a dwindling supply of oxygen as his crew is off trying to restore the ship’s power. Under the imminent threat of death and a brain-alteringly low air supply, Mal looks back on the origins of his crew and his ship. It’s an organic opportunity to flesh out and add depth to the characters, who we’ve already grown to love over the course of the first five episodes. With three interwoven timelines, we learn how this motley crew was thrown together, and how their interpersonal relationships have formed over time.
“Out of Gas” is also a moving ode to Serenity herself, a chronicle of her birth and approaching death that sheds light on the deep bond between the captain and his ship. Amidst its stressfully high stakes, the episode manages to be funny, sweet, touching, and heartbreaking. Oh, and Flashback Wash has a mustache. “Out of Gas” is the amalgamation of everything that made Firefly special: the characters, the vision, the confidence, the complexity. And most of all, the love between captain, crew, and ship.
7. “Chardee MacDennis,” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
There’s no better way to make a bottle episode than to trap characters in a single space and pit them against each other. And there’s no better way to trap characters in a single space and pit them against each other like a board game. When that board game is Chardee MacDennis – that’s when a bottle episode becomes more than a bottle episode. Charlie, Dee, Mac, and Dennis have played Chardee MacDennis some 18 times, but Charlie and Mac have never won. While we may feel compelled to blame their losses on their aggressive stupidity, Frank suspects something else is going on. As we traverse through all three levels – Mind, Body, and Spirit – Chardee MacDennis reveals itself to be an utterly nonsensical and purely subjective game. That is, of course, what makes it so entertaining to watch.
How can one pick the best moments of a bottle episode so brimming with comedic genius? “Chardee MacDennis” graces us with a ridiculous performance of the haka, Dennis’ numb composure when a dart impales his hand, Frank huddled in a dog crate. And above all, it gives us the gift of the game itself, which fans and scholars are still trying to bring to life. Until then, here’s a little rulebook you can use the next time you want to turn your party into an all-out “war.”
6. “Mornings,” Master of None
Through Master of None’s elegant realism, Aziz Ansari delivers some of the most heartfelt and authentic depictions of romantic relationships. “Mornings” is perhaps his piece de resistance, a beautiful and poignant sampling of a partnership’s highs and lows. A self-contained romantic comedy, “Mornings” spans several months of Dev and Rachel’s cohabitation. With each passing season, their relationship shifts, and jovial banter gradually turns to petty bickering. The episode is unflinching in its depiction of real-life romantic love, with its eyes trained on what happens after happily ever after.
Much of the episode’s naturalism came from actual ad-libbing. In an interview with Variety, Noel Wells revealed she and Ansari improvised many of the best moments in “Mornings.” “There was lots of improv on set, specifically the sex stuff,” she divulged. “The part where we’re post-sex and [we say], ‘What if I came like this?’ We did that in the moment, and I’m really happy it made it in.” Ansari and Wells’ chemistry is rich and real, both of them boasting the comedic and dramatic chops to play out an authentic relationship. The bottled nature of “Mornings” conveys both the claustrophobia and intimacy of commitment with subtlety and honesty. It’s Master of None at its very best.
5. “Teddy Perkins,” Atlanta
“Teddy Perkins” is one of the most disturbing episodes of television I’ve ever seen. That said, you have to watch it. With each episode, Atlanta moves away from its constrictive categorization as a “comedy,” venturing into uncharted genre-related territory. “Teddy Perkins” is evocative of various genre-spanning works, from Get Out to Sunset Boulevard. It also draws on the true story of the Jacksons. But from these many influences comes a wholly original, defiantly ambiguous, and supremely terrifying work of art. When Darius stops by a creepy mansion to pick up a listed piano, he steps into – at homeowner Teddy Perkins’ insistence – one of the most intriguing and horrifying television bottles yet.
As the eponymous Perkins, Donald Glover dons white face, eats ostrich eggs, and drifts around the mansion like a ghost. He recounts tales of his talented musician brother and their abusive father. He confuses exploitation with love: “My father used to say, ‘Great things come from great pain.’” Trapped alongside Darius in Teddy’s dimly lit, labyrinthine mansion, we are plunged into a masterful concoction of dread and curiosity. “Teddy Perkins” uses the bottle format to deliver a poignant wallop of horror – a work of art that is uncomfortable but necessary viewing.
4. “American Bitch,” Girls
Girls is often generalized as a shallow, privileged exploration of white womanhood – and this characterization is usually correct. But every so often, an episodic gem will transcend the show’s exclusionary context to strike a universal chord. “American Bitch” is one such episode. Penned by creator Lena Dunham, it is a crucial addition to the relatively recent conversation about sexual violence. The episode plays carefully with ambiguity while still delivering a searing indictment of men who abuse their clout to exploit vulnerable women. When Hannah meets with author and accused sexual predator Chuck Palmer (a masterfully slimy and truly revelatory Matthew Rhys), they don’t just engage in some thought-provoking (and excellently written) sparring, but they reveal in real-time how toxic and exploitative dynamics are created in the first place.
Without delivering a clear-cut conclusion, “American Bitch” considers the professional dynamics, power differentials, and manipulative tactics that facilitate sexual violence. In this way, the episode is Girls at its most universal. On the unfortunate universality of sexual violence, Dunham told Vulture: “The way men who have amassed a certain kind of capital think that it’s a fair trade for someone else’s sexual favors is just a really dark and complicated part of being female.”
3. “17 People,” The West Wing
Here’s one easy way to know “17 People” is a truly exceptional hour of television: one West Wing fan named Jon White created an entire website, aptly named seventeenpeople.com, that deconstructs, analyzes, and venerates the episode. With endearing illustrations, beautiful layout design, and remarkably clever presentation, White breaks the episode into five fundamental components: intrigue, persuasion, drama, comedy, and romance. And it’s true – over the course of one evening, “17 People” elegantly weaves together multiple narrative threads: Hoynes secretly plans to run, Sam and Ainsley debate the ERA, President Bartlet foils a terrorist plot, Sam and Josh write jokes for the Correspondents’ Dinner, Josh and Donna flirt, and – in the titular storyline – Leo reveals to Toby that Bartlet has MS, and only 17 people in the world know it.
It’s a lot to pack into just one hour, but the bottled nature of the episode lets Sorkin’s spectacular writing take center stage. It’s a damn near perfect episode of television, hilarious one minute and heartrending the next. Most of all, it delivers the shocking diagnosis that propelled the rest of the season’s drama. Stuck inside the White House, it’s exhilarating to watch each character fizz and spark and they collide with each other; The West Wing was practically made for the bottle format. And if you don’t believe me, just take a look at what Jon White has to say about it.
2. “Remedial Chaos Theory,” Community
Yes, Community has two list-worthy bottle episodes. “Remedial Chaos Theory” is, without a doubt, the most ingenious of the episodes in this list. Twenty-one minutes, seven characters, six timelines, one apartment. To decide which member of the study group will get pizza, Jeff roles a six-sided die. In doing so, he creates six parallel realities, where small differences have a big effect on the outcome, a la Run Lola Run. “Remedial Chaos Theory” is so densely packed, it often feels ripe to burst. When the episode finally does – in the climactic Norwegian troll doll moment from Troy’s timeline – it delivers an explosive, chaotic kind of funny that remains inimitable.
Complex and whip-smart, the episode gets to the heart of each character at lightning speed. And despite its high-concept plot and airtight execution, the thematic core of “Remedial Chaos Theory” is earnestly heartfelt. When Jeff is found out and made to go get the pizza, Britta can erupt freely into her awful rendition of “Roxanne,” and the gang can break into some silly dancing. It’s the by far the best timeline because everyone is being themselves and having fun, even if that fun is decidedly uncool. And really – between the games of Dungeons and Dragons, the paintball fights, and the pillow forts – that’s what Community is all about: the power of being uncool.
1. “The Suitcase,” Mad Men
I’ll cut right to the chase: “The Suitcase” is as close to perfect television as it gets. It feels cheapening to try and write about a work of art that borders so closely on divine. But God is in the details, so the details I will recount. It’s Peggy’s birthday, and she’s off to go meet her boyfriend for dinner. Everyone else has left the office to go watch the big Ali vs. Liston fight. Everyone except Don, who is burying himself in his work and dragging Peggy with him. Soon, it’s the middle of the night, Peggy has abandoned her birthday plans, and the two are divulging their secrets to one another at a cheap diner. They spend all night in the office, seeing each other in a way no one else can.
The episode subverts romance entirely for something so much more meaningful: total, authentic understanding. Their relationship is flawed, but perhaps the healthiest connection either of them has had. The episode is quietly stirring and occasionally explosive, full of ghosts and fisticuffs and one of Mad Men’s most iconic lines. Every moment of “The Suitcase” – every word, every frame, every silence – is beautiful. There is little more to say without doing a disservice to this transcendent work: how can mere words capture perfection?