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 being 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.