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The 10 Best Bottle Episodes of Your Favorite TV Shows

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Those of us who are old enough to vividly remember the plot lines of such so-bad-they’re-good television shows as The Brady Bunch, Three’s Company, The Dukes of Hazzard, Benson, MacGyver, and Magnum P.I. probably recall that characters always seemed to be accidentally locking themselves in a meat locker/elevator/fill-in-your-favorite-tiny-contained space. Sometimes once per season. While it may have seemed like honest-to-goodness laziness on the part of the shows’ writers, the more likely reason for these single-location episodes was simply lack of money.

Here’s how it works: Television shows are divided into seasons, and each season has its own individual budget. The bulk of that money is spent on the season’s tent pole episodes, i.e. the season premiere, the season finale and any episode that requires a top-dollar guest star, exotic locale, or extensive special effects. Which means that at some point in the season, a showrunner is going to be scrambling to come up with an idea that can be shot on the cheap. Enter “the bottle episode.”

Purportedly coined by the makers of the original Star Trek series, the show’s frequent battles with budgetary constraints resulted in many stripped-down scenarios for the Enterprise, which they referred to as “ship-in-a-bottle” episodes. A typical bottle episode features just one or two regular cast members working together to solve a single problem. Locations, too, are limited to ideally just one. And there are no expensive special effects to be found. Just a couple of actors spending 30 to 60 minutes playing off of each other. 

As television has continued to up its game in the entertainment department, competing with movies both narratively and aesthetically, producers have gotten smarter about their bottle episodes. Like their low-budget Hollywood counterparts, they’re replacing money with creativity, creating more personal, character-driven pieces to drive the season forward and create some of the most beloved episodes in a show’s run. Here are 10 of the great ones.

1. Breaking Bad—Season 3, Episode 10: “Fly” (2010)

If the teaser for Breaking Bad’s final season—which premieres on AMC on Sunday—is any indication of its pace, you’re going to want to bring along an inhaler. It’s the show’s typical breakneck speed that makes “Fly” such a standout episode. Tensions are running high between meth-makers Walter and Jesse, and both of them are keeping secrets. When a fly finds its way into the lab, Walter—sleep-deprived and already teetering on the edge—sets about killing it to avoid any contamination. But this sucker won’t die and the ceilings in that meth lab are high. (No pun intended.) As Jesse looks on and eventually assists Walter in his mission, their inner turmoil plays out in subtle yet gripping ways, both in their dialogue and actions. That virtually every second of the episode’s 47 minutes happens in one location with just the two leading actors makes it a perfect example of television at its barest. That they hired moviemaker Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) to direct the episode makes it truly cinematic.

2. Community—Season 2, Episode 8: “Cooperative Calligraphy” (2010)

As out there as some of its plotlines may stray, Community has succeeded in becoming one of television’s most self-aware shows. The cast and crew seem to revel in the fact that they’re still on the air (and with good reason, as they’ve been on the scheduling chopping block since the show’s debut). Their boldest move yet may have been “Cooperative Calligraphy,” which is best described as a bottle episode about bottle episodes. As the study group of misfit co-eds packs up their belongings to depart for an on-campus puppy parade, Annie realizes that yet another one of her precious pens has gone missing and insists that no one will leave the room until she uncovers the culprit. Minutes later, Abed realizes what is happening and declares, “I hate bottle episodes. They’re wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance. I might as well sit in a corner with a bucket on my head.” As the episode continues to unfold, the classmates learn more than they needed to know about each other—like that Abed keeps track of the menstrual cycles of the female group members—and do their best to stay true to Abed’s description of what a bottle episode looks like.

3. Family Guy—Season 8, Episode 17: “Brian & Stewie” (2010)

Okay, so it probably doesn’t save any money to set an animated show in one location and feature just two of the regular actors. But Seth MacFarlane’s ode to the “trapped in a bank vault” trope as part of Family Guy’s 150th episode is worth noting for the sheer audacity it takes to force this setup upon a talking dog and a wise-beyond-his-years baby. Like any great bottle episode, the show is completely character-driven (it’s the only episode that doesn’t feature any cutaways), with Brian and Stewie eventually revealing how much they care about each other—but only after they get drunk, partake in a fair amount of gun violence, and devise an innovative (and disgusting) way to make sure Stewie doesn’t end up with diaper rash.

4. The Sopranos—Season 3, Episode 11: “Pine Barrens” (2001)

Note to the networks: Indie film directors make fantastic bottle episode directors. Before he became a series regular in season five, Steve Buscemi directed what is arguably one of The Sopranos’ single best episodes: “Pine Barrens.” Though it’s not a one-location episode, the bulk of the action centers on Paulie and Christopher getting lost in the woods after an attempt to collect a debt from a Russian mobster goes horribly wrong. Totally unprepared for facing the elements, right down to their unlined leather jackets, the duo must overcome bad cell phone reception and the possibility that there’s a highly-skilled solider attempting to hunt them down to find their way out of the forest (or at least lead mob boss Tony Soprano to them for rescuing). Paulie’s relationship to Christopher was always one of the show’s most interesting, alternating between fatherly and competitive. This episode forces them to confront their issues head-on, in a language and with a humor that is completely their own.

5. Mad About You—Season 6, Episode 9: “The Conversation” (1997)

Though it aired for seven seasons, Mad About You—starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt as married couple Paul and Jamie Buchman—has been largely forgotten. Which is unfortunate, considering that it often pushed the conventions of typical sitcom-making. In the show’s sixth season, director Gordon Hunt channeled his inner Ingmar Bergman to do the unthinkable: drop a camera on the floor of the Buchmans’ apartment and leave it there. For the entire show. Whether the actors were in the shot or not. The only image that stays constant is the door of their baby daughter Mabel’s room, as they attempt to let her cry herself to sleep, leaving the audio to drive the narrative. The result is a 20-minute conversation filmed in one take that was broadcast uninterrupted so as not to lose the flow. It was pretty revolutionary stuff, and they knew it (and made a clever nod to it in the closing credits).

6. Homicide: Life On The Street—Season 1, Episode 5: “Three Men And Adena” (1993)

The bottle episode made an early appearance on the police drama Homicide: Life on the Street. Midway through the first season, Martin Campbell (who refreshed the James Bond franchise with Casino Royale) directed this Emmy Award-winning episode, in which detectives Frank Pembleton and Tim Bayliss have 12 hours to solicit a confession from Risley Tucker for the murder of an 11-year-old girl. The episode plays out almost entirely in the interrogation room as a single conversation between the two officers and their suspect. And it’s one big power play, with each man taking a turn in the hot seat. This is an example of a police procedural at its most gripping: partners playing the good cop/bad cop game, and a suspect turning the tables on his interrogators. In the end, there is no confession, and the case (which is based on the real-life murder of Latonya Kim Wallace) remains unsolved; but the detectives’ impressions—of each other and Tucker’s guilt—have been forever altered. It’s a near-flawless example of the power the camera holds and how a simple shift of an angle can add a new dimension to the viewer experience.

7. The X-Files—Season 1, Episode 8: “Ice” (1993)

Like a television version of John Carpenter’s The Thing, “Ice” slowed the sci-fi juggernaut down just long enough for audiences to see what would happen when their beloved special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were forced to work against each other. After being called to Alaska to investigate the mysterious deaths of a group of geophysicists, Mulder and Scully determine that an alien parasite is to blame, and they’ve got the samples to prove it. But the agents disagree on whether to preserve or destroy the deadly organisms and just about everything else. No one is sure who has been infected and who hasn't, and the agents each have different methods for figuring it out. The divisive nature of this particular mission helped to introduce the often-complex relationship these two would have throughout the series, and gave them the dramatic flexibility to establish that early on.

8. Seinfeld—Season 2, Episode 6: “The Chinese Restaurant” (1991)

When Seinfeld co-creator Larry David originally pitched the idea of “The Chinese Restaurant” to the executives at NBC, they rejected it outright, believing that the audience would be bored by the lack of storyline, which consisted of Jerry, George, and Elaine waiting for a table—in real time—at a Chinese restaurant before hitting up a screening of Plan 9 from Outer Space. But for a series that was popularly referred to as “a show about nothing,” an episode that was literally about nothing seemed apropos. So David wasn’t about to let the idea die so quickly, even threatening to quit if the show didn’t air as written. The execs relented, and the episode was a hit. While not a bottle episode from a cost-savings standpoint (the restaurant was unique to this storyline), the close quarters/couple of friends formula became a staple of the series, and was repeated just a few months later in the next season with the equally funny “The Parking Garage.”

9. All in the Family—Season 8, Episode 19: “Two's a Crowd” (1978)

Like so many other sitcoms of its time period, this late-season episode of All in the Family used the “locked together in a room” device as its setup. But where it stands out among the show’s nine seasons is in its humanization of the irascible Archie Bunker. When Archie and his son-in-law Mike accidentally lock themselves in the storeroom of a bar, they decide to pass the time by depleting the supply of alcohol that surrounds them. After a few drinks too many, Archie talks about his difficult upbringing, complete with an abusive father. Archie’s monologue on his life—and why he is the man he is—is a genuinely moving piece of drama in an otherwise comedic series that brings the show’s two male leads closer together (even if Archie doesn’t remember it when he wakes up).

10. Star Trek—Season 1, Episode 14: “Balance Of Terror” (1966)

If you’re going to invent the terminology, you’d better have a list of episodes that fit the bottle bill. Star Trek certainly does, beginning in season one, when the Romulans make their first appearance in “Balance of Terror.” When Captain Kirk learns that a Romulan ship has destroyed several nearby outposts, he sets about finding it so that he may destroy it (despite the vessel’s invisibility shield, of course). The episode morphs into a game of cat and mouse between Kirk and his Romulan counterpart, as the two ships race each other toward the neutral zone. Relying on banter over visuals, the episode is refreshingly dialogue-heavy, giving Kirk and his cronies (including Spock, Sulu and Uhura) the chance to explore more than just the great unknown; they get to talk about their feelings. Fun side note: Mark Lenard, who played the Romulan captain in this episode, would later return to play Sarek, Spock’s father.

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5 Tips for Becoming A Morning Person
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You’ve probably heard the term circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is an internal clock that influences your daily routine: when to eat, when to sleep, and when to wake up. Our biological clocks are, to some extent, controlled by genetics. This means that some people are natural morning people while others are night owls by design. However, researchers say the majority of us fall somewhere in the middle, which is good news if you want to train yourself to wake up earlier.

In addition to squeezing more hours out of the day, there are plenty of other good reasons to resist hitting the snooze button, including increased productivity. One survey found that more than half of Americans say they feel at their best between 5 a.m. and noon. These findings support research from biologist Christopher Randler, who determined that earlier risers are happier and more proactive about goals, too.

If you love the idea of waking up early to get more done, but you just can't seem to will yourself from out under the covers, here are five effective tips that might help you roll out of bed earlier.

1. EASE INTO THE HABIT.

If you’re a die-hard night owl, chances are you’re not going to switch to a morning lark overnight. Old habits are hard to break, but they’re less challenging if you approach them realistically.

“Wake up early in increments,” Kelsey Torgerson, a licensed clinical social worker at Compassionate Counseling in St. Louis suggests. “If you normally wake up at 9:00 a.m., set the alarm to 8:30 a.m. for a week, then 8:00 a.m., then 7:30 a.m.”

Waking up three hours earlier can feel like a complete lifestyle change, but taking it 30 minutes at a time will make it a lot easier to actually stick to the plan. Gradually, you’ll become a true morning person, just don’t try to force it to happen overnight.

2. EXERCISE IN THE MORNING.

Your body releases endorphins when you exercise, so jumping on the treadmill or taking a run around the block is a great way to start the day on a high note. Also, according to the National Sleep Foundation, exercising early in the morning can mean you get a better overall sleep at night:

“In fact, people who work out on a treadmill at 7:00 a.m. sleep longer, experience deeper sleep cycles, and spend 75 percent more time in the most reparative stages of slumber than those who exercise at later times that day.”

If you don’t have much time in the morning, an afternoon workout is your second best bet. The Sleep Foundation says aerobic afternoon workouts can help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often throughout the night. “This may be because exercise raises your body’s temperature for about four to five hours,” they report. After that, your body’s core temperature decreases, which encourages it to switch into sleep mode.

3. MAKE YOUR BEDROOM IDEAL FOR SLEEP.

Whether it’s a noisy street or a bright streetlight, your bedroom environment might be making it difficult for you to sleep throughout the night, which can make waking up early challenging, as you haven’t had enough rest. There are, however, a few changes you can make to optimize your room for a good night’s sleep.

“Keep your bedroom neat and tidy,” Dr. Nancy Irwin, a Los Angeles-based doctor of psychology on staff as an expert in sleep hygiene at Seasons Recovery Centers in Malibu, suggests. “Waking up to clutter and chaos only makes it more tempting to crawl back in bed.”

Depending on what needs to be improved, you might consider investing in some slumber-friendly items that can help you sleep through the night, including foam earplugs (make sure to use a vibrating alarm), black-out drapes, light-blocking window decals, and a cooling pillow

Another simple option? Ditch the obnoxious sound of a loud, buzzing alarm.

“One great way to adapt to rising earlier is to have an alarm that is a pleasing sound to you versus an annoying one,” Dr. Irwin says. “There are many choices now, whether on your smartphone or in a radio or a freestanding apparatus.”

4. TAKE THE TIME TO PROPERLY WIND DOWN.

Getting up early starts the night before, and there are a few things you should do before hitting the sack at night.

“Set an alarm to fall asleep,” Torgerson says. “Having a set bedtime helps you stay responsible to yourself, instead of letting yourself get caught up in a book or Netflix and avoid going to sleep.”

Torgerson adds that practicing yoga or meditation before bed can help relax your mind and body, too. This way, your mind isn’t bouncing from thought to thought in a flurry before you go to bed. If you find yourself feeling anxious before bed, it might help to write in a journal. This way, you can get these nagging thoughts out of your head and onto paper.

Focus on relaxing at night and stay away from not just exercise, but mentally stimulating activities, too. If watching the news gets your blood boiling, for example, you probably want to turn it off an hour or so before bedtime.

5. GET YOUR DAILY DOSE OF LIGHT.

Light has a immense effect on your circadian rhythm—whether it’s the blue light from your phone as you scroll through Instagram, or the bright sunlight of being outdoors on your lunch break. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, scientists compared the sleep quality of 27 subjects who worked in windowless environments with 22 subjects who were exposed to significantly more natural light during the day.

“Workers in windowless environments reported poorer scores than their counterparts on two SF-36 dimensions—role limitation due to physical problems and vitality—as well as poorer overall sleep quality," the study concluded. "Compared to the group without windows, workers with windows at the workplace had more light exposure during the workweek, a trend toward more physical activity, and longer sleep duration as measured by actigraphy.”

Thus, exposing yourself to bright light during the day may actually help you sleep better at night, which will go a long way toward helping you wake up refreshed in the morning.

Conversely, too much blue light can actually disturb your sleep schedule at night. This means you probably want to limit your screen time as your bedtime looms closer.

Finally, once you do get into the habit of waking up earlier, stick to that schedule on the weekends as much as possible. The urge to sleep in is strong, but as Torgerson says, “you won't want your body and brain to reacclimate to sleeping in and snoozing.”

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8 Defining Facts About Jane Goodall
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Jane Goodall was still a young woman when her research changed the course of scientific history. Of her discovery that chimpanzees make and use tools—an ability previously believed to belong only to humans—paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey famously said, "Now we must redefine 'tool,' redefine 'man,' or accept chimpanzees as humans."

1. A STUFFED ANIMAL CHANGED HER LIFE.

Jane met her first chimpanzee on her first birthday. From that day forward, the stuffed ape named Jubilee accompanied the little girl on all her adventures, inspiring the love of animals that would one day shift our views on animal intelligence.

Today, Goodall gives talks on animal welfare with the assistance of a stuffed monkey named Mr. H (shown above) and a cow named Cow, both gifts from her fans. "Cow has worked really hard," Goodall told Mosaic. "She has created I don't know how many vegetarians."

2. SHE STARTED HER RESEARCH WITHOUT A DEGREE.

Goodall's first steps into Gombe Stream National Park in 1960 were extraordinary for many reasons. The 26-year-old was only the second researcher to attempt to study chimpanzees in the wild, and she had no one with her aside from her mother and an assistant. She also had no formal scientific training—a fact that likely enabled her many breakthroughs. Unbound by preconceived notions of what animal research should be, the young scientist got close to her subjects, sat down, and paid attention.

3. BUT NOW SHE HAS PLENTY OF DEGREES …

Jane Goodall giving a talk in ceremonial university robes.
Peter Broster, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

Goodall became Dr. Goodall in 1966 when she received her Ph.D. in ethology (animal behavior) from the University of Cambridge. Since then, she's earned more diplomas than most walls could hold, with honorary degrees from nearly 40 universities in 15 different countries.

4. … AMONG OTHER TITLES.

Dr. Goodall is also a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, a UN Ambassador for Peace, and the recipient of countless awards and honors for her scientific, humanitarian, and animal welfare work. For a brief period, during her marriage to wildlife photographer Baron Hugo van Lawick, she was also Baroness Jane van Lawick-Goodall.

5. HER WORK RUBBED A LOT OF PEOPLE THE WRONG WAY.

A baby chimpanzee.
Roland, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Historically, the scientific establishment has not taken kindly to upstarts and outsiders. Or women, for that matter. In the beginning, many established researchers held Goodall's unusual approach and lack of university pedigree against her. They found her methods soft and problematic—Goodall named her research subjects instead of giving them ID numbers, which caused a scandal—and some went so far as to suggest that the tool-using chimps had been trained. Over time, her body of research grew so compelling that her supporters outnumbered her detractors.

6. STEVIE NICKS WROTE A SONG ABOUT HER.

"She could look a challenge/right between the eyes …"

7. YOU MIGHT HAVE SEEN HER IN CARTOON FORM.

In the 2001 Wild Thornberrys episode "The Trouble With Darwin," Goodall appeared, as herself, to help Eliza save chimpanzees from greedy poachers.

8. SHE'S STILL WORKING.

Jane Goodall in a crowd.
Daniel Epstein, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC 2.0

Goodall returned from the field in the 1980s, but her life's work had barely begun. For the last three decades, she's been on the road more than 300 days a year, giving talks and leading initiatives to improve the lives of chimpanzees, apes, and all animals in captivity and in the wild. With her urging, in 2015, the National Institutes of Health announced that it would retire the last of its chimpanzee research subjects.

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