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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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15 Festive Facts About Jingle All the Way
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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In all of Arnold Schwarzenegger's film oeuvre, Jingle All the Way might just be the one that most exhibits the ugliness of humanity. Set on a fevered Christmas Eve brimming with desperate last-minute shoppers, Schwarzenegger's Howard Langston and Sinbad's postal worker character Myron Larabee find themselves battling one another to make themselves look good to their sons by getting their hands on the elusive Turbo Man action figure. The comedic genius Phil Hartman; Rita Wilson; future young Anakin Skywalker, Jake Lloyd; Laraine Newman; Harvey Korman; Martin Mull; Curtis Armstrong; and Chris Parnell were the other willing participants in this cult comedy, directed by Brian Levant. Here are some things you might not have known about the contemporary holiday classic.

1. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER WAS ABLE TO PLAY THE LEAD BECAUSE OF A DELAY ON A PLANET OF THE APES REMAKE.

Arnold Schwarzenegger signed up to star in the Apes remake in March of 1994, but 20th Century Fox rejected multiple scripts for the movie, including one co-written by Chris Columbus (Gremlins, The Goonies). Columbus left the project in late 1995, and Schwarzenegger followed him soon after, freeing him to sign up for Jingle All the Way, produced by Columbus, in February 1996. Fox's Planet of the Apes reboot found its way into theaters in 2001, starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Tim Burton.

2. SINBAD THOUGHT HE SCREWED UP THE AUDITION.

Sinbad in 'Jingle All the Way' (1996)
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Filming was delayed so that Sinbad could follow through on his commitment to travel to Bosnia with Hillary Clinton. Even though Columbus agreed to wait for him, the comedian still thought he "messed up" his audition and told his manager-brother he was going to quit show business.

3. OFFICER HUMMELL WAS INITIALLY WRITTEN AS A WOMAN.

Though the role of Officer Hummell was written for a woman, the part went to Robert Conrad. Conrad's explanation was that the producers "wanted someone who could pull up next to Arnold and tell him to pull over and he pulls over."

4. IT WAS CHRIS PARNELL'S FIRST MOVIE.

The future SNL star played the toy store clerk. "Well, it was my first movie role, and I didn't know how they typically shot scenes," Parnell admitted in a Reddit AMA. "So I had to laugh a lot, and I sort of spent all of my laughing energy in the wider takes, so by the time we got to the close-up shots, it was a real struggle to keep that going."

5. MARTIN MULL STAYED ON SET FOR OVER TWO WEEKS LONGER THAN HE WAS SUPPOSED TO.

Mull (KQRS D.J. a.k.a. Mr. Ponytail Man) was told it would just be a one- to two-day shoot for him. Unfortunately, his part had to be shot on a rainy day, and it didn't rain in Minneapolis for two and a half weeks.

6. PHIL HARTMAN MADE UP A BACKSTORY FOR HIS CHARACTER.


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Hartman (Ted Maltin) was probably joking for the film's official production notes, but you never know. "Ted is a guy who sued his employer for headaches caused by toner fumes and now hangs around the neighborhood and helps all the housewives," Hartman said. He also offered a take on how he was kind of being pigeonholed in Hollywood when he added, "Ted's another weasel to add my list of weasels."

7. HARTMAN ENTERTAINED HIS BORED YOUNG CO-STARS.

To keep young E.J. De la Pena (Johnny Maltin) and Jake Lloyd (Jamie Langston) from getting bored shooting a car scene all day, Hartman improvised songs designed to bring kids to hysterics. One tune contained the lyrics “You make my butt shine, the more you kiss it, the more it shines! The clock is ticking, so keep on licking, oh how you make my buttocks shine!”

"When you’re an 8 year old hearing that kind of potty humor, it was hilarious!" De la Pena remembered. "And we had a lot of fun."

8. JAMES BELUSHI HAD EXPERIENCE PLAYING SANTA BEFORE.

Belushi sort of trained to portray the Mall of America Santa in the movie by playing Kris Kringle for four years in "about 20" different homes, according to his estimation.

9. SHOOTING BEGAN IN MID-APRIL.

The Minneapolis/St.Paul areas were chosen because the producers figured they had the longest winter. But they also filmed in Los Angeles' Universal Studios for the big parade over a three week span, where it was typical hot California weather on the verge of summer. Sinbad remembered it was 100 degrees on the days when he wore the Dementor costume, and the water in his helmet had started to boil.

10. THE REAL TURBO MAN DIDN'T SWEAT.

Daniel Riordan's Turbo Man suit ensured he wouldn't have trouble with the scorching heat. He was wearing a vest underneath used by race car drivers. "They're very thin membrane vests that are filled with small, plastic tubing that's tightly coiled, back and forth, and they run cold water through it," Riordan explained. "So when they run it, it's like this cold water right up against your body and it was amazing. The sensation was fantastic."

11. TURBO MAN FIGURES WERE SOLD AT WAL-MART.

200,000 were originally produced and sold at 2,300 Wal-Mart shops for $25. They would have made more but, as Fox’s president of licensing and merchandising explained to Entertainment Weekly, there were only six and a half months to produce and promote Turbo Man toys, and it usually takes "well over a year."

12. THEY ALMOST SOLD DEMENTOR DOLLS TOO.

Sinbad recalled that the studio didn't sell Dementor action figures even though they tested high during research. "I had a prototype of the doll but they said 'give it back, we'll get you the real one when it comes out,'" Sinbad said." ...And dude, it NEVER came out!" Sinbad told Redditers his theory: "I think that they didn't want the competition between Turbo Man and my doll."

13. SOME PARENTS HAD ALCOHOL-RELATED COMPLAINTS AFTER TEST SCREENINGS.


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Schwarzenegger and Sinbad talking at a bar over some alcohol, and the fact that reindeer also imbibed in beer, were among some of the problems mothers and other early viewers took issue with.

14. THE FILMMAKERS WERE SUED FOR PLAGIARISM, AND LOST.

Randy Kornfield penned the official script, but high school teacher Brian Alan Webster alleged his Could This Be Christmas? script was very similar. The publishing firm that had the rights to Webster's script won a $19 million lawsuit from 20th Century Fox, but the ruling was overturned in 2004. Webster's screenplay was about “the quest of a Caucasian mother attempting to obtain a hard-to-get action figure toy as a Christmas gift for her son. In the course of this pursuit, she competes with an African-American woman, similarly seeking to give the action figure doll as a Christmas gift.”

15. THERE WAS A SEQUEL STARRING LARRY THE CABLE GUY.

None of the original cast members nor characters returned in the straight-to-DVD Jingle All the Way 2 (2014). It was produced by 20th Century Fox and WWE Studios and featured wrestler Santino Marella. Sinbad expressed incredulity when a Redditer inquired if he was asked to return for it. "What they are doing a new version without me! Ain't gonna work!"

Additional Sources:

Schaefer, Stephen: "Sinbad leaps at the chance to go postal in Jingle All the Way," December 6, 1996; Des Moines Register

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10 Rich Facts About Wall Street
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Twentieth Century Fox

It’s often said that the love of money is the root of all evil. Wall Street could have easily turned this sentiment into a tagline. A gripping financial thriller, the Oliver Stone classic is a cautionary tale whose message is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was released 30 years ago today.

1. OLIVER STONE WOULD DELIBERATELY TICK OFF MICHAEL DOUGLAS BETWEEN TAKES.

“As a director, he really tests you,” Douglas said of Stone. Around two weeks after shooting had started, Stone showed up at the actor’s trailer and asked “Are you on drugs? Because you look like you’ve never acted before in your life.” Mortified, Douglas took a look at some footage they’d already shot. Yet, after diligently reviewing it, he could find nothing wrong with his performance. “I came back to Oliver and said … ‘I think it’s okay,” Douglas remembers. “Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” Stone replied.

Eventually, Douglas wised up to his boss’s overly critical act. “Basically, what he wanted was to ratchet up that much more nastiness in Gordon Gekko,” Douglas explained. “And he was willing … for me to hate him for the rest of that movie just to bring it up a little more.” 

2. WALL STREET WON BOTH AN OSCAR AND A RAZZIE.


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Douglas’s cold portrayal of the unscrupulous Gekko netted him an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1988. On the other hand, critics were thoroughly unimpressed by leading lady Daryl Hannah, who took home a Worst Supporting Actress Razzie.

3. GORDON GEKKO’S FAMOUS PHONE WEIGHED TWO POUNDS.

In one pivotal scene, Gekko rings Bud with a state-of-the-art mobile communication device. Specifically, it’s a Motorola DynaTac 8000X. Released in 1983, this brick-shaped cell phone was 13 inches long, weighed two pounds, and cost the equivalent of $8,806 in modern dollars. During the 2010 sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the anachronistic gadget returned for a quick sight gag.

4. CHARLIE SHEEN CHOSE TO HAVE HIS REAL FATHER PORTRAY HIS FICTIONAL ONE.

“It was interesting having my dad play my dad,” Sheen said on the DVD's “making of” documentary. Wall Street’s most dramatic arc revolves around Bud and Carl Fox, who were played by Charlie and Martin Sheen, respectively. Stone had built a strong working relationship with the former on the set of 1986’s Platoon. So when the time came to cast Carl, he had the younger Sheen make the call, asking “Do you want Jack Lemmon or do you want your father?” “Oh, Jack Lemmon’s a genius,” the actor said, “but my dad’s my dad and he’s kind of a genius, too.”

5. SCREENWRITER STANLEY WEISER COULDN'T FIND INSPIRATION IN EITHER CRIME AND PUNISHMENT OR THE GREAT GATSBY.

Before the writer could get started, Stone gave him a little homework. Originally, the film was conceived as “Crime and Punishment on Wall Street.” When Weiser was brought aboard one fateful Friday, Stone told him to read Dostoyevsky’s novel over the weekend. “Not having taken an Evelyn Wood Speed Reading class, I went to UCLA and purchased the Cliffs Notes,” Weiser wrote in 2008.

But the literary exercise proved futile. “On Monday, I explained to Oliver that the paradigm for that masterwork would not mesh well with the story we wanted to tell.” In a flash, Stone hit him with another assignment. “Okay,” he ordered, “read The Great Gatsby tonight, and see if we can mine something out of it.” This time, Weiser simply rented the 1974 movie adaptation. Once again, though, inspiration eluded him.

Wall Street as we know it didn’t really start to take shape until after a change in tactic: When Gatsby led him nowhere, Weiser read everything about finance that he could track down and, along with Stone, “spent three weeks visiting brokerage houses, interviewing investors and getting a feel for the Weltanschauung of Wall Street.”

6. PARTS OF THE MOVIE WERE SHOT AT THE NEW YORK STOCK EXCHANGE DURING WORKING HOURS.


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Permission was secured with the help of Kenneth Lipper, a longtime Wall Street insider who also served as New York City's deputy mayor from 1982 to 1985. For the film, Stone brought him on board as the chief technical advisor.

7. TWO MONTHS BEFORE THE FILM’S RELEASE, THERE WAS A MAJOR WALL STREET CRASH IN REAL LIFE.

Historians now call it “Black Monday.” On October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by a staggering 22.6 percent. It was the largest single-day stock market decline of all time, with $500 billion suddenly going up in smoke. Wall Street would hit theaters on December 11, leading conspiracy theorists to wonder if Stone had seen the crisis coming and made his movie to exploit it. 

“I did not foresee the crash, as some people say, because if I had, I would have made a lot of money,” Stone quipped.

8. GEKKO WAS BASED ON THREE BIG-NAME FINANCIERS. 


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“If you need a friend, get a dog,” Gekko advises his young protégé. This quote was adapted from a remark that corporate raider Carl Icahn once made (which he had cribbed from Harry Truman). In 1985, Icahn became a notorious figure by taking over TWA airlines under the pretense of making it more profitable only to sell off its assets for his own gain. Gekko, no doubt, would’ve approved.

Wall Street’s charismatic antagonist also took cues from Asher Edelman, a financier and major league art enthusiast. Another source of inspiration was arbiter Ivan Boesky, who confessed to illegal insider trading in 1986 and ended up in jail in 1988 (more about him later).

9. STONE’S FATHER WAS A STOCKBROKER.

A survivor of the Great Depression, Louis Stone had a huge influence on his cinematically-inclined son. “The main motivation to make Wall Street was my father,” the director admitted. “He always said there were no good business movies, because the businessman was always the villain.” In the end, Wall Street was dedicated to the elder Stone, who passed away two years before its release. 

10. GEKKO’S BIG LINE IS NUMBER 57 ON THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE’S TOP 100 MOVIE QUOTES LIST.

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” finished just ahead of “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” from The Godfather: Part II. Gekko might as well have been quoting Boesky: At a 1985 commencement address given at UC Berkeley, the trader said “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”

Newsweek later reported on the speech—and made a telling observation. “The strangest thing, when we come to look back,” the magazine argued, “will not just be that Ivan Boesky could say that at a business school graduation, but that it was greeted with laughter and applause.”

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