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June 21 2010

19 Great Bottle Episodes, by the A.V. Club. Includes an example from each of Joss's first three shows. For those unaware, a "bottle episode" is one that takes place in mostly one location.

Spoilers for a good number of shows that appear on the list--but each item says the show name and episode title before discussing it, so you should be able to skip by dangerous material easily enough.

Three out of nineteen are Whedon episodes! And with added West Wing, BSG and Star Trek ... the AV Club sure knows what they're talking about. :D
I thought a bottle ep was one where they mostly use flashback footage.
Breaking Bad's "Fly" was absolutely brilliant. Best bottle episode I've ever seen (besides "Spin the Bottle" of course).
Wow! What a great list! I'm taken aback at how much I enjoyed a "list" article...

That's a pretty phenomenal Homicide episode, although I've been in a Homicide-y mood lately, catching up on season four a mere 13 years late... And Toby tossing that ball around in the teaser to '17 People' gives me chills every time. Plus 'Pine Barrens', 'Out of Gas'... Yikes, this is some great television.

ETA: It's worth noting that most of these episodes I've watched many times over and had also managed to completely forget that they were, in fact, bottle episodes. Quite a testament to something that originated as a quick-fix, budget-cut order.

[ edited by GoldDust12 on 2010-06-21 06:51 ]
I'm so glad "Out of Gas" was on there! I think "Objects In Space" would certainly qualify too, but maybe they didn't want to put too much Whedon in. ;)

"Unfinished Business" isn't really a bottle episode. Half of the episode is flashbacks on location. They had to rebuild half of that New Caprica City because they didn't film the flashbacks at the same time as the rest of the New Caprica story arc. It was a great episode, though.

Also, I was so surprised and pleased to see "Duet" on there. That was one of Deep Spare 9's masterpiece episodes, and probably the best episode in the first half of the entire show.
I know a bottle episode can be seen as reuse of an existing location, but I have great love for the Babylon 5 episode "Intersections in Real Time".
Out of Gas is a gimme, even the flashbacks were on board Serenity! The Jane FB is on stage even, most likely using "greens" they already had from previous episodes. Objects in Space certainly counts. One guest, one new costume, one small new set.

You'd think Epitaph One would have made it.

Ivalaine: strictly, a bottle episode is an episode that uses the least amount of money to produce as possible. Usually that's by using standing sets, and as few actors as possible. Pre-shot footage is also a great way to do it. Again, Epitaph One anybody?

Bobathin: You know better than I, but I got the impression from the article those flashbacks for BSG were shot for another purpose but never used. Whether they rebuilt the sets for those flashbacks or not, if the footage existed before "Unfinished Business" then it still a huge savings for that episode. If they were shot for that episode, I'd tend to agree with you that it was likely too expensive to be a bottle (although they probably had stuff left over right? And only had to build some sections? Coulda done it relatively cheap...)

Stargate: Atlantis had some amazing bottle episodes as well.

ETA, Simon: That is my favorite B5 episode. It's a bottle, and it's amazing. The entire thing was shot in one room, a very simple set. It has one of the main cast, and only one other character for almost the entire episode. I think there are only 2 other speaking rolls, and one or two more extras briefly. That's from memory, don't quote me.

[ edited by bobw1o on 2010-06-21 07:26 ]
I'm actually super pissed about Epitaph One now that I think about it. Some scenes were previously shot, almost the entire episode was on the Dollhouse sets. It was shot with Prosumer HD cameras instead of 35mm to save money. It was shot at the SAME TIME as Ep 12 so that they could abandon the stages on schedule. Barely used the series regulars, using a few guest stars (3 of which have the majority of scenes) It's like the definitive bottle episode!

And we all know it's quality TV.
bobw10: They most likely had stuff left over, and they probably only had to rebuild parts of it, but I remember listening to the executive producers complain about not thinking ahead and shooting it earlier when the sets were still up, so there was still some effort there. I forget where I heard that...DVD commentary, maybe. Considering how many BSG episodes are true, obvious bottle episodes, it's still an interesting choice.

And also, yeah, they should've included Epitaph One for sure!

[ edited by Bobathin on 2010-06-21 09:10 ]
I'd never heard the expression "bottle episodes" before now, but does that make 'Spin the Bottle's title completely meta?

Also, I'd like to nominate a large amount of Lost episodes for this, and I'm surprised there aren't any on there. Fair enough the island was vast, but if Serenity can all be considered one location, it sure does too. "The Other 48 Days" and/or "Across the Sea" would have been nice inclusions.

[ edited by Matt7325 on 2010-06-21 09:58 ]
Stargate was notorious for using previous episodes footage, usually in some kind of tribunal storyline, always annoyed the crap out of me.
While E1 definitively shares some characteristics of bottle eps, that whole intro sequence kinda gives it a very non-bottlesque feel. I know it's shot on the same location and during the same timeframe as Omega, but still, it doesn't look like a bottleshow, when you introduce not only a old-but-completely-new-looking-set but also an old-but-completely-new-looking-world. Bottle episode don't redefine your universe, usually, and E1 did just that. That first 5 minutes feel like the opposite of a bottle ep, even though from a productions stand point the whole ep definitely would qualify.
Lots of good TV on there, 'Unfinished Business' seems to split fans but I liked it and 'Spin the Bottle' is top flight 'Angel' and typical in the way it plays it light all along only to punch you in the gut with its emotional truth at the end (also, "Ka-ra-té" ;). By coincidence I recently watched "Three Men and Adena" and was reminded how brilliant it was (watching 'Homicide' now i'm struck by how slow it moves, particularly visually but that slow pace lends the episode weight as the tension builds, makes it feel inexorable). One great thing about it BTW is that we're never actually sure that the arabber even did it, the episode moves back and forth from noble quest for justice to potential frame-job and to some extent our sympathies move with it.

'Out of Gas' is technically a bottle show because of the setting I guess though I don't think it was made for the usual reason - i.e. to save money - am I wrong ? Still, my favourite 'Firefly' episode and one of my favourite TV episodes ever.

Good to see 'Midnight' on there too, I don't particularly rate RTD's episodic work on the show (his plots are often a bit lazy and his dialogue sometimes clunky) but this is easily one of his best episodes IMO (and one of the best of NuWho full stop). The only one so far that adult me found genuinely unsettling.

I thought a bottle ep was one where they mostly use flashback footage.

That's more strictly a "clip show" Ivalaine, they tend to have even lower budgets (they're kind of what you make when you can't even afford a bottle show ;) and are generally (but not always) less creative than bottle shows. 'Shades of Grey' from ST:TNG is an example that stands out in my mind as being totally phoned-in with virtually no effort made to do something with the imposed limitations. Trying to think of good clip shows ... 'Citizen Joe' from 'Stargate: SG1' is pretty decent, not only does it work quite well within the clip show limits and have Dan 'Homer Simpson' Castellenata as a guest star, it's also basically a 45 minute thank-you note to the fans (as you say though, they made a lot of clip shows, some of them pretty bad).
That was good stuff - I've never heard this term before, so it was especially interesting to me.

B5's Intersections in Real Time is such an obvious candidate. Why not a "top 20"??

I would have put Out of Gas at the top of the list, instead of the bottom. I loved Spin the Bottle, but Older and Far Away is not one of my favorite BtS eps. Now I'm wondering if there are any other Buffy eps that fit this category. ;)

I agree that Epitaph1 should have made this list. If Pine Barrows (one of the best Sopranos eps ever) and Unfinished Business made the cut, despite some questions about the strict definition of the term, I don't see why E1 wouldn't qualify.

Unfinished Business is one of my very favorite BSG eps, despite that fact that I loath boxing. If it was cobbled together in this format for even the partial purpose of saving money, I'm even more impressed.
Ooh new term, nice!
So the only episodes I recognised on this list were the Whedon ones, I need to branch out! Also, hell yeah i'm on board for some Dollhouse loving! E1 was an epic claustrophobic escapade into the dark recesses of the beautiful underground zombie spa, it almost never left the place and used flashforwards that were reused. so yeah, in my new understanding of this term shouldn't E1 definitely fall into the category?
Didn't the WB insist to Joss that the fifth season of "Angel" be more bottle episodes? At least, that was the idea.
Bottle episodes are usually my favourites. I'm also fond of 'everything takes place in an elevator' episodes.
Didn't the WB insist to Joss that the fifth season of "Angel" be more bottle episodes? At least, that was the idea.

I think you may be confusing the idea of a standalone episode with the idea of a bottle episode 'Hatter. Standalones (which The WB asked for more of) can be set anywhere, in multiple locations, with any budget and any number of characters, the only requirement is that they don't have any/many serial elements (i.e. you can understand everything that occurs without having seen previous episodes of the show). Bottle episodes are generally set almost exclusively within a restricted area (e.g. a single room) with few cast members and for a lower budget but can (and do) have serial story elements and/or fundamental character revelations.

(read the Wikipedia entry for "bottle episode" BTW and it reminded me of the great 'Porridge' ep 'A Night In', set entirely in a prison cell after lights out with only two cast members. Well, two plus about a minute of Fulton McKay at the end)


ETA: the link, cos i'm nice like that ;).

[ edited by Saje on 2010-06-21 13:10 ]
Oh, that's bringing flashbacks of "Grey's Anatomy" wonder years!

"George, we need a heart transplant in elevator two stat."
The authorative source.

Key quote:
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.


See also Clip Shows, Recap Episode, and the many narrative devices which serve as excellent frameworks for bottle 'sodes in general.



CAUTION: Following above links may result in consequences akin to drinking wood alcohol.

[ edited by brinderwalt on 2010-06-21 15:25 ]
Saje did you ever see the One Foot in The Grave episode where it was just Victor and his wife lying in bed? Fantastic piece of writing and gut wrenching by the end. Pyschoville did a very good bottle episode as well. I'm wondering if the British are better at it because of the low budgets.
I think you're all forgetting a very important fact about Epitaph One that prevents it from being counted: It didn't actually air on TV. At least, not American TV.

On the Dollhouse front, I prefer to submit "Spy in The House of Love". Aside from the brief espionage subplot involving Sierra, and the few scenes with Adelle & "Roger", the rest of the episode takes place entirely in the Dollhouse.

Other qualifying favorites I would add to that list:
Red Dwarf: (3x02) Marooned
Red Dwarf: (5x04) Quarantine
Dawson's Creek: (6x15) Castaways - Although I can't stand the saccharine ending.
Dawson's Creek: (5x15) Downtown Crossing - Featuring Mercedes McNab!
Family Guy: (8x17) Brian & Stewie - Very funny, but surprisingly touching and profound. It's become my favorite episode of the entire series to date.
House MD: (5x19) Locked In
House MD: (6x16) Lockdown - Directed by Hugh Laurie!
Angel: (4x11) Soulless - Directed by Sean Astin!
Eureka: (1x11) H.O.U.S.E. Rules
The X-Files: (3x22) Quagmire - Mostly takes place with just Mulder & Scully on a lake, in a boat.
The X-Files: (9x13) Improbable - A bit of a reach, but much of the episode does involve Reyes & Scully trapped in a parking garage....with Burt Reynolds. :)
Dead Like Me: (1x12) Nighthawks - In addition to being a bottle episode, this one is also a clips show, although I think those bits should be removed as they're unnecessary and come way too early in the series. Still, this is my favorite episode of Dead Like Me.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: (2x01) Did the Earth Move For You?
Married with Children: (1x13) Johnny Be Gone - Also occurs in real time.
Married with Children: (5x02) Al... with Kelly

Speaking of Married with Children, I'd like to mention that (7x21) Movie Show, features a young David Boreanaz!

Also, as if it wasn't obvious from the above text, I LOVE bottle episodes! Out of Gas is my favorite example of this, and my favorite episode of Firefly.
Loved Out of Gas! My favorite Firefly episode. :)
Saje did you ever see the One Foot in The Grave episode where it was just Victor and his wife lying in bed? Fantastic piece of writing and gut wrenching by the end.

I haven't Simon, in fact I only ever caught a few episodes of 'One Foot ...', not sure why I just never really watched it (though the ones i've seen did display that mix of comedy and pathos that's extremely common in UK programmes. The best US comedies do it too, it's just not as common IMO).

Maybe we are better at them, not really considered it before but I guess UK creators are used to working with much less money than in the US. It might also be true that UK TV actors are more likely to have worked on the stage (swapping back and forth seems more common over here) so they may be more used to (and keen to do) two-handers or single setting, "stagey" episodes.

(and I second brinderwalt's caution BTW: tvtropes.org WILL steal your life. Been warned ;)
Kungfubear: The fact that Epitaph One never aired in the US has nothing to do with the fact that the producers said, "We need a super-cheap episode. You will have almost no money to make it." (Paraphrased, of course!) If it wasn't easily available, I could totally see why it was left off. Or if it just wasn't as praised and important. But it's really a big deal, in a lot of ways. And as far as Dollhouse goes, Epitaph One has received a whole lot of attention. It's not like it's a forgotten episode.

Wisengrund: If it doesn't FEEL inexpensive, but actually is, doesn't that just make it more impressive, rather than 'not a bottle episode'
One specifically British version of the "bottle episode" is the Doctor Lite episode--in which The Doctor makes minimal appearances, since another episode is being shot simultaneously. (To save money.) Results vary widely in quality--from "Love & Monsters" to "Blink." Usually the season's Main Companion is also scarce; "Turn Left" is an exception, with "Midnight" being its Companion-free counterpart. (Do I have to explain which show I'm discussing to this audience?)

Per the article, I agree with "Spin The Bottle"--it's such a stretch to see Badass Wesley regress to Wimp Wesley. And agree that "Out of Gas" should have been added. But the flashbacks open it up a bit; even if they are all set on the ship, they are shot differently.

For the non-Whedon shows: That episode is one of the many reasons that Homicide remains a favorite.

[ edited by not_Bridget on 2010-06-21 16:48 ]
Some of the best TV ever has been made under budget constraints and often on a limited or single set. Brits of *ahem* a certain age may recall some wonderful Steptoe and Son episodes (like when Harold divided the house physically in half but they had to share the TV); that and Hancock's The Radio Ham come to mind as outstanding classic examples. If you have true excellence in your performers and writers, you can often get away with low budgets for everything else.
Simon, thanks for speaking my mind regarding "Intersections in Real Time" -- totally criminal that they left it off! And to add to bob1o's list, the episode does feature another lead, but as a brief non-speaking hallucination only, and in fact only has three speaking parts. Moreover it's literally shot in "Real Time" -- each act is exactly as long as the events depicted.

It could only have been cooler if it had aired in its intended place: as a season finale.
Forgot about that hallucination! Nitpicking here only for the sake of my own memory, but weren't there at least 4 speaking parts? Sheridan, Drazi, 2 interrogators...

I almost used one of the acts as a film project in school. I was gonna shoot it! Didn't happen unfortunately.

It's amazing how engaging that episode is considering it's just a couple of guys in a room the whole time. I remember watching it the first time (yowser, that was a while ago) and suddenly realizing halfway through that we hadn't left that room. I'd been so engaged that I hadn't noticed!

ETA: not_Bridget, Out of Gas was on the list. The flashbacks were no more expensive to shoot and produce than the rest of the episode.

[ edited by bobw1o on 2010-06-21 18:51 ]
@Simon - I don't remember that particular episode of 'One Foot in the Grave', but they did do quite a few episodes that would be considered "Bottle episodes" (although, I'm not sure whether they were done for the purpose of saving money or because of it just being a good idea.) The ones that immediately spring to mind are when they are sitting in a traffic jam and one where they are in a waiting room.

I also love that 'Psychoville' episode you mentioned. It seemed even more impressive when I saw 'Rope' not long afterwards.

Good list, although I had only seen a few of them. I really liked the BSG episode, as others have mentioned, and also 'Midnight', which was one of the best RTD written episodes of Dr. Who. 'Spin the Bottle' is one of the great Angel episodes and stands out for the reasons A.V. Club mention. It does bare a striking resemblance to 'Tabula Rosa', but doesn't prevent it from being fantastic in its own right.

No need to comment on 'Out of Gas', we all know that is a pretty much a flawless episode.
"Older and Far Away" is the first thing that came to mind when I thought of bottle shows--what's more of a bottle show than an episode where the characters are literally confined to the house? But sadly I wouldn't describe it as a great episode, even though it's the bottle-est of them all.

"Spin the Bottle," on the other hand, is genius. Although it's at least three locations off the top of my head (the Hotel, Lorne's nightclub act, the street with Connor and the prostitute).

"Objects in Space" has fewer locations than "Out of Gas," by the way--just Serenity and Early's ship (VERY SMALL), whereas Out of Gas also has the place where Mal buys the ship, and the planet where Mal & Zoe pick up Jayne. And they're probably my two favourite episodes. Heavens to betsy, how do they do it?
Quibble: they were 16 in "Spin the Bottle."
shout-out to Mad About You's The Conversation, where they spend twenty minutes in one take outside the baby's room.
bobw1o said:
Kungfubear: The fact that Epitaph One never aired in the US has nothing to do with the fact that the producers said, "We need a super-cheap episode. You will have almost no money to make it." (Paraphrased, of course!) If it wasn't easily available, I could totally see why it was left off. Or if it just wasn't as praised and important. But it's really a big deal, in a lot of ways. And as far as Dollhouse goes, Epitaph One has received a whole lot of attention. It's not like it's a forgotten episode.


Yes, and in related news, water is wet. :) Seriously though, the fact that it qualifies as a bottle episode has nothing to do with what I said. I merely suggested that Epitaph One might not have made the list simply based on a technicality. It wasn't broadcast on TV, and maybe the AV Club just wanted to stick with episodes that had? Something else to consider: As suggested above, perhaps they didn't want to include too many Whedon shows. In fact, I think he's the only creator given more than one spot on this list.
I was never a huge fan of 'Spin the Bottle', as the premise was so much like 'Tabula Rasa', but I didn't think it was nearly as funny. I'd prefer 'Epitaph One' to all three Whedon eps on the list, except maybe 'Out of Gas', because, ya know, all of the awesome. :) Oh well, I trust the AV Club, maybe they have their reasons.
Kungfubear, I see the confusion. You wrote your suggestion as a statement. And not a statement about AV club, but one that I inferred meant you thought it's not a bottle episode if it doesn't air. My response was to describe that just because it didn't air in the states doesn't mean it's not a bottle episode, which is what the list is about. Anything is possible as a reason it was left out, I suppose. But if it were just to lessen the Whedon shows, they should have replaced the Buffy Ep with it! Ah well.

WilliamTheB, both those locations are on stage, the same stages they were already using for the show. The scene with Jayne was in fact on the Serenity set, at the opening to the cargo bay.
Actually I'm gonna back up MadHatter a bit Saje, I thought one of the reasons they built that new Wolfram and Hart set was since they wanted to be able to film a lot more of the series on the same set. To keep things interesting, that's why they went with such a massive one.

At least I seem to remember that taking place, sort of like how their budget cuts got so bad at one point they had the actors stand about two feet from the backdrop of the LA skyline for a nighttime sequence.
Indeed, there's a scene or two with Illyria and Wesley on the W&H roof that just look... very set-like.
Actually I'm gonna back up MadHatter a bit Saje, I thought one of the reasons they built that new Wolfram and Hart set was since they wanted to be able to film a lot more of the series on the same set. To keep things interesting, that's why they went with such a massive one.

Using a single set as much as possible certainly makes sense when your budget's been cut but I still wouldn't describe that as asking him to make more bottle shows, i'd say that more bottle shows arose because their budget was cut (or possibly arose - are there actually more in S5 ?). Small difference maybe but a difference.

That and I remember a DVD commentary (and a few interviews) where Joss specifically mentions that they'd been asked to make S5 more standalone after the very arcy season 4 whereas if The WB ever asked him to include more bottle shows in season 5 then it's the first i've heard of it (and why would they, commercially I mean ? "More standalone" makes sense in that context to try to encourage new viewers, "make bottle shows" on the other hand doesn't seem to have any commercial benefit and is unnecessarily tying the creators hands - if he can make sweeping, multi-location epics on budget then what does it have to do with The WB ? If anything i'd imagine they'd want him to squeeze out as much onscreen bang per buck as possible rather than give him a specific directive to make a TV show look more like a play).
Yeah, a lot of (slightly) older British sitcoms are set in pretty much one place. The more recent ones that spring to mind are dinnerladies (that's recent right?), The Office and particularly The Smoking Room (which I love but no-one ever remembers) in which we never leave that one room.

I love ER and the majority of their episode are set in just the one (big) place. But I'm not sure if any could be considered 'bottle' what with all the extras and guest star etc. Off the top of my head the only two I can think of are 'Lockdown' and 'Secrets and Lies', neither of which are very good.
I LOVE Spin the Bottle. Angel trying to find his Irish accent never fails to make me laugh. And Wesley! Fred! Gunn! Funny funny episode.
They should have picked Normal Again - the entire episode takes place in Buffy's head.

(Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
Heh, by that reckoning ALL of BtVS takes place in Buffy's head. 144 bottle shows in a row has to be some kind of record surely ?
Hmmm, so does that mean that all of ANGEL is also a figment of Buffy's imagination? :)
Yep, must be. Not ALL the comics though. She may be delusional but only along strictly canonical lines ;).

So, 254 episodes in total (plus sundry comics). That makes 'St. Elsewhere's 137 look totally paltry. Makes sense when you think about it right enough, Buffy always did have a lot of bottle. Ahem.

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