The Bottle Test
Earlier this year, while watching the entire run of Breaking Bad for the first time, I finally saw “Fly,” which is generally considered to be one of the show’s definitive episodes. It takes place almost entirely in the secret meth lab, as Walt and Jesse go to increasingly elaborate—and dangerous—lengths to kill a pesky fly that ends up symbolizing everything that has gone wrong with both of their lives. And while the conceit was divisive at time, I think it’s easily one of the strongest episodes of the series, and more riveting than many of the show’s busier, more conventionally plotted installments. Part of this is because it focuses squarely on its two most compelling characters, without the digressions to relatively weaker players like Skyler or Marie who tend to sap the momentum. But it’s also a reflection of the inherent strength of one of the most fascinating conventions of episodic television, a form of storytelling that, at its best, offers us nothing less than a distilled version of the shows we love: the bottle episode.
A bottle episode, as viewers of the “Cooperative Calligraphy” episode of Community or the nerds on TV Tropes already know, is an episode of a television series that takes place mostly on one set, and often with only the show’s regular cast. Bottle episodes are usually a budgetary measure, born out of a need to save time or money, but as is often the case when constraints are imposed, the results can be remarkable. My own favorite example is the X-Files episode “Ice,” which, aside from a couple of establishing scenes, takes place entirely in an abandoned research base in Alaska. The result seems designed to economize in more ways than one—the plot is essentially an extended riff on The Thing—but it’s also the first great episode of the series, and one of the best the show ever did. It established the fact that the show’s true strengths had nothing to do with elaborate conspiracies or special effects, but with the ingenious working out of tense, surprising premises. And it’s no accident that the show’s storytelling became immediately more confident after “Ice” established what the series could really do.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’d argue that the ability to deliver a great bottle episode is a measure of a show’s quality. Only a show with supreme confidence in its cast, its premise, the technical qualities of its writing and direction, and a willingness to embrace constraint and simplicity can pull off an episode like this. And if we apply this hypothetical test to an actual show, the resulting thought experiment tells us a lot about the series in question. It’s hard to imagine a show like Glee, for instance, with its obsession with burning through ideas and plotlines as quickly as possible, generating the necessary focus to keep its primary cast in a room for forty minutes while still keeping our attention. (“Blame It On the Alcohol” is a great example of a potentially promising bottle episode that chickens out halfway through.) Conversely, while Mad Men has never done a true bottle episode—“The Suitcase” probably comes closest—the prospect of keeping these characters in a single location is undeniably enticing.
Which only demonstrates that part of the appeal of the bottle episode is that it’s really an allegory for the act of making television itself. Any television series, after all, really amounts to a bottle episode being played out in real life over the course of many seasons: it involves a group of actors, writers, and other professionals thrown together on a few standing sets, often without a lot of advance preparation, so that it’s anyone’s guess what will come next. This is especially true of comedy, in which the dynamics present in the pilot will often evolve in ways that nobody could have anticipated at the time: a secondary character will turn into a breakout star, supporting players will fall flat or rise to the occasion, and unusual pairings and combinations will arise under the endless pressure of producing new stories. The more interesting the ensuing collisions, the better the show will be. And none of this would happen if the process weren’t already taking place in a bottle—and unfolding before our eyes.