In episodic television, a bottle episode is produced cheaply and restricted in scope to use as few non-regular cast members, effects, and sets as possible. Bottle episodes are usually shot on sets built for other episodes, frequently the main interior sets for a series and consist largely of dialogue and scenes for which no special preparations are needed. They are also commonly used when one script has fallen through and another has to be written at short notice.
The etymology of the phrase originates with a similar term used in the 1960s on the set of Star Trek: TOS. Cast and crew members of the show used the phrase "ship-in-a-bottle episodes", for those that took place only on board the USS Enterprise.
Bottle episodes are sometimes produced when a show has a mid-season cliffhanger or an expensive season opener/closer, to allow as much of the budget as possible to go to the more expensive episodes. Scott Brazil, executive producer/director of The Shield, described bottle episodes as "the sad little stepchild whose allowance is docked in order to buy big brother a new pair of sneaks". The popularity of the Friends bottle episode "The One Where No One's Ready" led the producers to create at least one bottle episode in each season. Several early episodes of The X-Files were conceived as bottle episodes, including "Space", "Darkness Falls", and the well-received "Ice", although these ran over budget.
Bottle episodes from Star Trek: TOS are known for occasionally becoming popular with fans. Examples include "The Tholian Web", "Journey to Babel", and "Balance of Terror". The phenomenon has persisted to a lesser extent in later incarnations, with "Duet" (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) being celebrated by Startrek.com and Amazon.com—among other sources—as "[a]rguably one of the best episodes of Deep Space Nine and a jewel in the entire Trek canon".
Although Star Trek: TOS cast coined the term "bottle episode", it was not the first show, science fiction or otherwise, to use them. The third story of Doctor Who, "The Edge of Destruction", was a bottle episode created in different circumstances from most. The series had been picked up for thirteen episodes by the BBC, and the previous two stories had contained eleven episodes between them; hence, a two-part story was needed. It only featured the main cast of four. Doctor Who has also had occasional bottle episodes since then, most notably "Midnight", which, apart from bookend scenes at a holiday resort, is set entirely on a shuttle bus, with a monster depicted only via sound effects and the acting of the guest cast.
The third-season episode "Fly" of Breaking Bad features only two members of the main cast (plus a few extras) and takes place almost exclusively in the secret laboratory used to cook crystal methamphetamine. Series creator Vince Gilligan has referred to this as a bottle episode, noting that the limited setting and cast allowed for a slower pace and deeper exploration of character traits and motives:
Even if financial realities didn't enter into it, I feel as a showrunner that there should be a certain shape and pace to each season, and the really high highs that you try to get to at the end of a season—the big dramatic moments of action and violence, the big operatic moments you're striving for—I don't think would land as hard if you didn't have the moments of quiet that came before them. The quiet episodes make the tenser, more dramatic episodes pop even more than they usually would just by their contrast.
The comedy-drama series Leverage had a bottle episode. "The Bottle Job", from Season 2, is confined to Nathan Ford's (Timothy Hutton) apartment; McRory's, the bar it sits over; and the bar's back room. It alludes to the concept by forcing the Leverage team to execute a late betting scam, which normally takes days or weeks just to set up, in only an hour and a half; Ford explicitly calls it "The Wire in a bottle". (Ford, a recovering alcoholic, also reverts to drinking as part of the scam; "hitting the bottle" is an expression for heavy drinking.)
A meta-example is Community's Season 2, Episode 8, "Cooperative Calligraphy". After the opening, characters Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) and Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) both refer to the situation as a bottle episode. The entire episode is set inside a study room of the college with only the main cast.
Another meta-example is Teen Titans Go!'s Season 3, Episode 29, "Bottle Episode". Its plot centers around the main characters being trapped in a literal glass bottle, and passing the time by reminiscing about previous episodes. The episode breaks the fourth wall multiple times with dialogue referencing the expense of television production, giving production staff a break, and the need to fill episodes that fall through.
The adult-animated sci-fi sitcom Rick and Morty has a bottle episode called Rixty Minutes. In it, the Smith family alternates between watching the lives of alternate versions of themselves on special goggles and commercials on the TV, the latter being entirely improvised sketches by co-creator Justin Roiland.
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