If you don’t know me, I’m the guy usually sitting next to Mr. Juice in the theater. Though I can’t keep up with his two movie a week pace, that does allow me to skip out on stinkers like Dolittle, Cats, and Gemini Man.
Now, since you definitely don’t care who I am, let me introduce you to one of TV’s wonderful little budget saving secrets… the bottle episode.
The bottle episode was originated in the 60’s by Leslie Stephens, creator of The Outer Limits, to conserve limited budgets for the more important episodes. They can vary in style but are most often characterized by a single set and minimal characters. Some will stray away from the overarching plot of the season and even its main characters (Mythic Quest, S1E5), some will be terrible like when we learn about Nikki and Paolo (Lost, S3E14), and some will make you so damn uncomfortable, you’d wished you’d never seen it (Atlanta’s Teddy Perkins, S2E6).
If you’ll indulge me, let’s take a walk down memory lane and explore some of the best.
Let’s dive in with an easy one.
Breaking Bad Season 3 Episode 10: Fly
Vince Gilligan tapped Rian Johnson (Star Wars, Knives out… Much more) to direct this episode. It occurs towards the end of season three and serves as a buffer before the season’s loose ends to begin tying up. It’s a pretty simple concept… Walt + Jesse + Their underground lab. What starts as a rudimentary day of cleaning and drug dealin’ admin work, soon gets sidetracked by a single fly. The ever-so-meticulous Mr. White must deal with the “contaminant” before anything can continue.
Rian does a masterful job mixing in some comic relief and some deep character introspection. He also manages to mix in some unique camera angles despite being boxed in to a 30’x30’ concrete cube. My favorites include the brush cam and the closeup of the fly rubbing its legs while parked on Walts glasses, almost mocking his futile efforts to catch it.
Episodes like these, while lacking a substantial plot, really allow the production team to play around flex their cinematography muscles. As a fan who was watching the series live, an episode like this was infuriating. All you want is more answers, more plot, more action. However, upon my first [and eventual second] rewatch, my opinion changed. Bottle episodes like this let the audience breathe. A pause and slow ride to the top of the big rollercoaster before shit really hits the fan in Half Measure and Full Measureto end season three.
Atlanta Season 2 Episode 6: Teddy Perkins
Taking a trip east from Albuquerque to Atlanta, we can catch up with our pal Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and his offbeat misadventures with the aforementioned Teddy Perkins. If you haven’t seen Atlanta, It follows Earnest (Donald Glover) an aspiring music manager to the up and coming Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). Give it a watch if you haven’t, Glover won an Emmy for it. The episode takes a break from the typical comedy the series is known for and takes a dip into an ambiguous, yet wholly original horror genre. In fact, it takes a break from the plot all together as we don’t even see the two main characters for nearly the entire episode.
Darius, a friend of Paper Boi and Earnest, is on a mission to pick up an old piano from Teddy Perkins (played by Glover in a Michael Jackson-esque white face get up). The whole episode draws on the story of the Jackson family.
(I mean look at this creepiness)
All he wants to do is get the piano and get the F*** out of this house, however Darius keeps getting pulled deeper into the labyrinth that is the Perkins mansion. All the while, Perkins drifts around like a ghost, popping in to share creepy anecdotes about his father and to eat a soft-boiled ostrich egg. Now I won’t ruin the episode because it does end with a twist, but it just goes to show that you don’t have to stick to what you know when it comes to filmmaking. We knew Glover as Troy from Community, then he gave us Teddy Perkins. We knew Jordan Peele as Tyroil Smoochie-Wallace from the East-West Bowl then he brought us Get Out and Us.
Seinfeld Season 2 Episode 11: The Chinese Restaurant
I don’t expect all you older folks out there to know those last few names so I’ll give you one last one that you will remember. I’m talking Seinfeld’s The Chinese Restaurant. I mean, the entire episode takes place in a foyer! For those who don’t remember, the gang sans Kramer want to get a quick bite before their movie but the Maitre’d, played by the legendary James Hong, continues seating other patrons but seems to be ignoring the Seinfeld party of four.
We get to see Elaine resort to ventriloquism to try and steal food off plates, Jerry unsuccessfully tries to bribe the host, and George impatiently wait for the payphone to call his lady friend over the course of the episode. In the end, none are successful, they leave hungry and we can’t stop laughing. The episode also gave us the iconic line, “We are living in a SOCIETY!!!” This episode was such a bottle episode that NBC execs thought the script was missing pages and too static, even for a Seinfeld episode. LD threatened to quit over the debacle, so they eventually let it air (Thank God).
If you think about it, Seinfeld was a series of bottle episodes. No overarching plot, a few frequented sets, and a small handful of recurring side characters (Newmannnnn). It’s what allowed LD and Seinfeld to create such an iconic show. They weren’t limited in what they could write based on plot lines. They took from real world experience and added some jokes.
If you are seeing a theme here, then I did my job well enough. Next time you’re watching a bottle episode, take note of some of the new and unique things the director may be doing. Are we seeing new filming techniques, are we diving into some background character development? What’re your favorite Bottle episodes? Let’s hear them.
Until next time…