There’s no silver lining to what’s happening right now, but the quarantine has given us hours and hours to watch TV. Of course, being spoiled for choice sometimes makes it difficult to choose just what exactly to watch. Some opt for escapism, which is their prerogative, but personally I find doubling down on our current claustrophobic existence rather cathartic. And you know what that means? Watching lots and lots of bottle episodes.
For the uninitiated, the term bottle episode originally referred to an inexpensive episode of television, used as a way to deal with a TV show’s slim budget. Bottle episodes had to be cheap by design, giving writers an extra challenge as they worked within financial constraints. The cut on costs usually meant that only regulars would appear, and the sets would be extremely limited. However, considering these typical techniques employed, the term bottle episode has morphed to also describe episodes of television that take place in just one setting—sound familiar?
Considering that we’re all getting extra acquainted with the four walls around us and whatever people or pets we’re with, bottle episodes seem like a fitting companion for these trying times. We’ve found ten of the best sitcom bottle episodes to keep you company while you attempt to maintain your sanity.
Dan Harmon loves a good bottle episode, even in cartoon form. For once the Smith/Sanchez family decides to take a break from interstellar travel, instead staying at home to watch interdimensional cable or, for the more emotionally masochistic, see what alternate versions of their lives look like. This episode deserves kudos at the very least for the origin of interdimensional cable, which is just Justin Roiland improvising and dreaming up strange (even for Rick and Morty) stuff like Ants In My Eyes Johnson. More underrated, though, is the gooey emotional core of the episode, in which Jerry and Beth reckon with what their lives would have been like if they decided not to have Summer and get married. In these desperate times, Morty sums it up well when he says, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”
This one’s a bit of a stretch, but a worthwhile one. “Live from Studio 6H” technically falls under the umbrella of the bottle episode trope thanks to Kenneth the page locking the cast and crew in Tracy Jordan’s dressing room. The country bumpkin confines them to prove the importance of live television. However, at the same time 30 Rock actors ran out to reenact Kenneth’s memories of television glory days in the two versions of the episode, one going live for each coast. Tina Fey may have been channeling her Saturday Night Live roots on the ambitious live show but brings a playfulness and intelligence that makes this episode of 30 Rock unmissable (which can’t often be said for SNL).
Frasier is almost designed to cater to bottle episodes—though not quite as much as its forerunner, Cheers—deriving its best gags from witty dialogue, contentious relationships and farcical situations that require little more than a barebones set to work. The writers nailed it during the first season with the finale “My Coffee with Niles,” in which Frasier and Niles have a coffee at their usual spot Cafe Nervosa and run into a couple of their friends and family. Niles asks his brother the deceptively simple question “Are you happy?”, which Frasier overanalyzes in his typical way, finding some emotional depth in between quibbling over his obnoxiously specific coffee order.
The best bottle episodes contain poignant character moments, and “The Box” is no slouch in that regard. Mostly taking place in the Nine-Nine’s interrogation room, Captain Raymond Holt and Detective Jake Peralta play off each other in order to coax a confession out of a particularly cocky dentist. Peralta acknowledges his desire to prove himself to Holt because daddy issues, and in examining his own inner conflict finds the solution to making the criminal crack.
When the gang at Paddy’s Pub find themselves at a loss for news or any other stimuli, they decide to turn to their favorite pastime: Chardee MacDennis, a game to challenge the mind, body and spirit (and liver). With ridiculous rules (no asking questions), copious amounts of drinking and some hefty challenges (emotional battery, anyone?), Chardee MacDennis may prove to be the perfect inspiration for your own tailor-made quarantine board game. Let’s just hope your game pieces don’t get as battered as Charlie and Mac’s.
This particular episode takes place entirely within Monica and Rachel’s iconic purple living room. Ross, dressed to the nines in a tux, tries to hurry his friends along so they won’t be late to his museum’s benefit. That seemingly simple task isn’t quite as easy as it seems, though. Joey and Chandler fight over a chair, Rachel struggles with her sartorial choices and Monica goes full-on stalker when she thinks that Richard may have left her a new voicemail. For once, Phoebe is the responsible one.
In their ambitious three year time jump, the Parks and Rec writers left viewers—and Leslie—with one significant mystery: why weren’t Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson friends anymore? Well, the former department staff take matters into their own hands when they decide to lock the two into their old office to sort out their issues. The fantastic reveal about Ron’s claymore mine is trumped only by the quietly heartbreaking revelation as to why Ron ended their friendship. Plus, does anything encapsulate quarantine madness better than the image of Ron decked out in Craig’s yoga sweats, playing the saxophone to “We Didn’t Start the Fire?”
Other than the cold open, this particular episode all takes place in the funeral parlor where BoJack’s mother’s memorial service is being held. It’s made up entirely of BoJack’s eulogy, which is just as dark and devastating as you’d expect. Our anti-hero’s mother never showed him love, yet he is still grieving, a dichotomy which is explored excellently and unflinchingly by the writers. Moments that would usually be softened by a lesser show are thrown into sharp relief here, just like the shadow of BoJack’s mother dancing across the wall.
We have to hand it to a classic; “Chinese Restaurant” holds up nearly three decades on, even though it falls under the perennial designation of Seinfeld episodes that could be solved with cell phones. Jerry, George and Elaine find themselves in the worst of first world problems, waiting for a table at a restaurant and seemingly never being seated (what we wouldn’t do to be in a restaurant risk-free right now). It all takes place in the titular eatery, and NBC thought that the seemingly pointless episode would leave audiences bored. According to Vulture, creator Larry David threatened to quit Seinfeld if the network tried to change the episode, but he won out in the end. “Chinese Restaurant” walked so that all of these other episodes could run.
“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,” Abed declares when it becomes increasingly obvious that Annie is about to keep the entire study group in the room all over a lost pen. Even he has to acknowledge by the end, though, that their soul-searching and pen-searching leads to some of the show’s best character moments. Cap it all off with a heartwarming conclusion narrated by Troy, and you’ve got a bottle episode that will give you hope in quarantine.
Clare Martin writes about comedy, music and more for Paste.