If you’re not familiar with the term ‘bottle episode’, you will certainly understand the sentiment. This is when a show spends a whole episode stuck in one place. Sometimes they’re made to save money that can be spent on bigger budget episodes.
Seinfeld’s more famous one is The Chinese Restaurant.
What makes this episode so good is that it also adds a ticking clock element, and the tension of Elaine being so hungry. Brilliantly, the ticking clock is the trio wanting to get to a late showing of Plan 9 From Outer Space. And it works because they care they might miss it.
You could argue that The Parking Garage is also a bottle episode.
Red Dwarf‘s Marooned is that show at its best. Just Rimmer and Lister, stuck and dying in a shipwreck. It slowly strips everything away, until there’s nothing left but the hidden depths of the characters.
Contrast this episode and The Chinese Restaurant, and you get a clear idea of how stakes are important. On Red Dwarf it is literally a matter of life and death, while on Seinfeld, it’s only important to the characters. And when it’s important to the characters, it’s important to the audience. Both approaches work.
Bottom has some stunning bottle episodes too. The first one that springs to mind is Culture.
This takes the Seinfeld approach, making it about something trivial, but escalates it until they are literally trying to kill one another.
In Hole, Richie and Eddie and stranded atop a broken down Ferris Wheel.
The whole run of dinnerladies is set in one place.
Hancock took it all one step further in The Bedsitter, where it’s just him, alone, talking to himself.
Men Behaving Badly did an almost single shot episode of the two idiots sitting on the sofa. And of course, the Rope homage in Psychoville did something similar expertly.
One Foot In The Grave managed to do a bottle episode every series, though this is the one that first springs to mind.
Porridge famously has A Night In, where Fletch talks Godber down from a panic attack.
And while not totally a bottle episode, Only Fools And Horses has a remarkable extended scene with them sleeping in a fallout shelter, that has such a subtle single shot in it you might miss it – mostly because of an excellent performance by Lennard Pearce.