Being cooped up in a small space together with other people might not always be fun to experience – but it’s definitely fun to watch. From Friends to Seinfeld to Breaking Bad, Archer and more, Eliza Janssen picks 10 classic TV episodes focusing on characters trapped in a single location.
As the COVID-19 crisis grows more and more serious with each passing day, all of us are starting to face the very real possibility of being bottled up indoors for an extended period of time. And honestly, that’s a set-up with great narrative potential. Cooped up in a small space together, characters tend to have nowhere to hide, relaxing their inhibitions and allowing for great comedy and/or drama.
Maybe that doesn’t sound very fun to experience, but it’s definitely fun to watch. So without further ado, here are 10 of TV’s most memorable single settle or ‘bottle episodes’ – that is, entire episodes in which a series’ main characters are trapped in one location.
Don’t lose grip of reality and reveal all your innermost secrets and desires to your self-isolation buddies; watch some of TV’s greatest characters go stir crazy instead!
Like all the best episodes of Breaking Bad, season three’s tenth episode combines morbid crime and unparalleled character development with unexpected humour. And it just happens to do all that without leaving the confines of Walt and Jesse’s underground lab.
When a fly gets loose in the meth lab, Walt becomes Ahab-like in his determination to kill it, so that it doesn’t contaminate their supply. Maybe it’s the writing, maybe it’s Knives Out director Rian Johnson’s lively visuals. Somehow this episode ends up being one of the series greatest, despite the omission of the terrific supporting cast and usual New Mexico vistas.
As will probably become apparent throughout this list, bottle episodes are both pretty common and pretty successful in the world of sitcoms. They’re a low-budget way to get the most out of characters, and most episodes are normally set in a few key locations anyways.
Friends might have one of the most popular examples with The One Where No One’s Ready, which decided against the usual A-plot and B-plot in favour of a chaotic, extended scene of Ross trying to corral the gang into attending an important palaeontology event at which he’s being honoured. Of course, Rachel can’t pick an outfit, Chandler and Joey are bickering over personal space, Monica’s freaking out over her relationship, and Phoebe’s dress gets stained.
Possibly the most claustrophobic bottle episode on this list, animated spy-comedy Archer went balls to the elevator walls in this chaotic season six episode.
With the entire ISIS office staff trapped inside a broken-down lift, the episode gets nasty real quick, with Pam and Cyril both desperate to relieve themselves in uhhhhh very different ways. Imagine being trapped in a box with seven of your funniest friends and you’ll get some idea of how simultaneously hilarious and anxiety-inducing this episode can get.
Yes, even in its single tragic season of high-quality western sci-fi, Firefly managed to give us one hell of a bottle episode. Five episodes into Joss Whedon’s character-driven spaceship drama, the eponymous vessel’s life support systems fail, and captain Mal valorously orders the entire crew to escape, leaving him to die.
In a delicately structured series of flashbacks, Mal remembers how he met each of the crew members, leading to a predictable but still heart-warming conclusion.
This zany sitcom about female friends trying to hustle their way through NYC ended its third season with the platonic ideal of a bottle episode, trapping Abbi and Ilana in their apartment with a variety of close friends, enemies, and long-time crushes. A hurricane rages both outside and indoors, when somebody finds a turd wrapped in tinfoil in their shoe. Watch this episode with your quarantined family to establish some healthy boundaries.
The Suitcase takes place over a single frustrating night at the offices of Madison Avenue ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, where the team are stewing over a campaign for Samsonite luggage that’s due the following morning.
As the night goes on, secondary characters head home, leaving only Don and Peggy, the two sole characters who might truly understand one another. It all ends with a tear-jerking, poignant moment between the pair, soundtracked by Simon and Garfunkel – the perfect mid-series episode for an often perfect TV show.
Back in season two of Community, Abed complained: “I hate bottle episodes…they’re wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance, I might as well sit in the corner with a bucket on my head.”
The thing is, he couldn’t be more wrong. The self-referential community college sitcom gave us multiple excellent episodes contained to a single location, none more creative than Remedial Chaos Theory, a bonkers exploration of alternate timelines. It all culminates in this now-iconic gif of Donald Glover trying to deliver a pizza. You’re very welcome.
The great grandaddy of sitcom bottle episodes, The Chinese Restaurant was a moment for Seinfeld to truly demonstrate the capabilities of being a show about nothing. George, Elaine, and Jerry spend half an hour waiting for their table at a Chinese restaurant before going to a movie, and their circular, obsessive banter takes the episode’s real-time storytelling from experimental to iconic.
Certainly the earliest bottle episode on this list, The Enemy Within sees the crew of the USS Enterprise trapped when Captain Kirk’s personality gets split into two binary identities: a meek, indecisive Good Kirk and an eye-liner-wearing bad boy Evil Kirk. There’s also a mysterious alien dog (above), which is clearly an earth dog with a horn strapped to its head. The sixties, man…
Sterling K. Brown was nominated for an Outstanding Guest Actor Emmy for his performance in this tight 21 minutes of crime-comedy gold. Stripped of the usual subplots and extended cast, New York cops Jake and Holt interrogate a suspect over night, allowing for something more substantial than the usual zippy sitcom fans love.
Here, the father/son dynamic between Jake and Holt is in full bloom. It’s totally worth the sacrifice of the Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s typical high energy, low-stakes vibe.