1. Homicide: Life On The Streets, “Three Men And Adena” (1993)
By design, the “bottle episode” is a money-saving endeavor, where a series confines primary cast members to an existing set for most (if not all) of an hour or half-hour, then applies the budgetary savings to splashier episodes elsewhere in the season. But on great shows, such limitations can lead to creative invention, fueled by the added intensity and urgency of a bunch of fine actors trapped in tight quarters. Four episodes into its first season, Homicide: Life On The Streets was already well on its way to becoming groundbreaking television, adding a level of realism and commitment to detail that was rare for a network procedural. But the fifth episode, “Three Men And Adena,” the most heralded hour the show ever produced, upped the ante considerably. Having spent weeks investigating the murder of an 11-year-old girl, detectives Bayliss (Kyle Secor) and Pembleton (Andre Braugher) are given only 12 hours to get a confession out of their primary suspect, an elderly arabber played by Moses Gunn. Throwing the suspect in the interrogation room known as “the box,” Bayliss and Pembleton set about a line of questioning that wavers between shrewdly methodical and dangerously frantic, as their wily quarry keeps slipping the noose. It’s television at its most gripping.
2. Breaking Bad, “Fly” (2010)
From the first episode on, Breaking Bad has staggered scenes (and even whole episodes) of unbearable tension with long pauses for reflection. So the third-season episode “Fly”—which has cancer-ridden chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his ne’er-do-well former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) tracking a pesky insect in a high-tech meth lab—isn’t that far outside the norm. In fact, Breaking Bad featured a similar episode in its second season, which had Walt and Jesse stranded in the desert in a broken-down RV. But “Fly” distills much of what’s special about the show into 45 well-written minutes. As Walt shuts down the cook for the day so he can swat “the contaminant,” Jesse plots ways to shut Walt down. The dynamic of their relationship changes subtly by the end of the day, as they each confess to mistakes they’ve made and try in vain to root out the literal and metaphorical element that’s spoiling their business and their partnership. Speaking of metaphors, the episode serves up a doozy in Walt’s ever-more-elaborate plans to kill the fly, which closely follows the course of his own increasingly complicated post-diagnosis life. And all this in an episode that takes place almost entirely in one room, with two characters.
3. Star Trek, “Balance Of Terror” (1966)
Budget woes were one of the defining traits for the original Star Trek, but while a lack of funds and short lead times produced a largely miserable third season, those same restrictions also led to some of the series’ best episodes. “Balance of Terror” is a highpoint from Trek’s first season. Essentially a submarine movie set in space, it follows the Enterprise’s battle against a Romulan ship near the Neutral Zone. It’s an intense game of one-upmanship between Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and the unnamed Romulan captain (played by Mark Lenard, better known for his work as Spock’s father Sarek), relying more on wit and smart plotting than the show’s usual science-fiction trickery. It’s also, like most of the episodes on this list, a thrifty piece of work, requiring only a handful of distinct locations and a few guest stars. “Bottle episode” is a claustrophobic term, and given that it’s defined by its restrictions, the shows that qualify are generally intimate—and in their way, elegant. “Terror” is a perfect example, paced like clockwork, embracing its restraint, and producing a nail-bitingly fine hour of genre programming.
4. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “Older And Far Away” (2002)
Bad Buffy birthdays were a well-established tradition by the time Joss Whedon’s series reached its sixth year on the air, and true to the most angst-filled season, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) endures an excruciating one in “Older And Far Away.” And it isn’t necessarily a monster that’s the big problem—though there is one, in the form of a demon that can disappear into the ether and reappear at inopportune moments—but the fact that she and her miserable friends are literally forced to spend time with each other. It all starts with perpetual third-wheel Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), at her whiniest, inadvertently unleashing a vengeance demon’s spell after wishing everyone would stay with her. In a Luis Buñuel-esque twist, when all of Buffy’s friends come over for a birthday party, they’re unable to leave the house the next morning. The extra time together means that simmering conflicts between them—Buffy’s ugly tryst with Spike, Willow’s awkward post-breakup reunion with Tara, Dawn’s neglect in the wake of her mother’s death—can no longer be deferred.
5. Seinfeld, “The Chinese Restaurant” (1991)
Call it the inverse “bottle show”: Instead of sticking Jerry, Elaine, and George in Jerry’s apartment or the diner to trade quips, Seinfeld’s classic second-season episode “The Chinese Restaurant” had them spend nearly the entire half-hour waiting for a table at the eatery in question. (Michael Richards, a.k.a. Kramer, got the day off.) Staying true to its mission statement as a “show about nothing,” the episode turns on a Seinfeld-ian joke premise: You know when you go to a restaurant and they tell you it’s just going to be a few minutes, and people who came in after you get seated, and you wind up missing whatever you had planned afterward? Here, the gang hopes to get a quick bite before a screening of Plan 9 From Outer Space, but get sidelined by delays and petty hassles, all unfolding in real time. It would be even funnier if it weren’t so true to life.
6. Angel, “Spin The Bottle” (2002)
Near the start of its bleak fourth season, Angel took a breather from its increasingly glum proceedings—the question of Cordelia’s mysterious amnesia, the rift between Angel and the newly dark Wesley, the rift between Angel and the son who cast him to the bottom of the ocean, and no-longer-so-innocent Fred’s recent attempted murder of her former professor—for this episode set almost entirely within the walls of the Hyperion Hotel. When Lorne attempts to cast a spell that he believes will finally restore Cordelia’s memory, he accidentally causes everyone to revert back to their 17-year-old selves, forcing them to meet each other all over again—with attendant hijinks. And while it’s primarily a comic lark, and Joss Whedon has stated he wrote the episode with the sole purpose of bringing back Wesley’s “bumbling moron” persona, “Spin The Bottle” also serves a larger function within the season—not only providing the means by which the evil-or-maybe-not deity Jasmine is allowed to possess Cordelia, but reintroducing viewers to some characters who had changed to the point of becoming unrecognizable—and giving them one last glimmer of light before things turned irrepressibly dark.
7. The West Wing, “17 People” (2001)
The West Wing was filmed on one of the most expensive—and beautiful—sets on television, and took full advantage of it. The creators have joked that series’ signature “walk and talk” sequences were meant to show off as much of the opulent surroundings as possible, but the season-two episode “17 People” uses the set in a much more subdued manner. The episode takes place entirely within a nearly empty White House over the course of one quiet night, as the main cast wanders in and out of rooms, encountering conflicts that range from earth-shattering (a revelation from the president to his communications director that shaped the rest of the season) to political (a debate over the merits of the Equal Rights Amendment) to trivial (the staff struggles to come up with jokes for the Correspondents’ Dinner). It’s a Petri-dish look at the series’ admirable grasp of tone and character, shifting from sharp comedy to high drama with the turn of a corner and the close of a door.
8. Sealab 2021, “In The Closet” (2002)
Sticking your entire cast in a single location to save on sets is already a pretty cheap move for a sitcom; pulling the same trick in animation is downright ballsy, especially for a show like Sealab 2021, which was already produced at minimum cost using recycled animation. Still, the producers had the chutzpah to try a bottle episode just the same: “In The Closet” found increasing numbers of the undersea research station’s crew stuck in a supply closet, thanks to a defective door circuit and Captain Murphy’s unhelpful tendency to sucker-punch anyone who tried to help. This wasn’t even the first time the absurdist cartoon tried its hand at this sort of thing: an earlier episode, “All That Jazz,” featured Murphy trapped under a toppled soda machine for almost its entire run time. But it didn’t reach the audacious heights of “In The Closet,” which goes so far as to pull the ninja-in-a-coal-mine gag by having Quinn and Debbie meet in the closet for a lights-out romantic encounter—rendered as nothing but several minutes of a black screen.
9. The X-Files, “Ice” (1993)
On a show with few standing sets, where the characters travel to a new location every week to have a new adventure or solve a new case, a bottle show often means building one set, then coming up with a reason to strand the characters there with a few guest stars. The best example is “Ice,” an early episode of The X-Files designed to save on costs after the initial handful of episodes proved expensive. “Ice” features Mulder and Scully wandering onto what looks like the set of John Carpenter’s The Thing, then holing up in an Arctic research station with a bunch of scientists (including a young Felicity Huffman) who may or may not have been infected with an alien worm. The episode uses its close quarters as an advantage. Anyone could be infected, but it’s remarkably difficult to prove who is infected. And there’s only one antidote.
10. The Sopranos, “Pine Barrens” (2001)
Although it doesn’t adhere strictly to the rules, “Pine Barrens” is frequently held up as an example of a bottle episode because it demonstrates how effectively forcing characters into close quarters can bring the long-simmering tensions between them to a boil. By the time it arrived near the end of The Sopranos’ third season, the animosity between Paulie (Tony Sirico) and Christopher (Michael Imperioli) had been building ever since Christopher began making huge, nepotistic leaps forward, as Paulie responded by relentlessly breaking his balls. When Paulie and Christopher are sent on a simple collection mission that goes violently awry, the two end up chasing a Russian mobster through the snow-covered hinterlands, eventually ending up lost, starving, freezing, and forced to rely on each other to survive. The situation allows them to hash out their frustrations with each other and defuse—for the time being, anyway—a relationship that seemed headed for its own violent end, all over the course of one night’s conversation and a couple of shared relish packets.
11. Battlestar Galactica, “Unfinished Business” (2006)
Due to the spectacle-heavy first four episodes—comprising the survivors’ settlement, occupation, and eventual escape from New Caprica—the rest of Battlestar Galactica’s third season has several flat bottle episodes in which the characters mope around their existing sets, avoiding pricey CGI battles. “Unfinished Business” attempts to shake things up by incorporating a series of previously filmed flashbacks to New Caprica that were originally intended to be spread out over the course of the season, filling in the gaps of what happened during those early days on the doomed colony. Instead, they’re interspersed with footage of a cathartic crew-wide boxing match on the Galactica, revealing the conflicts, affairs, and betrayals that brought the characters to their current edgy states. The results are more character study than narrative. That frustrated many fans—particularly those not enamored of the Apollo-Starbuck-Anders love triangle—but provided a good arena for the series’ actors to show off both their emotional range and their boxing abilities.
12. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “Duet” (1993)
Deep Space Nine always had to fight an uphill battle in the Star Trek franchise—after all, it’s the only series set on a space station instead of a starship, which meant that, for the most part, the action had to come to the cast. But in season one’s “Duet,” the show busted out of its confines by narrowing them: Set predominantly in a holding cell occupied by a captured Cardassian war criminal, the episode is a tense cat-and-mouse between the slippery-tongued prisoner and DS9’s Major Kira (Nana Visitor), whose Bajoran race was under the heel of the Cardassians during a long, brutal occupation. The allusion to the Holocaust is blatant yet chillingly effective, especially as the air between Kira and her prisoner grows more and more charged with lies, truths, guilt, regret, vengeance, and the horror of attempted genocide.
13. Bones, “The Man In The Fallout Shelter” (2005)
Bones started out on shaky ground, but the show’s lighthearted yet occasionally poignant approach to the forensic procedural came into sharp focus in season one’s “The Man In The Fallout Shelter.” After acquiring a body that’s been trapped in a nuke-proof bunker for 50 years, forensic anthropologist Temperance “Bones” Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and her nerdy team—including her partner, grumbling, tough-guy FBI agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz)—get trapped themselves: A toxic fungus in the corpse is released during the examination, which causes the lab to go into an automated, locked-down quarantine. What could make matters worse? It’s two days before Christmas, of course. As Bones struggles to solve the mystery of their dead guy, the whole crew comes closer as they’re forced to make secret-Santa gifts, send bittersweet holiday wishes through glass, and find out some of each other’s little secrets—for instance, that Angela’s father is Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.
14. The United States Of Tara, “Torando!” (2010)
The great appeal of a bottle episode is when a show’s writers can get their whole cast together in one room, all of the characters carrying a load of secrets, and then turn them loose. The United States Of Tara offers a great reason for that gathering in the second-season episode “Torando!” A tornado (“torando,” as the poorly copyedited local news would have it) is bearing down on Overland Park, Kansas, and all of the show’s regulars and a few of its recurring characters ride out the storm in the basement. A season that’s been slowly weaving a web of mysteries sees nearly all of them come out in the midst of a long, borderline-hallucinatory wait through a storm that takes its time arriving, but finally does so violently and symbolically.
15. 24, “Day 5: 7:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m.” (2006)
24 spent its eight seasons presenting what felt like a nation-spanning action movie on a TV budget, but its early episodes often broke the bank, with giant explosions, train accidents, and assorted other calamities. That usually meant a later episode in the season would require the minimalist approach, and “Day 5” from season five was the show’s best. The CTU office has been hit by a deadly Sarin-gas attack, and all the still-living characters have locked themselves in a conference room where the seals around the doors are slowly failing, letting more and more gas in. And the one woman who might be able to do something about it is rendered catatonic by her colleague’s death. As the hour ticks by, heroic sacrifices will be made, of course, but the characters’ predicament keeps things so propulsive, viewers likely won’t notice the show’s contrived premise.
16. Doctor Who, “Midnight” (2008)
Under the supervision of show-runner Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who had to come up with at least one episode each season that was light on the Doctor or his companion, the better to free up the actors for each year’s Christmas special. These episodes would often double as bottle episodes to save on cash, as with the fourth-series entry “Midnight,” featuring David Tennant’s Doctor trapped in one room with a bunch of people who are slowly going mad, at least one of them possessed by some sort of ancient evil no one can see. Davies uses every trick in the book to suggest the monster in these people’s midst (up to and including the monster mimicking the Doctor’s speech patterns), and he reduces all of them to their basest instincts. It’s a great episode that feels more like a tightly wound short story or one-act play than a piece of TV.
17. Bewitched, “A Is for Aardvark” (1965)
The fantasy comedies of the ’60s were light, fluffy fun much of the time, but they were also more expensive than the basic family sitcom. Of the bunch, Bewitched was the best, at least for its first two seasons, before it dropped off the cliff. Its best episode, “A Is for Aardvark,” directed by Ida Lupino of all people, was a bottle show. Darrin (Dick York) is confined to his bed with an injury, and Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) gets so sick of running up and down the stairs that she gives him her powers for the duration of his bed stay, in spite of Endora’s warnings. It’s a terrific premise, growing directly out of the show’s central idea, and Bewitched finds a way to twist it in just about every fashion it can while working entirely on the existing sets of the Stephens’ home.
18. Firefly, “Out Of Gas” (2002)
It’s rare for a bottle show to have a sense of epic grandeur, since so many of them are confined to tiny spaces for set amounts of time. But “Out Of Gas” manages the trick of feeling far bigger than its actual size. The story is an origin tale, of sorts, for the ship Serenity and the story of how all its crew members came to be on board, all threaded through a framing device of Captain Mal Reynolds using his last few breaths to save his ailing ship. The storyline darts through year after year of its characters’ history while remaining almost entirely on the existing sets for the ship. It’s warm, moving, funny, and action-packed, and it became the emotional core of the show’s brief run.
19. Friends, “The One Where No One’s Ready” (1996)
Like most traditional three- and four-camera sitcoms, Friends was limited to a few key sets: two adjacent apartments and the Central Perk coffeehouse, mostly. But “The One Where No One’s Ready” was the first to take place solely in one apartment, without any guest stars, such as put-upon waiter Gunther or the rotating cast of sometime boyfriends and girlfriends. The episode’s plot is carried off in the classic “small-but-impossible task” format, as Ross tries to get all his friends ready to leave together for a fancy work event at the museum. But time runs short while Joey and Chandler quibble over a chair, Monica obsesses over a voicemail left by her ex-boyfriend, and Rachel and Phoebe try to figure out what to wear. As a bonus, the episode also introduced the term “going commando” into the popular vernacular.