In the expensive medium of TV, bottle episodes can be lifesavers. Compared to the rest of the season, a bottle episode is usually cheaply produced and uses as few sets, actors, and effects as possible. These episodes can sometimes be watched separately from their respective series and vary in how they impact the overall plot.
Although sounding counterintuitive, the restrictiveness of bottle episodes can lead to more creative, character-driven stories. As a result, these episodes sometimes transcend their original purpose and become regarded among a series’ best. Many bottle episodes have graced screens over the years, but only ten of the best made the following list. Full spoilers are below.
“Out Of Gas” (2002) – Firefly
In hindsight of the short life of Firefly, “Out of Gas” arguably serves as a better introduction to the characters than the pilot episode. Set across three timeframes, the episode explores the origins of the Serenity crew, the immediate aftermath of an explosion on the ship, and the present with an injured Malcolm (Nathan Fillion) trying to repair it as the oxygen runs low.
Restricting three stories to the inside of the Serenity is no coincidence. “Out of Gas” is a proud love letter to the ship by featuring its history and possible demise. The flashbacks offer an insight into how the dynamic of the characters has changed while the present reassures viewers the Serenity and its crew will persevere.
“Midnight” (2008) – Doctor Who
A series with a reputation for flashy sets and special effects, Doctor Who takes the opposite approach with “Midnight.” While on vacation, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) is on a shuttle tour that breaks down and traps everyone inside due to the hostility of the planet outside. One of the passengers, Sky (Lesley Sharp), is possessed by an invisible entity who mimicks and predicts what everyone says.
“Midnight” is special because it opts to use only psychological drama and actors to sell itself. Even after helping as he typically does, the Doctor is turned on by the passengers as they believe the entity has moved onto him. While the surviving characters are eventually saved, the tense drama produced with the bare minimum makes “Midnight” a Doctor Who classic.
“Teddy Perkins” (2018) – Atlanta
Even for a bottle episode, Atlanta’s “Teddy Perkins” truly stands on its own. Looking to nab a free piano, eccentric righthand man Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) visits a mansion and meets a pale, unusual man named Theodore Perkins (Donald Glover). The supposedly simple exchange traps Darius at the home as he uncovers there is more to the visit than initially advertised.
Featuring ostrich eggs, uncomfortable home movies, and rare skin diseases, the episode takes viewers down a rabbit hole that comes out of nowhere. Unlike typical bottle episodes, “Teddy Perkins” focuses on one main character as he explores the consequences of abusive parents on talented individuals. But most importantly, viewers are given a captivating glimpse into Glover’s creative mind.
“Mornings” (2015) – Master Of None
Like the opening of Pixar’s Up, “Mornings” of Master of None utilizes a montage of moments to tell a romantic story. Aziz Ansari stars as Dev, a struggling actor whose girlfriend, music publicist Rachel (Noël Wells), has moved in with him. Using a bedside clock to chronicle the passing months, writers Ansari and Alan Yang explore the complications of a relationship entirely from the couple’s apartment.
“Mornings” focuses on differences two people could have and mixes it in between their tender moments. Essential for any bottle episode, Ansari and Wells give strong, compelling performances and carry the story’s key moments. Their natural chemistry along with the relatability of the fictional relationship made Dev and Rachel’s break up in the next episode much more poignant.
“Leslie And Ron” (2015) – Parks And Recreation
If the characters of Parks and Recreation were a family, Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ron (Nick Offerman) would be the parents. Throughout the series, the two were great friends until a plot in the final season made them enemies. Bickering for several episodes, they are trapped by friends in the Parks and Recreation office to hash it out.
Taking place over an entire morning, “Leslie and Ron” serves as an emotional reminder of why the two were friends in the first place. Despite being polar opposites, they respected each other and admired the differences they had. Series creator Michael Schur showed off the firm grasp he had of his creations and gave them both funny and touching moments that aligned with their characters.
“Rixty Minutes” (2014) – Rick and Morty
Out of the many zany ideas featured in Rick and Morty, having characters watch TV for an entire episode was certainly up there. In “Rixty Minutes,” mad genius Rick sets up a device that allows the family to watch TV from infinite realities. From parody shows to ridiculous ads to pop-culture references, the imagination featured is endless.
Intermixed between the improvised bits are the family’s reactions to their alternate lives depicted on TV — another source of laughs and memorable moments. Ultimately though, “Rixty Minutes” is about the creativity of series creator and driving improv force, Justin Roiland. There’s just something magical about seeing the animation team create everything he says.
“Remedial Chaos Theory” (2011) – Community
The beauty of Community was always in its motley crew of lovable characters. In “Remedial Chaos Theory,” the gang is playing Yahtzee at Troy (Glover) and Abed’s (Danny Pudi) apartment when the pizza arrives and someone has to leave to get it. Jeff (Joel McHale) proposes a dice roll to decide.
In one of the more creative, unconventional story structures on TV, the episode features seven timelines created from seven rolls. Each timeline explores the effects of a character’s absence and presence around other characters along with their role in the group. Filled with running jokes that end differently, “Remedial Chaos Theory” is not only a unique bottle episode but a rewatch must.
“The One Where No One’s Ready” (1996) – Friends
Every bottle episode needs a reason for the characters to remain confined and Friends had one of the most relatable: no one was ready to leave. Written by Ira Ungerleider, the episode takes place primarily in Monica (Courteney Cox) and Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) apartment living room and revolves around the gang getting ready for Ross’ (David Schwimmer) museum event.
Occurring in real-time over 22 minutes, the episode functions as a play with the actors constantly entering and leaving the set. Each friend is given a humorous excuse that is in keeping with their character for why they aren’t ready. From the glass of animal fat to Monica’s voicemail dilemma, the episode featured classic moments viewers won’t likely forget.
“Fly” (2010) – Breaking Bad
One of the most unusual episodes of Breaking Bad, “Fly” is a polarizing discussion point for viewers. After cooking a batch of crystal meth, Walter (Bryan Cranston) notices a fly in the lab and refuses to let it go. The rest of “Fly” jumps between Walter and his partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) trying to catch the pest while exploring topics they’ve been avoiding.
Spanning 47 minutes, “Fly” features one of the deepest conversations the two have. Regretful and in cancer remission, Walter bleakly contemplates what the perfect time to die was and almost confesses to his involvement in the death of Jane (Krysten Ritter), Jesse’s former girlfriend. The episode’s reception stems from how viewers feel about the plot-halting nature of bottle episodes and how they interpret the fly itself.
“Comparative Calligraphy” (2010) – Community
Community did the bottle format so well that it was impossible to not include another classic. In “Comparative Calligraphy,” the study group is unable to leave the room because Annie’s (Alison Brie) pen goes missing. Fearing the culprit might be among them, the group traps themselves in and races to find it before a campus puppy parade ends.
Like any great bottle episode, “Comparative Calligraphy” gives all characters moments to shine while also highlighting their personalities. As the episode progresses, not only does everyone get crazier due to not finding the pen but they must deal with the discovery of embarrassing revelations about themselves. The episode is one of the series’ best and showcases the strengths of a bottle episode perfectly.