About the lists: Calls to socially distance and self-isolate are driving people to look for things to watch. But the sheer amount of options out there can be overwhelming. For this reason, we at the Centre for Screen Cultures are producing themed playlists of film, video, and television so you can organise your own series or festival at home (or home school). They will update here and here: https://screenculture.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/category/media-playlists/
If the cinema (feature and short) options out there are overwhelming, television is even more so. Zoe Shacklock helps us makes some choices with a theme that is all too apt for our current circumstances, The Bottle Episode:
A ‘bottle episode’ refers to an episode of long-form television that is made as cheaply as possible, using few (or ideally no) guest actors, special effects, or locations. The episodes tend to be set in single, interior locations, and to focus predominantly on dialogue and character development. They are largely a product of the American television industry, in which long seasons and long shooting schedules demand cheaper, easy production options. Yet while bottle episodes might seem like cheap fillers, born from budgetary concerns and pragmatic necessity, they often result in some of the most creative and memorable stories.
There is a lesson for all of us in television’s bottle episodes. At a time when we too are living lives limited to single locations, devoid of guest appearances, and lacking in special effects, there is something to be said for television’s stories of interior spaces and emotional development. Bottle episodes work because they show us that when you strip away the frills of special effects and the glow of money, what really matters is communication, and dialogue, and the connections that we have with one another. I find comfort in the bottle episode for its reminder that there is always laughter and love and stories to be told, even in the smallest of spaces and the most limited of times.
‘The Enemy Within’, Star Trek (season one, episode five)
The bottle episode begins with the original series of Star Trek. Struggling to stay within their budget, producers interspersed galactic adventures with cheaper episodes contained on the Enterprise, which became known as “ship-in-a-bottle” episodes. ‘The Enemy Within’ is one of the finest. An incident with the transporter splits Captain Kirk into two versions of himself: a ‘good’ Kirk and an ‘evil’ Kirk. Come for William Shatner’s acting, stay for the themes of self-reconciliation and understanding. Available to stream on Netflix.
‘Three Men and Adena,’ Homicide: Life on the Street (season one, episode five)
The premise is simple: two detectives race against the clock in an all-night interrogation session, trying to secure a confession before their prime suspect walks free. But nothing is simple in this Emmy-award winning episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. While the action remains confined to the interrogation room, as detectives Tim Bayliss and Frank Pembleton desperately try to close the case of a murdered 11 year old, the dialogue takes us on a deep journey through violence and obsession to race and doubt. Homicide: Life on the Street is difficult to find online, but you can watch a low-res quality on YouTube.
‘The Chinese Restaurant’, Seinfeld (season two, episode eleven)
Seinfeld is famously a show about nothing, and this is arguably the episode in which it figured out how to make nothing comedy gold. The episode unfolds in real time as Elaine, Jerry and George wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant before a one night showing of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Each character has their own worries: George is trying to call his girlfriend on the restaurant’s payphone; Jerry is plagued by guilt for lying to his uncle; and Elaine is starving. Seinfeld’s quintessential self-absorption plays out beautifully in confined spaces. Available to stream on All4 in the UK.
‘Just Act Normal’, Miranda (season two, episode five)
The simple directive to ‘just act normal’ is the catalyst for anything but in this episode of Miranda Hart’s eponymous sitcom. After a farcical incident with an ice cream van, Miranda is ordered to undergo a psychiatric assessment, and attends the appointment with her mother in tow. Under the watchful and silent gaze of the psychiatrist, chaos ensues. It’s the kind of neurotic humour that Miranda does best, and a timely reminder that ‘normal’ is a useless baseline. Available to stream on BBC iPlayer.
‘Fly’, Breaking Bad (season three, episode 10)
In this notoriously divisive episode, a sleepless Walter White becomes fixated on a lone insect intruder to the meth lab, enlisting his dubious partner in crime Jesse to help him track it down and remove it from the lab. What follows is 47 minutes of the entire series in microcosm: a dangerous cat and mouse game of obsession and control, in which Walt and Jesse play off one another’s guilt, regret, and agency. Walt’s desperate search for meaning in the random movements of the fly, and his final sigh of “it’s all contaminated”, perhaps hold extra significance today. Available to stream on Netflix.
‘Sardines’, Inside No. 9 (season one, episode one)
Every episode of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s anthology series can, to some extent, be described as a bottle episode: while each features a new cast, they all take place in a claustrophobic location, linked in some way to the number nine. It doesn’t get more claustrophobic than the very first episode of the season, which takes place inside a wardrobe crammed with people during a game of sardines at an engagement party. In classic bottle episode style, tensions run high and secrets are revealed. Available to stream on BBC iPlayer.
‘Mornings’, Master of None (season one, episode nine)
An intimate study of relationships and routines, ‘Mornings’ follows a number of months in Dev and Rachel’s relationship after they move into together. The action stays (almost) entirely contained to mornings in their apartment, from breakfasts to sex to arguments over clothes on the floor. As the seasons turn, flirtatious banter turns to bickering, and mutually pleasurable sex turns to familiar routine, yet the episode reminds us that happy ever after is less meaningful than finding happiness in the present. Available to stream on Netflix.
‘Hurricane Wanda’, Broad City (season one, episode seven)
Every Broad City episode traces the strength of Abbi and Ilana’s friendship through absurd situations, and ‘Hurricane Wanda’ is no exception. While a category four storm ranges outside, Abbi, Ilana, and their friends hunker down inside Abbi’s apartment. Ilana tries to play matchmaker through drinking games and truth or dare, yet her plans grind to a halt when the pair have to determine how to deal with the stubborn evidence of a bathroom trip. Available to stream on NOW TV.
‘Degustation’, Please Like Me (season four, episode four)
Family dinners are often a space for heightened emotions, and this episode of Please Like Me takes all that emotion and, well, bottles in. Josh, concerned about his mother’s mental health, takes his divorced parents out for a fancy fifteen course meal. As well as the fifteen tiny dishes, the episode serves up laughter, arguments, spilled secrets, and a terrible emu impression, but most of all the poignant intimacy the series does so well. Available to stream on Amazon Prime.
‘Cooperative Calligraphy’, Community (season two, episode eight).
“I hate bottle episodes,” Abed proclaims in this bottle episode about a bottle episode. Community is known for its self-referential approach to film and television tropes, and it was only a matter of time before it took on this television staple. After Annie loses her pen, the group tears the study room (and each other) apart in a desperate bid to locate it. A simple premise, a locked room, emotional turmoil, and a community that emerges all the stronger: ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ is the quintessential bottle episode wrapped up in a meta bow. Available to stream on Netflix.