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The Best Bottle Episodes Of All Time (And Why They're On The Decline)!

Written by Ashley Parham. Published: January 15 2024
(Photo: NBC)


In today’s era of streaming, there is an unprecedented amount of television series available to watch. Due to the wide variety of shows across streaming services, you might feel as if you’ve seen it all. Despite all of this media at our fingertips, not everyone realizes how much television has changed over the years. In an effort to shed light on a television concept that was once prominent, but is now fading, we want to provide a history of “bottle episodes”.


A “bottle episode” is an episode of a television show that focuses on a limited cast and set. Typically, these episodes rely on only a show's main cast, and sometimes they don’t even feature the full main cast. Bottle episodes usually take place in one location, though they can have multiple locations if they are pre-existing sets that the show has already used. 


As stated before, the bottle episode is fading out in the era of streaming. But why? This is due to a variety of factors. The modern audience has grown accustomed to shorter seasons of shows -- series that are exclusive to streaming services tend to have between 6 and 10 episodes per season. Streaming services are also well-known for creating “limited series” shows. The entirety of these limited series may only consist of 6 or 8 episodes total. When a show has such few episodes, there is not very much room for specific focus on character development. Due to the short amount of time that the show has to introduce characters, develop the plot, and get to the conclusion, an episode that is restricted to limited cast and location may not be productive for furthering the plot in a timely fashion.


The lack of bottle episodes in modern television entirely makes sense given the types of shows that are now being developed. Bottle episodes are helpful in terms of budget, but they can be difficult for writers to execute. With streaming services aiming to release content as quickly as possible, it isn’t beneficial for them to incorporate these types of episodes into shows. However, this shift away from the concept doesn’t make it any less masterful. All television is a work of art, and we don’t want this particular art form to be forgotten. Bottle episodes may not advance a show’s plot very much, but they provide a good close look into the characters that we love. The episodes are often fairly low-stakes, and their rewatch quality is high. Here’s a brief history on how bottle episodes became popular, and then we’ll get into the list of some of the best bottle episodes in television history.


Episodes with lots of special effects, locations, and guest characters can strain a show’s budget. Botte episodes help ensure adequate funds for episodes that require more complex sets, costuming, or casting. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1993) popularized the concept. Since many of the episodes saw the crew traveling to new planets where they were in various locations with a new set of characters, other episodes needed to downsize in order for the budget to be available when needed. “TNG” frequently consisted of episodes that mostly or entirely took place on the spaceship. These episodes focus on interpersonal problems or issues that otherwise confine the characters to the ship. Since these episodes only required the regular cast and pre-existing sets, they were beneficial to the show’s creators when budgeting for the more complex episodes. Despite a science-fiction show bringing the first life to this concept, it is most commonly seen in sitcoms. Now, let’s get started on the list to better understand the concept of the bottle episode!


1. "Seinfeld": "The Chinese Restaurant" (Season 2, Episode 11)

One of the most famous examples is from “Seinfeld” (1989-1998). The show is not high stakes by nature. It has a main recurring cast, and it does not have a specific premise. This allows for every episode to have a unique feel. Bottle episodes are not intended to displace viewers from the show they are used to, but instead they provide a deeper character study than the traditional episode might. 


This episode focuses on George, Jerry, and Elaine as they wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant. How each character reacts to the situation is telling of their personality in a broader sense. George faces a very '90s problem -- he needs to make a phone call, and much to his annoyance, the one public telephone in the restaurant is occupied. Elaine struggles to compose herself through her hunger-fueled anger, and her impatience acts to her own detriment. In the fashion of a true comedian, Jerry attempts to make light of the situation whilst struggling with his own problems as he fails to place a woman who looks familiar to him. The entire episode takes place within the Chinese Restaurant. Though there are other minor characters, the focus of the episode is on the limited main cast. "Seinfeld" is notoriously known as the "show about nothing”, and this episode is the perfect example of how the show creates humor out of the mundane. The episode is still funny and relatable to an audience 30 years later. It is successful in capturing the audience's attention without needing guest stars or a flashy setting.


Stream on Netflix.




2. "Friends": "The One Where No One's Ready" (Season 3, Episode 2)

“The One Where No One’s Ready” was the first bottle episode on “Friends” (1994-2004), and it was so well-received by fans that the showrunners included a bottle episode in each subsequent season. The episode takes place within the living room of Monica and Rachel’s apartment and, aside from voices on the phone, only features the main cast. Ross attempts to get his friends ready for an important event, but everyone else is focused on other matters: Monica frets over a voicemail from her ex-boyfriend, Phoebe deals with a clothing mishap, Joey and Chandler fight over a chair and then resort to pranking each other in retaliation, and Rachel is upset by Ross’s impatience and debates whether or not to accompany him to the event. The episode features silly squabbles that everyone who's ever had to get a group ready under a time crunch can relate to. It’s funny and displays the quirks of each character.


Stream on Max. 




3. "Breaking Bad": "Fly" (Season 3, Episode 10)

“Breaking Bad” (2008-2013) is one of the highest-praised television shows of all time. If you’re unaware, the show focuses on a high school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking and selling meth after his cancer diagnosis. The show has spawned a prequel television show (“Better Call Saul”) as well as a sequel movie (El Camino). It is a drama and dark comedy that will captivate viewers from start to finish. This may not seem like a show likely to execute a bottle episode due to its high-stakes nature, and yet “Fly” is considered very highly among critics. The episode sees a sleep-deprived Walt concerned over a fly being in the meth lab. He worries about the potential of contamination and has a deep conversation about life and family relations with Jesse. The episode is a direct look into the emotions of the main characters in a way that the rest of the show does not present. The episode feels like a departure from the form of the show, but it is successful in breaking down the characters. The premise is more complex than other bottle episodes, as the fly itself can be viewed as a metaphor for Walt’s guilt and feelings at this point in the show. It is masterful and layered in a way that other bottle episodes usually aren’t.


Stream on Netflix.




4. "Community": "Cooperative Calligraphy" (Season 2, Episode 8)

“Community” (2009-2015) is a comedy sitcom that consists of a couple of bottle episodes. However, their first attempt at the premise is considered not only the best bottle episode but also one of the funniest episodes in the entire show. The entirety of this episode takes place within one room with the show's main cast. Annie has lost her pen, and after accusations fly, Jeff becomes determined to not let anyone leave the room until the pen has been found. The episode breaks the fourth wall with the situation being referred to as a “bottle episode” multiple times. The group delves into chaos as they attempt to garner a confession from the thief. The group is ultimately good-natured, but the confines of the room and stress of the situation bring out some unsavory accusations. Friendships are tested, supernatural theories are presented, and, despite the group's problem, the resolution of the episode still throws in a fun twist. This episode is hilarious and unpredictable despite its focus on an ultimately unremarkable issue.


Stream on Netflix.




5. "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia": "Reynolds v. Reynolds: The Cereal Defense" (Season 8, Episode 10)

“It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” has been on air for a long time. The show began in 2005, and it is still running to this day. The gang has been in just about every situation possible, so it makes sense that that also includes a bottle episode. Save for two scenes, this episode takes place within Paddy's Pub. Only the main cast is involved, but in true "Always Sunny" fashion, this does not take away from the chaos. This episode is set up as a courtroom debate. The gang attempts to resolve who was responsible for a car accident, argues about each other's credibility (which is always questionable at best), and exposes their typical lack of ability to appeal to general reason. This episode is an on-the-nose depiction of arguments that ultimately go nowhere. This show’s unhinged nature has spawned many memes, and this episode lives up to the Internet hype. If you want the background on Mac labeling famous scientists with an unsavory word, or if you’re debating the idea of eating cereal in the car, this is the episode to watch. Every episode of the show more or less ends the same, as the gang never truly learns anything, but this one particularly showcases why that happens.


Stream on Hulu.




6. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine": "The Box" (Season 5, Episode 14)

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (2013-2021) is a sitcom focused on the employees at a police department. The show executes the expected tropes from the genre, and this episode wonderfully pays homage to its predecessors. “The Box” is an interrogation episode, and the title references the show “Homicide: Life on the Street”. The episode works with a limited cast and takes place within the interrogation room. The focus on a singular task allows for a centered view of the characters, and Sterling K. Brown was even nominated for an Emmy for his guest role in this episode. “The Box” is the highest-rated episode from the show on IMDb. The break from the show’s traditional format works in its favor as it offers a highlight of the dynamic between Jake Peralta and Raymond Holt. The characters are beloved by fans, and this episode is an interesting and helpful guide to their characters.


Stream on Peacock.




These episodes range from airing in 1991 to 2018 to provide a broad view on the bottle episode. Maybe one day we’ll see a return to form, and this concept will become more popular again! These are some fun episodes to enjoy in the meantime.