Television’s Best Bottle Episodes
What are bottle episodes? What makes them special? What shows have done them the best?
I love bottle episodes. Bottle episodes, as a refresher, are episodes of TV shows that are comparatively smaller in scale compared to its regular format. This often means they’ll feature a fraction of the main cast in a story mostly-disjoint from the main arc of the season. Because these episodes are dialogue-centric and story-driven, they’re excellent for character development (and budgetary concerns), often revealing unseen depths to certain characters. These episodes can each serve as a gateway into these shows, and also as standalone short films:
“Cooperative Calligraphy”, Community (Season 2, Episode 8)
Community, which centers around a racially, gender, and age-diverse group of community college students that form a study group, is a very underrated show. This particular bottle episode stems from Annie realizing her pen has inexplicably gone missing, again, putting the fabric of the group in danger after nobody takes responsibility. What’s particularly great about this episode, though, and Community in general, is its self-awareness. As soon as it dawns on the group that they’re going to be there for a while, Abed declares that “it’s a bottle episode”, and comments on the “wall-to-wall facial expressions” and “emotional nuance” that are common to most, if not all, bottle episodes.
“Twenty-Two”, You’re The Worst, (Season 3, Episode 5)
Watch any episode of You’re The Worst and you’ll quickly realize Jimmy’s “sidekick”, Edgar, is very neglected. After this most recent season, however, that is no more. Edgar gets his very own episode centered around his PTSD, which has been a reoccurring subplot, and the extent to which Edgar’s been neglected makes this episode that much more powerful and moving. You’re The Worst received a lot of acclaim for its season two depression arc, and this episode follows in those footsteps, showing exactly what life after war can be like for veterans, in a visceral and emotional way.
“The Panic in Central Park”, Girls (Season 5, Episode 6)
Lena Dunham’s Girls is the best show we have today at doing bottle episodes. Season Two’s “One Man’s Trash” and this season’s “American Bitch” receive most of the bottle episode praise (rightfully so), but this episode from last season, which follows Marnie’s adventurous day with reoccurring ex-boyfriend, Charlie, is just as good. It’s this episode where Marnie, often recognized as the most annoying of the “girls”, has an epiphany that sets her on the course we see in this current, final, season.
“Cape May”, The Blacklist (Season 3, Episode 19)
This next bottle episode is, perhaps, the most unique of the bunch, as it’s the only one that’s an hour long. The Blacklist is a “case-of-the-week” procedural focusing on the semi-paternal, semi-romantic relationship between an FBI Most Wanted man and a rookie FBI agent. It’s not a show you’d expect to have a bottle episode, yet The Blacklist pulls it off tremendously. This standalone episode has us follow Red on a melodramatic journey of grief. It’s not clear whether or not it’s all a dream, but it’s thoroughly beautiful and serves as one of the best examples we have of the possibilities bottle episodes hold.
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