How ‘Mad About You’ Made One of the Boldest Bottle Episodes Ever
‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined.
“This whole scene is one shot. The camera hasn’t moved in twenty minutes.”
“What’s the big deal?”
The quote up above appears in the episode’s tag where Paul and Jamie Buchman are watching a movie together and Jamie is unimpressed by the film’s one-take approach. “The Conversation” is arguably an unpopular episode (and if you check out IMDB, a lot of users are quick to accuse it as being “boring”). It’s smart for the series to at least address this side of the argument in the episode’s closing moments, but in spite of this not being for everyone, it’s an incredible effort and a very atypical piece of television.
When Mad About Youentered its sixth season, the show introduced the idea of relative newlyweds, Paul and Jamie Buchman, giving birth to a baby daughter named Mabel. Stories were now heavily revolving around having a newborn, rather than the previous material focusing purely on their marriage. This evolution of their relationship opened a lot of doors for them, and allowed an episode like this to be attempted in the first place. Here Paul and Jamie have an uninterrupted 20-minute conversation in front of Mabel’s bedroom door, trying to train Mabel to learn how to sleep on her own. It’s an idea that Reiser and Hunt had wanted to attempt since the series’ conception, apparently.
When this episode was originally broadcast on NBC, it was even aired uninterrupted, with commercials airing only after the theme song and before the end credits (a move that felt like it was being implemented in Archer’s recent “Vision Quest” foray into the genre, but wasn’t, surely due to the increasing dominance of advertisers now versus then). The 20-minute conversation between Paul and Jamie outside the baby’s room, filmed in one take, is shown straight through. There are absolutely no hidden cuts here like shows often have to resort to when attempting this idea. They did this all as one take, with the entire thing memorized, and if nothing else, that’s an incredible feat that just isn’t seen anymore. Murray the dog is even added briefly as an impressive piece to this Rube Goldberg-like machine that could break at any moment.
The most camera movement we get is a gradual push in on the bedroom door as the episode begins (and other gentle push ins and outs as the door is negotiated), and then that’s it. We could have stayed stationary the entire time, surely, but that hint of movement is almost there to remind you that the camera should be moving; to give you a frame of reference before shattering it and presenting you with this ambitious theater-esque piece. This is more than just a simple bottle episode.
The bulk of the episode is composed of a litany of parenting methods and tactics that are gone through as Paul and Jamie discuss what to do with their crying baby, and whether giving her space is really the right approach here. Paul and Jamie have always clearly been the center of this show, and so it’s perfect that this episode is purely watching them go back and forth and works entirely off of their chemistry. You just as easily could have had a supporting character like Ira pop in briefly, offering his opinion and getting to work this idea (or they even could have called him, having him not physically be present, but still feeling his presence). No though, this is very clearly meant to be a showcase of Paul and Jamie as unconfident new parents, and it encapsulates this beautifully.
There is also the ambitious idea here that a bottle episode and “oner” are being resorted to for this episode in particular because this is a true-to-life experience. Many real parents go through this same exercise with their child, and by forcing the audience to be stationary, unable to move, or even escape through the exit hatch of a commercial, they’re being given a comparable experience through the conduit of the “bottle.” It might not be a perfect experiment, but it’s a sort of brilliant, evolving idea.
Around all of the parenting talk, as this episode plays out in real-time, there is also ample rich discussion on topics like how much time has passed so far, and getting into the minutiae of small talk that’s resorted to (such as how much Rigatoni is five hundred pounds of rigatoni). It’s very realistic as we see these two people shifting from dialogue that actually services the episode to just non-sequiturs that would have made Seinfeld proud. A gamut of emotions are gone through, with Jamie crying by the end of it all. In doing so, this feels as realistic and natural as possible, like you’re almost not even watching an episode of television. When Paul starts singing a song from his youth, it feels like a couple being close and not a way to fill out time.
Granted, there’s not much of a story to the episode, as it’s basically just the two of them ignoring Mabel and hoping she’ll go to bed, but it culminates to a nice moment of Paul and Jamie realizing they have completely opposite parenting styles, but as long as they trust their instincts they’ll be okay. It’s still left on a pretty downer of a note though, which also is a little more daring. This episode certainly didn’t have to worry about feeling normal, especially when the following week was a romp on breastfeeding.
It was more than one take.
Next week we’ll look at Seinfeld’s classic take on the idea, as the gang gets stranded in “The Parking Garage.”