‘Inside No. 9’ Takes the Bottle Episode to Claustrophobic New Heights
‘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
“Oh there’s not very much space, is there?”
“That’s what makes it fun, apparently.”
You may not be familiar with talents Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, who hail from the UK and are some of the sharpest most versatile comedic performers of the nation. The duo have put together some truly impressive programs, such as The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville, but their latest — and current — series, Inside No. 9, is perhaps their most stylistic and daring yet. It’s also the perfect series to focus on here, considering every episode of the show is a bottle episode.
Inside No. 9 is the blackest of comedies, and a virtuoso anthology series, with each episode having an entirely new cast, and that cast trapped in some entirely new setting and situation (which somehow involves the number nine). With the series having just started up its second season overseas, it seems only fitting to look at the series’ pilot episode, “Sardines,” which is perhaps their bottle-iest of all their bottle episodes. And this is achieved by the whole episode nearly taking place entirely inside of a wardrobe. Wisely, an incredibly mundane event is chosen here to base everything around, as the episode watches what happens while people wait to be found in the British equivalent of hide-and-seek.
With Pemberton and Shearsmith’s previous series, Psychoville, being a vastly complicated, interconnected serialized story, Inside No. 9, and “Sardines” especially are exercises in simplicity. The two of them have even broken this episode down into something a simple as, “[it’s] just about some good actors in a wardrobe with a good story.” It’s a meager thing to want to accomplish (although much more is in this episode — entire relationships are destroyed within the small space of the 10×7 enclosure), but it’s exactly the sort of thing that bottle episodes are made for.
Another goal of Inside No. 9, was that Shearsmith and Pemberton wanted each installment to evoke the feelings of claustrophobia and confinement, which is a rather inspired twist and utilization of a bottle episode that surprisingly isn’t done more. “Sardines” is the episode best representative of this since it features the series’ largest cast (twelve people, including Shearsmith and Pemberton, all hiding in the same spot over the course of a game of “Sardines”) and the smallest location of them all. Filming even painstakingly attempts to create the illusion that the viewer is also in the wardrobe with all of these people, reducing the space even further. No one would have looked past the episode for “cheating” in this respect, but it’s just an example of the crazy, meticulous attention to detail that was put in here. Everyone is interested in doing this the right way without shortcuts.
Considerable effort was also put into making this large cast stand out and for each of them to feel important, as opposed to just a space-taker in their confined area. Pemberton elaborates, “[we] talked about various ideas of why [the characters] were in a wardrobe.” The episode also very meticulously parses out this cast, with a new person entering the wardrobe every three pages. It’s very deliberate and you pick up on a subliminal pattern behind it all. Beyond this there’s even a societal commentary that the episode is making, as all of these people from different classes are forced to intermingle and deal with the results. Of course around all of this there’s also lightning-fast, too-witty dialogue that’s bouncing off the walls of the wardrobe and the varying degrees of broadness of the twelve inhabitants (almost like you’re looking at the spectrum of human emotions) all compliment the already sound foundation that’s in place.
The episode itself, like most episodes of the series, starts off comedic before the tides of darkness ebb closer and closer as an increasing amount of people invade the wardrobe (not to mention one of the bleakest endings ever). The increasingly claustrophobic feeling only increases the tension and heightens the feelings that a bottle episode is meant to evoke; it’s kind of brilliant and rather than focusing on the cheapness of a bottle episode, it smartly focuses on how small that bottle can be, while still using this claustrophobic setting and bottle episode structure as a commentary for what’s going on, too.
I mean, there’s the very obvious allusion that these peoples’ secrets spill out through the episode, just like how we all have skeletons in our closet. Only these characters are literally forced into a closet as their baggage is gone through and revealed (which includes a distressing incest plot); outing all of them, so to speak. They’re forced to remain in this wardrobe, literally breathing on one another, as each of them have old wounds torn open and they don’t even have the room to properly lick them. Amidst all of this, a rather ingenious story manages to be told in the background amongst all the chatter. Details are slowly pieced together from different conversations from everyone and they manage to stick a very impressive landing at the end of it all.
Meanwhile, as everyone’s baggage slowly seeps out within the wardrobe, the group also plays voyeur and sees secrets revealing themselves outside of the closet as guests think they are alone. This only emphasizes the idea that everyone has something to hide, and whether you’re trapped inside of a bureau or not, it’s still going to get out there. But as obvious as the metaphor is, it really, really works all the same. It even operates more like a pretty intelligent piece of theater than an episode of television. It’s not interested in visual flair more than it is in keeping you contained in the illusion of what’s going on.
Bottle episodes are hardly a new element of television, but Inside No. 9 approaches them so uniquely and with such a respect to the format. It’s a concept that they’ve flirted with before on Psychoville, and coming from a sketch comedy background, these two inherently are skilled at created contained scenes. It shouldn’t be a surprise how slick and seamless this show is. It’s all just glorious and “Sardines” is the perfect introduction to all of this closed-in madness.
Just don’t you dare sing the sardine song…