Forcing Proximity and Finding Footing in ‘Sealab 2021’s Bottle Episode
‘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
“Do you want this door open, or not?”
Adam Reed and Matt Thompson’s Sealab 2021 was nothing if not ambitious. They didn’t always succeed (and unfortunately their track record would be less consistent as the series wound down), but there was always an unbridled energy at work in whatever they were attempting. Something like this can be paramount for a show that’s trying to make a name for itself on a baby network that’s trying to do the same. Sealab would resort to some very flashy stunts in their premiere year, but they also decided to turn to one of television’s most storied traditions, the bottle episode.
“In the Closet” feels like vintage Sealab 2021. There’s plenty of overlapping madness going on and by the end of everything almost all of the characters have black eyes — some even double black eyes (but in Murphy’s defense, he “warned them”). The episode also begins with Captain Murphy trying to woo Wendy, a crudely made mop-bucket woman, so the episode’s confined nature clearly isn’t holding it back.
Basically, Murphy and Marco are trapped in a closet for the episode, a situation that’s been countlessly done in this format before. Murphy even waxes on about his father and his alcoholism in what feels like a deliberate nod to the melodramatic places bottle episodes so often go to. Cleverly, the episode feels like it’s almost making fun of bottle episodes, with an arbitrary, self-imposed excuse to be “trapped” somewhere until it wills itself into being legitimate.
The closet that Murphy, Marco, and eventually the rest of Sealab become trapped in presents them with ample opportunities to escape, but each time sees Murphy subverting their exodus in a different way. Eventually the door opening becomes as pointless and arbitrary as the cat that’s also killing time in the closet with them. One occasion sees a technician opening the door to fix it, only for Murphy to sucker punch him unconscious (a running theme — if violence can be a theme — through the episode). Naturally, Murphy jumps to close their exit so their cover-up of what “happened” to the technician isn’t blown. They could have been out of this bottle in the first few minutes of the episode, and them continually rubbing that in your face is a great wink towards the forced nature of so many bottle episodes.
As the bottle begins to fill up with the rest of Sealab, we see other stressers shaking up this space. Sparks is panicking over the limited oxygen they’ve got in their prison (coupled with his claustrophobia), growing ever-paranoid over the hungry horse nostrils sucking up their remaining life force. He’s even willing to let someone die over oxygen conservation, always the survivalist.
The episode even wisely blacks out the closet (a strategy that would be taken to the absolute extreme in “Fusebox”) and shifts into silhouette in order to really get the most out of these confined quarters. For a show that could be so concerned with reusing and being frugal with their animation, there are some welcome creative touches going on here, as simplistic as they may be.
These flourishes and the episode’s regimented style are examples of this early sort of experimenting that was also the mission statement of Adult Swim’s newly launched 11-minute forays into programming. There was very much a mentality of always trying new things and going for it, with this episode being an extension of that mindset. It’s maybe not a perfect project, but it got Sealab’s creative juices flowing and reminded them that they could do stuff like this, which eventually got to the point where they were nearly pros at this unconventional plotting (again, look no further than the second season’s “Fusebox” for a prime example of how much they had grown in under a year). Even still, this episode is surprisingly impressive for the first season of a show on a network that didn’t even know what it was yet.
“In the Closet” also followed a four-month gap after Sealab’s tenth episode, which perhaps allowed them some time to creatively re-tool and plan their final three episodes of the season. The concept and execution of this one certainly feels like more time was invested in the planning stage.
The episode’s ending, as preposterous as it might be, is again a welcome dig at how bottle episodes typically operate. Quinn manages to fix the faulty door mechanism giving them all precious freedom, only for an angry pack of unfed Guatemalan fighting dogs to greet them on the other side. With this alternative being much less appealing, the crew willfully locks themselves back in the closet. Rather than the episode ending with them free, they’re even more trapped than they were before.
I’m not sure how many more black eyes the crew can take.