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'Inside No. 9' Takes the Bottle Episode to Claustrophobic New Heights

insideno9‘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. READ MORE

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'Sealab 2021's Super Stripped-Down Bottle Episode Is a Masterclass in Minimalist TV

sealabfusebox‘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

“The power’s out, Debbie.”
“I know!”

Adam Reed is a very talented comedy writer. He’s currently doing standout work on Archer, but before that, he was slowly refining his voice and building a style on cruder programs, like his first effort, Sealab 2021.The series was basically a re-appropriation of the outlandish series from the ‘70s with a crew stationed underwater.

The episode features the simplest of plots: the power has gone out and the fusebox must be found. This is the sort of thing that works perfectly in a ten-minute slot and almost can’t be done with a full 22-minute show. It’d be too much. It’d start to anger you, even, and this is the perfect in between.

“Fusebox” is absolutely an instance where the bottle episode was being used out of necessity and time crunch limitations. The conceit of this episode wasn’t some brilliant inspiration that Adam Reed and Matt Thompson had wanted to do for years, but merely a quick way to burn out an episode. The fact that it is an impressive achievement is a testament to their ability and evidence of how they could move on to something like Archer down the road. READ MORE

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The One Where 'Friends' First Attempted a Bottle Episode

friends-bottleep‘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.

“Eh, so we’re a little late…”

Friends is a show that gets picked on a lot (and is even gaining steam on the insult train with LeBlanc’s Episodes still mining the sitcom for deprecating material). For as many rabid fans that started frothing at the mouth when the show was recently added to Netflix, there are even more people that vehemently hate the program. Accordingly, Friends is guilty of being generalized on constantly and lumped in with other lazy fodder from the nineties. While a lot of this criticism is accurate, Friends also did try more ambitious episodes of television and occasionally experimented with structure when they had earned the leeway that comes with success and power. Although they never went overboard here or necessarily challenged their audience, bottle episodes were something that Friends was no stranger to, and their obsession with them began early in their third season.

It was long-time director of the series Kevin S. Bright’s idea to resort to a bottle episode, as it would save them money that would allow them to get fancy during the rest of the season. This bottle episode (which, besides the tag, is set entirely in Monica and Rachel’s living room) would hopefully allow them deeper focus by eliminating other distractions like guest stars and just focusing on the core cast. And sure enough, besides our six cast members, only three other speaking roles occur in this episode. READ MORE

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How 'Seinfeld' Boiled Down the Human Condition to its Essence in a Parking Garage

seinfeld-the-parking-garage‘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 was a complete waste of time."

Seinfeld was always a show about nothing, and characters that loved tearing open the carcasses of nothing and bathing in nothing’s blood. But there were particular episodes, “The Parking Garage” being one of them, that highlighted all of this as they were built around literal slices of life rather than just certain conversations or set pieces.

“The Parking Garage” is truly an episode about nothing though, as the gang talks and walks in circles for the entire span of the episode (which impressively also passes over in real-time), epitomizing realism and monotony even better than the previous attempt at this sort of thing in season two’s “The Chinese Restaurant” (which, you might forget, does not include Kramer). The plot of this episode is absolutely the perfect context and use of a bottle episode, with the results even ditching Jerry’s famous apartment set for the episode (something that only happened in four episodes out of the 180 that were produced). Instead, things are set in the parking garage of a mall — the hub of nothing and meaninglessness — what’s more “nothing” than that? READ MORE

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'Fish in the Dark' is 'Seinfeld' on Stage and Vintage Larry David

fishinthedarkThere's a moment in Fish in the Dark where Larry responds to a question about how grabbing a breast was and he answers with, "Pretty good. Prettayyyyy, prettayyyyy, prettayyyyy good.” The audience erupts into applause and you’re just like what is going on? This man has no business on stage. But you simultaneously know exactly what is going on. You’re getting precisely what you want. You’re not only seeing Larry David acting on Broadway, but him totally serving it up to the audience and they couldn’t be happier with it.

Imagine if there were a Seinfeld episode set entirely in the waiting room during Susan’s diagnosis. That’s pretty much the first half of Fish in the Dark, as hospital minutiae and etiquette is dug into, like whether you tip a doctor or if you should bring a date to the hospital. The play explores the idea of Larry’s character’s father passing away, and his dying words getting garbled up and possible misconstrued. What follows is Larry trying to figure out and navigate around this boulder and the severe consequences of either direction he goes in. Then this idea doubles down on itself in typical Larry David fashion.

None of this feels out of Larry’s comfort zone, with the play largely just being scenes of people talking and mini bottle episodes, something that Seinfeld was well versed in. The show opens on Larry in a suit jacket and shirt. He’s again not so much acting as he is just complaining and talking on stage. But you’d have it no other way. I was almost hoping for a Curb-esque moment where he forgot his lines and just spitballed with the audience. READ MORE

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How 'Mad About You' Made One of the Boldest Bottle Episodes Ever

madaboutyou-theconversation‘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. READ MORE

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Inside 'Community's Meta Knockout of a Bottle Episode

community-bottleepisode‘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.

“I hate bottle episodes. They're wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance. I might as well sit in a corner with a bucket on my head.”

Dan Harmon’s seemingly immortal sitcom, Community, is without a doubt the most meta comedy on television (and now the internet). They’ve subverted and indulged in classic tropes like clip shows, Claymation, and musicals, while also perfectly lampooning unexpected pop culture totems like My Dinner With Andre, Hearts of Darkness, and GI Joe. The show has played around with structural insanity so frequently that the term “concept episodes” has been worked into the show’s vernacular. They’ve become as fundamental to the series as The X-Files’ “mythology episodes” were to that show. The long-standing tradition of a bottle episode was an obvious choice for the show to turn to eventually.

Written by Megan Ganz, in what was not only her first script for the series, but her first piece of sitcom writing. It’s easy to see how she would go on to become arguably Community’s strongest writer behind Harmon before ultimately leaving the show. What’s so impressive about “Cooperative Calligraphy” is that it’s a bottle episode about bottle episodes. Which is particularly exciting for a show that is already so preoccupied with the dissection of how sitcoms work and getting deep into their DNA. READ MORE

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How 'Archer' Tackled its Recent Bottle Episode

archervisionquest‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a new 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.

“[Bottles episodes are] the sad little stepchild whose allowance is docked in order to buy big brother a new pair of sneaks.” This is what the executive producer and director from The Shield, Scott Brazil, had to say about the restrictive type of television episode that a large amount of shows have adopted at one point or another.

Bottle episodes are an interesting phenomenon, having been present since the early days of television, and are hardly going out of style now. Primarily designed to save on production expenses, they often end up being creative highlights of their respective series, and displays of the handicapped show working even harder to impress you.

The term bottle episode originated on Star Trek, of all places, due to the series often setting episodes entirely on the ship as a means of saving money. The tactic was resorted to so often that the phrase “Ship in a bottle”, referring explicitly to the Enterprise, was adopted into the vernacular. Soon these ship-in-a-bottle episodes became a staple of the sci-fi series and its many spin-offs, with many being fans’ favorites.

While there is a long and storied history of comedies experimenting with bottle episodes, it seems appropriate to kick off with Archer’s “Vision Quest”, considering this might be one of the most recent examples of it happening (the episode only aired on February 5th). So let’s strike while the bottle iron is still hot! READ MORE

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None of the Best Comedies on TV Would Exist Without 'King of the Hill'

kingofthehillWith Parks and Recreation gracefully leaving our television screens this year, showrunner Mike Schur has been getting a lot of attention. Not only for his series coming to a close, but for the sort of careful, respectful character-driven approach that Parks is not only heralding through these final thirteen episodes, but that has strongly been a part of it from the start. Parks and Recreation isn’t the only program with this approach to comedy, however, and with a rather impressive, unifying force of series now out there, it’s worth examining why this breed of comedy is currently in control. It might surprise you that the answer goes all the way back to January of 1997 in a fictional animated suburb in Texas.

King of the Hill debuted on FOX on January 12, 1997, and from it stemmed this integral renaissance where Greg Daniels (along with Mike Judge) spawned this whole line of writers, with people like Mike Schur (and to a lesser extent, Dan Goor, who started on Parks, has gone on to run Brooklyn Nine Nine, and will go on beyond that)becoming protégés that have formed the next breed of writers that you see composing the sharpest comedies on TV right now, like Parks and Recreation, Bob’s Burgers, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Silicon Valley, Modern Family, and American Dad. And if it weren’t for what was instilled on King of the Hill, these writers wouldn’t have gone on to make today’s classics. Not only that, but all of these writers that started on King of the Hill have become fit to be showrunners, leading some of the strongest shows out there, as can be seen with writers like Emily Spivey (showrunner of Up All Night), David Zuckerman (showrunner of Wilfred), Dan Goor, and even in the form of Paul Lieberstein stepping up on The Office when Greg Daniels departed. READ MORE

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NBC’s Journey and Ultimate Failure to Find the Next 'Friends'

friendsFor the past few years it’s been nearly impossible to flip through the channels without stumbling upon a number of the Friends clones that have come and gone. Shows like Perfect Couples, Friends with Benefits, Partners, Friends With Better Lives, Some of My Best Friends, Undateable, and a wealth of other shows with generic titles that have failed to make a name for themselves (as well as other legitimate contenders for the “throne” such as Happy Endings or How I Met Your Mother). Now, with Friends recently added to the Netflix pantheon, and with Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc being as hot as ever (well maybe that’s not true) with current hit series, The Comeback and Episodes, and Courtney Cox’s Cougar Town ending its run, it seems like now is the best time to analyze the immense problems NBC faced when trying to replace their flagship comedy, and some of the absurd strike-outs they tried to turn into sensations during the transition period.

During the early 2000s, NBC foresaw the end of their comedy cash cow and as Friends began moving into its twilight seasons, the network began planning for the inevitable and developing the next wave of comedies that would hold onto their grip of the market. This effort saw a number of failed sitcoms rise and fall over Friends' final seasons. READ MORE

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'The Heart, She Holler' and PFFR's Insane Trilogy of Ignorance

heartshehollerThe production company PFFR, headlined by the infinitely unconventional Vernon Chatman, John Lee, and Alison Levy, have produced some of the most unique, challenging, (and naturally) hated programs to have graced Adult Swim, a channel already known for different, more absurd programming. In the past, PFFR created such brilliant experiments in television like MTV2’s Sesame Street-skewing, public-enraging Wonder Showzen, the CGI New Age-spouting, low-rated Xavier: Renegade Angel, or the most “mainstream” of their programs, Delocated, a series whose star is wearing a ski mask and has his voice modulated for its entirety.

But their latest entry, the Southern gothic, soap opera-aping, The Heart, She Holler, almost immediately proved that it was going to be PFFR’s weirdest entry yet, what with the David Lynch infused universe it takes place in, where a deceased magnate talking to his kin through an endless supply of VHS tapes is the most grounded aspect of the show. But when it began (or endginned, your call) in 2011, it was far from clear that it would be the final piece of a trilogy that PFFR has been telling nearly since they began. A trilogy of ignorance, racism, and destruction that started with Wonder Showzen, developed through Xavier: Renegade Angel, and is now finally coming into focus and concluded with what the third season of The Heart, She Holler has had to say. READ MORE

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Making Sense of Serializing 'South Park'

southpark-lordeSouth Park has made a name for itself by breaking boundaries and pushing the envelope, with their incredibly streamlined production schedule allowing them near-unrivaled power on commenting on breaking and current events. So it’s a little surprising that the most unpredictable and ambitious thing South Park did this season was experiment with serialized, continuity-heavy storytelling. This season embraced the approach more than ever before, almost distilling the year into a singular storyline that they kept returning to.

While its prevalence has fluctuated throughout the season (some episodes have functioned entirely as standalone entities), it’s worth assessing why South Park has decided to make this shift this late in the game, and if it’s paid off and is something they’ll continue to do. READ MORE

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Bearing Down on 'Community’s Triumphant, Challenging Fifth Season

Community’s return this year was one of the most anticipated comedy events of the season. The theme of redemption (always a deep part of the show) seemed especially prevalent, as this season had the tall task of establishing why this show still needs to exist. That it deserves to return after a lackluster (by previous standards) fourth season, that Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna returning as showrunners would be able to steer the show in the right direction, and that a Pierce and Troy-less Community wouldn’t feel like an imitation of itself; that this wasn’t a Scrubs season 9 sort of situation. Not only did the show stand up to all of these challenges, but it also managed to become even more confident and daring in the places it chose to go, giving it arguably its most ambitious, consistent season to date and the perfect "return" we could have asked for.

While much of this season (and the series as a whole) has been about maturing and moving on, one of the smartest things the fifth season does is also embed the topic of Harmon’s return into the show’s DNA in an organic way that largely provides the first half of the season with the tonal grounding that the show needed after such a confused previous year. Harmon’s return is subtly reflected through each character’s reactions and relationships. To lose your creator (or God, or lover) is traumatic, and to then have them come back to you is a complicated thing to try and process, for them and for us.

Dan Harmon’s other series Rick and Morty has a moment in one of its episodes where there is a television channel (albeit from an alternate reality) with us on it, and not unlike that idea here, we too are students of Greendale; afraid and excited about what it means to get back something we have already mourned. It’s remarkable that the first few episodes of the season don’t fumble more as they try to process this feeling. The only reason it even attempts such a radical thing is because Community understands that every show we let into our homes becomes a part of our family (or study group), like a living entity that can change us. Harmon is Greendale, we are the Save Greendale committee, and each member of the committee represents our emotions, and is calling us to come together and succeed through this year. We have returned to a place where we know we are loved. This Mk-II study room table isn’t just a table; it’s a time machine. READ MORE

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Looking at 'Rick and Morty's Meticulously-Crafted First Season

The inaugural season of Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s runaway Cronenbergian monster of a hit, Rick and Morty, wrapped last night, ending a nearly flawless season of ambitious animated television. The scope and complexity of Rick and Morty should be no surprise considering that Harmon is no stranger to ambitious, meticulously-constructed television on his other series, Community. What’s especially worth noting in Harmon and Roiland's collaboration this time around is that Rick and Morty is essentially your only hope to standing up against the unforgiving universe(s) and all of its bleakness.

It’s also a very, very funny show. READ MORE