It’s no secret that we’re living in a golden age of television, both in terms of quality and quantity. But with hundreds of channels offering everything from single-camera family sitcoms to elaborate sci-fi fantasy epics, the abundance of programming can be a bit overwhelming.
Sometimes you just want to enjoy an excellent episode of TV that doesn’t demand ten hours of bingeing, intimate knowledge of obscure source material, a grasp on all crossover shows in the same fictional universe, or a character guide from Wikipedia. Enter: the bottle episode.
The “bottle episode” format originated during the original 1960s series of Star Trek when producers needed to save money in order to budget for more expensive episodes elsewhere in the season. Their solution was to simply put the [space] ship in a “bottle” for an episode, which would restrict the extravagance of the plot and the need for pricey guest stars, elaborate sets, and visuals effects.
And it worked. The creative team’s self-imposed limits stripped the show down to its most basic elements – and in doing so, helped them realize they could craft a very simple episode which managed to be both compelling and thrifty.
Though they’re still a reliable money-saver, bottle episodes have more recently gained popularity as opportunities for a show’s writers to get creative and demonstrate their mastery over their production. By emphasizing character above all else, bottle episodes typically represent when a TV show is at its best.
These seven classic bottle episodes are the best examples currently available on Netflix.
(A brief spoiler warning: while I won’t recount these entire stories beat-by-beat, please be aware that some plot details for each of the shows are revealed below. So if you wish to remain completely pristine and ignorant of facts, please don’t read about any of the bottle episodes until you've watched them!)
Friends – “The One Where No One’s Ready”
Season 3, Episode 2
Like all classic sitcoms, Friends is usually confined to a select few memorable locations, but “The One Where No One’s Ready” represents the first and only time the show deliberately staged all of its action in Monica and Rachel’s apartment for the entire episode. Not only that, but it largely takes place in real time, in the hectic 30 minutes leading up to an event which all six friends are preparing to attend (to various degrees of success).
Standing out as one of the bottle episodes which most effectively employs the “race against the clock” idea, “The One Where No One’s Ready” does more than just linger on people getting ready for a night out. It paints a terrific portrait of all six beloved characters while also weaving in new developments in ongoing Friends mythology (Monica’s on-again, off-again relationship with Richard), forges a new and memorably funny standoff between Joey and Chandler (about who is entitled to a seat in the living room), and emphasizes both the strengths and weaknesses of Ross & Rachel’s relationship. Naturally, Phoebe is also there to make some of the best jokes of the episode.
Ross Geller has become a target for a lot of criticism when it comes to unpleasant 1990s male sitcom archetypes, but it’s hard not to relate to him in this episode. If you’ve ever struggled to rally your friends and family for an event that is far more important to you than anyone else, you will absolutely see yourself in “The One Where No One’s Ready”.
Fun fact: Much of the imagery in this episode was recreated and parodied for the music video/short film for Jay-Z’s song “Moonlight” from 2017.
Memorable moment: Before putting on his rented tuxedo, Joey reveals that he doesn’t usually wear underwear, a line which most people agree launched the phrase “going commando” into the mainstream.
Mad Men – “The Suitcase”
Season 4, Episode 7
Sitcoms are much more likely to tackle to the bottle episode format due to their already limited sets and situations (plus being able to regularly turn to humor, to keep audiences engaged). But when a drama delves into the world of the bottle, the degree of difficulty is exceedingly high. “The Suitcase” from Mad Men absolutely hits that mark.
The “bottle” in this case isn’t a room or location, but rather the small bit of space between Don Draper and Peggy Olson as they work together late one night, trying to come up with a good commercial idea for Samsonite luggage – and in the process, neglecting both Peggy’s birthday dinner and Don’s desire to take in the 1965 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston.
Mad Men, despite its many accolades, can be a bit of an acquired taste. But even if you changed the character names and actors in this episode, “The Suitcase” would still serve as an excellent standalone portrait of two hardworking people struggling to balance the pandemonium in their busy professional lives. Elisabeth Moss is her usual enthralling combination of vulnerable and durable as Peggy, and if ever there was a perfect microcosm of Jon Hamm’s Don Draper character, it’s in this episode. He’s equal parts unreasonable, unlikable, smart, accomplished, subdued, and broken. Above all, the episode is flawless because it’s simply about two friends and colleagues bolstering their relationship through understanding.
Fun fact: This episode, the 46th overall for Mad Men, actually represents the exact midpoint of the series, which concluded with episode 92 about five years later.
Memorable moment: When Duck Phillips (a former lover of Peggy’s and former colleague of Don’s) shows up drunk and insults Peggy, an even-more-drunk Don takes a swing at him, misses horribly, and quickly submits in the ensuing scuffle. It’s a nice reminder that being an ace alpha male advertising executive who looks great in a suit doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to fight.
Parks and Recreation – “Leslie & Ron”
Season 7, Episode 4
Most bottle episodes feel insulated from the rest of the series (generally by design) and their success hinges upon a clever idea being introduced and resolved within the runtime of the episode (e.g., “the power went out and we’re stuck in an elevator!”) while maybe revealing some information about the characters we didn’t previously know we wanted or needed. None of these apply to “Leslie & Ron”, which stands out as an exceptional bottle episode for several reasons.
First: the plot of the episode was directly set up by previous episodes. Second: the rest of the season depends on the resolutions reached in this episode, meaning it’s indispensable and not one a viewer could simply skip over. Third: the title characters are forced into the “bottle” situation by their own friends and coworkers (rare, among bottle episodes, for people within the universe to recognize the need for some characters to be sequestered together). Fourth, because of the three year time-jump in between seasons 6 and 7 of the show, “Leslie & Ron” gets to delve into the cause of the as-yet-unexplained fractured friendship between the title characters and also provides an opportunity to answer a lot of questions as to what happened in the city of Pawnee during that time (which a lot of fans were waiting for).
Above all, the episode is one of the show’s best because it’s simultaneously a love letter to and a showcase for Parks & Rec’s two stars (Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman) and the characters they made famous, which is why it’s so satisfying to watch for devoted fans and casual viewers alike.
Fun fact: Parks & Rec was always good about rewarding faithful viewers with Easter eggs, and this episode is no different – it addresses long-term details of the show, such as Ron Swanson’s woodworking prowess, the department’s failed prototype for a horrific City Hall mural, the land mine that adorned Ron’s desk for years (turns out it had always been completely defused, to Ron’s chagrin), and the janitor who obliviously cleans the office while blaring Shania Twain.
Memorable moment: Leslie tries multiple annoying methods in order to force Ron to engage in conversation, and she finally breaks through with a karaoke version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, a song to which she absolutely does not know the lyrics. Amy Poehler’s performance for those 30 seconds is pure joy.
The West Wing – “17 People”
Season 2, Episode 18
Truthfully, multiple West Wing episodes could probably qualify for bottle episode classification (as the show’s name suggests, a bulk of the show’s action takes place exclusively within the White House) but “17 People” has a decidedly more intimate perspective than most episodes, centering on three separate two-person dynamics over the course of several hours in one evening.
Mostly devoid of any of the show’s high-energy signature “walk and talk” scenes, major impassioned public moments, or a shocking plot developments (like an assassination attempt), this Aaron Sorkin script remains especially captivating by utilizing a deliberate stillness, ethical tension, and deft performances. Despite the episode’s narrow scope, “17 People” still manages to capture the usual terrific balance of the issues faced by the Bartlett White House on a daily basis – this time centering on the President’s secret medical condition finally being revealed to his communications director (the titular 17th person to learn the truth).
When it’s firing on all cylinders, The West Wing is able to balance everything you could want from a TV show and “17 People” does an extraordinary job of turning something seemingly dry and basic (in this case, the prospect of damage to the President’s reputation) into a situation that feels every bit as weighty as a brewing nuclear war.
Fun fact: Reportedly, this script came as a result of the network requesting that the show’s budget be trimmed. As is usually the case, this limitation of having to solve problems with creativity rather than money led to what a lot of fans and critics alike regard as the best episode of The West Wing, period.
Memorable moment: Martin Sheen is phenomenal as President Bartlett throughout the show’s run, and in this episode, he gets to show off everything that is great about his character and his performance. From moment to moment, he’s assertive, charming, warm, reflective, defiant, and collected, while successfully managing the most difficult job on Earth. I’d vote for him tomorrow.
Frasier – “Dinner Party”
Season 6, Episode 17
After more than six seasons, the concept of a Frasier episode simply titled “Dinner Party” seems almost lazy and boring – it had already been done repeatedly on the show and hardly seemed a challenge to revisit. Naturally, the writers pounced on these expectations and created an entire episode based on Niles and Frasier merely attempting to plan a dinner party.
I’ll admit: on paper, the idea of watching two rich psychiatrists pace around a luxurious apartment while trying to coordinate with high society caterers and various couples they know from the symphony seems like a preposterously niche and humorless concept. But if you’ve ever tried to arrange an evening with friends, you will immediately relate to the perils of trying to plan anything with a group of busy adults. Plus, as with the best Frasier episodes, the comedy is derived not necessarily from plot but rather expertly worded jokes at the snooty brothers’ expense, clever misunderstandings, ridiculous presumptions, insecurity, and outrageous sibling rivalry.
And as always, Roz, Daphne, and Martin repeatedly swoop in like comedy ninjas with perfect, precise jokes at every turn (I particularly love Roz’s delivery on, “I’m just as refined as you are – shut up, Niles!”)
Fun fact: “Dinner Party” feels timeless thanks to its terrific writing, but it cannot escape the fact that it remains a quintessential look back at the ’90s thanks to the prominence of things like physical datebooks, tangible answering machines, and indistinguishable chunky flip cell phones (the visual similarity of which leads to one of the episode’s most unfortunate mistakes).
Memorable moment: As a longtime fan of the show, I may be biased but I think Frasier’s line, “After an unusually protracted round of dueling datebooks, Niles and I have finally set upon a mutually acceptable evening for an intime soiree,” might be the best, most pretentious bit of dialogue from all 11 seasons of the show, and possibly the entire history of live-action entertainment.
Breaking Bad – “Fly”
Season 3, Episode 10
No one gets threatened. No one gets hurt (not in the typically memorable Breaking Bad style, anyway). We don’t see any meth getting cooked. There’s little to no plot. It features only two characters. And yet “Fly” is arguably the best Breaking Bad episode of all.
A simple summary: after a housefly gets into their secret underground meth superlab, Walt slowly descends into near-madness in his attempts to kill it, much to his cooking partner Jesse’s confusion and disbelief. Truthfully, it sounds absurd, but some of the best Breaking Bad plots grow out of one seemingly insignificant thing going wrong and the characters dealing with the realistic cascading consequences of that insignificant thing. In this instance, the consequences are mostly psychological and end up revealing a lot about how the lead characters have grown and changed since the show’s beginning.
“Fly” does a lot of momentous character work, such as Jesse being forced to recall the night his girlfriend died, while a drowsy Walt vulnerably talks about his mortality (him quietly explaining, “I’ve lived too long” is one of the more underrated moments of the stellar season). But that doesn’t mean the episode is all heavy lifting or soul-baring. It’s also regularly fun to watch these two characters interact with their usual dynamic flipped on its head – Jesse insisting they just get to work, while Walt is distracted and unbalanced due to something admittedly rather trivial.
Both men also violently hit each other with a rigid homemade fly swatter and talk about possums. It’s an excellent, spellbinding time and you don’t need to be a Breaking Bad fan to appreciate it.
Fun fact: This episode was expertly directed by Rian Johnson, who also helmed the films Looper, The Brothers Bloom, and The Last Jedi (as well as two other Breaking Bad episodes).
Memorable moment: When Jesse hears that there’s been a contamination in the lab, he naively believes it might be “like an ebola leak or something,” which he lovingly describes as “a disease on the Discovery Channel where all your intestines sorta just slip right out of your butt.”
Master of None – “Mornings”
Season 1, Episode 9
Taking place in a couple’s apartment over the course of nearly a year, “Mornings” is not only one of the best and most clever modern interpretations of the bottle episode concept, but it also stands as an outstanding self-contained romantic comedy (albeit one with a brief 30-minute runtime).
The first season of Master of None succeeds mostly as a portrait of modern romance, and the subject matter of this episode in particular is a phenomenal microcosm of relationships, dealing with the challenges of living with your partner, and all of the inherent hurdles that come with reaching that next level.
Though you don’t even need to watch any other episode of Master of None to enjoy and appreciate this episode’s excellence, that doesn’t mean “Mornings” is disconnected from the rest of the show. Like all good bottle episodes, the character moments in this episode resonate both with new viewers and those who are familiar with the previous eight episodes. The foreknowledge of Dev’s relationship with his parents and Rachel’s career ambitions really enhances the stakes of “Mornings” and elevates it to one of the show’s best episodes ever.
Fun fact: If you enjoyed Primer’s feature interview with Amy Williams, the designer of Dev’s apartment on Master of None, “Mornings” is a must-watch if for no other reason than it is a half-hour showcase of that living space, from every conceivable angle, in all lighting.
Memorable moment: Noel Wells is fantastic as Rachel throughout the entire first season of the show, but she’s especially terrific in “Mornings”. Her delivery on lines like, “you’re right, but you’re being really insensitive about it” (in the middle of a serious fight) showcases her ability to be sharp, charming, and vulnerable all at once.