Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday or Wednesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is the best bottle episode? (Current and past shows are fair game.)
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
Last season’s Harriet Tubman-centric “Underground” episode “Minty” was a wonderful and unique bottle episode, not just a single location but effectively just a single character doing a monologue. I guess “American Bitch” from “Girls” probably counts and that was a good one (though “Girls” probably had another bottle episode or two that were at least equally strong). I’m partial to some fairly obvious sitcom bottle episode classics, including the “Friends” episode, “The One Where No One’s Ready,” and a couple “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” bottle episodes, probably with “Chardee MacDennis” as the pinnacle. “Black-ish” had a great one with “Hope” two seasons ago, and that episode was basically just the entire Johnson family on the couch watching TV for a half-hour. “One Day at a Time” has had a few, though really it’s not exactly fair to keep listing comedies, which usually have the advantage of fewer sets in the first place and always have the advantage of needing to only fill a half-hour, which isn’t nearly as hard, which isn’t to take anything away from something like “The Conversation” from “Mad About You.” I might want to mention great NEAR bottle episodes like “The Suitcase” from “Mad Men” or “Fight,” the last good episode of “Masters of Sex.”
To me, though, it ultimately comes down to two clear options: Either “Three Men and Adena” from “Homicide” or “Fly” from “Breaking Bad” and since I can almost guarantee that Sepinwall will focus on “Three Men and Adena,” I’m going with “Fly,” masterfully directed by Rian Johnson. The episode, which builds unimaginable suspense from the presence of a single tiny insect, sets up in micro the escalating tensions and mania that the series would play out in macro over the rest of its run. “Breaking Bad” was always a show of big events that hinged on the tiniest of incidents and they didn’t get much tinier than this.
Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx
I suspect that contractually I’m obligated to pick “Fly” from “Breaking Bad,” which is a great (if divisive) example of what an episode can be even inside a small space with only a few characters. Instead, I’d like to go back to the early ’90s to a pair of bottle episode classics, one comedy, one drama. Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant” is the more famous one, and the more historically important one, as a half-hour of Jerry, Elaine, and George waiting for a dinner table became the key that unlocked the entire series for Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David and helped it transform from a funny but uneven young comedy into one of the best ever made.
But the best bottle episode ever made is “Three Men and Adena” from “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The conclusion to the first season’s arc about the murder of little girl Adena Watson, virtually the whole episode is just detectives Tim Bayliss and Frank Pembleton in an interrogation room with their chief suspect Risley Tucker, aka the Araber, in a last-ditch attempt to get him to confess before they’re forced to abandon the case. It’s a spellbinding blend of dialogue (the only “Homicide” episode to win a writing Emmy), acting, and directing, made all the more intense because it feels like we’re stuck in that room with the three men, desperate to find answers about what really happened to poor Adena.
Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com
I would have said “Community’s” “Cooperative Calligraphy” but someone else has probably blurbed that, and then I would have said “Breaking Bad’s” “Fly” but same same, so let’s just go with “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s” “The Gang Goes to Hell Pt. 2.” To summarize, the gang is in the brig of a sinking Christian cruise ship because they are a bunch of hedonists, and the room begins to fill with water to kill them all. It’s hilarious! Like any great bottle episode, it shows off what the show does best: has its characters talk to each other and lets the actors deliver great performances. Plus it features an homage to Stomp!, an imaginary dinner party, and Glenn Howerton’s excellent CCH Pounder impression and Kaitlin Olson’s truly awful Obama impersonation.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
I don’t know if this counts, but I loved the second “30 Rock” live episode, “Live from Studio 6H.” Essentially set up as a Season 6 bottle episode with Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) locking most of the TGS staff inside Tracy’s (Tracy Morgan) dressing room after Jack (Alec Baldwin) decides that the show would start pre-taping, the action only jumped outside of the room for faux commercials and “flashbacks” to classic live-TV moments that were as fictional as they were effed-up. Among the “Honeymooners”-ish double-fatality, the ultra-sexist Joey Montero variety show from the ’70s and on-air throwdown between the stars of the racially backwards “Alfie & Abner,” we also got guest appearances by Jon Hamm, Donald Glover, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon and Fred Armisen, as well as the kind of flubbed lines and screwy camera-angles you can only get on actual live TV.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately for the shows of 10 years past, so I’m going to pick perhaps, arguably, the last truly fun and watchable episode of “Battlestar Galactica” ever made — Season 3’s “Unfinished Business,” AKA “the episode where many characters work out a lot of interpersonal drama by beating each other up in a boxing ring,” A.K.A. “the episode where we flash back to seeing Adama and Roslin getting high back on New Caprica.” There are probably better episodes to mention, and I like knowing that other respondees will mention them. But “Battlestar” was so special in its time, and that’s worth remembering.
Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com
I am going to cheat and choose an episode that isn’t technically a bottle episode because of the amount of money it surely took to produce, but is nevertheless one of the best examples of the format: Banshee’s “Tribal.” The turning point of the show’s third season, the episode featured an intense hour-long siege that confined most of the show’s main characters to a single location; this is how the episode gets away with being labeled a bottle episode while still featuring a ton of effects and stunts and employing a number of extras. But although the relentless, violent shootout between Hood’s (Antony Starr) small group and Chayton’s (Geno Segers) armed men that takes up most of the hour is impressive on its own, what really makes the episode stand out are the tense conflicts playing out in the quiet confessions and arguments that occur in between hails of bullets. It may not be as popular a choice as Doctor Who’s “Midnight” or Mad Men’s “The Suitcase,” but “Tribal” is an action-packed episode that punches viewers in the gut by never letting up on the emotional or character fronts — something the Cinemax show came to be known for over the course of its four-season run. I don’t care if it’s not technically a bottle episode, it features several of the same characteristics, and the result is one of the best hours of TV I’ve ever seen.
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
“Homicide’s” “Three Men and Adena” traps three men in the same tiny room for the vast majority of its running time, and when it leaves that room, it’s really just to go across the hall. But for the most part, this is just two cops trying to get a suspect to crack in a long, long, long interrogation, one that culminates in some of the most devastating TV ever filmed. Andre Braugher’s Det. Frank Pembleton was already proving to be one of TV’s most mesmerizing characters in the show’s first four episodes, but in this one, he soared up over the top. That’s right. This hour was just the fifth episode of the show ever made. Take that, every other show on television!
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
How about the entire season of HBO’s amazing “Room 104” which got little love at award nom time, but was one of my favorite new series offerings of last year?
The Duplass brothers and particularly Mark Duplass blew me away with their incredible selections of directors like Megan Griffiths, whom I interviewed for her two episodes, “The Fight” and “The Missionaries” and Sarah Adina Smith. In fact, IndieWire’s Ben Travers and I covered that series more than any other site! His interview with “Ralphie” director Sarah Adina Smith was a fantastic read as was that spine-tingling episode.
For sheer production economy, using one room as the set and keeping the action inside and tightly focused on two people, these brilliant bottle episodes are Yahtzee and the gold standard for filmmakers daring to test the edges of their writing talent and choice of directors.
I am not surprised my favorite episodes of this series were directed by women, as I think we women have a greater appreciation for what we hear versus the more masculine tack of what one sees…going for the big effects or explosive action scenes – not that one is better than the other, just the stylistic differences, in my opinion, lent themselves a better creative playground for these excellent female directors to explore emotional nuances (“The Missionaries” especially) and push the psychological limits into the horror realm (“Ralphie”).
What a fantastic premise for a series! Smart, tight, and unlike anything else on TV. If I had to pick the best “bottle” episode of this bottle series for me, and this is tough, I would vote for “Ralphie” for the sheer shock value and chilling after effects it left the viewer.
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
Between “Friends,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad,” the all-time greats have been covered. So I’ll throw a shout-out to a bottle episode that comes the closest to taking place in the same physical realm as a bottle and that none-but-the-devout have likely seen: “Vision Quest,” “Archer’s” sixth season masterpiece finds the entire ISIS team trapped in an elevator. Not only does it end on one of the most ludicrous reveals of an extremely ludicrous series, but the episode builds a fun narrative arc out of banter, necessity, and paranoia, as the team tries to reconcile their situation while taking as many pot shots at one another as possible. It’s a sharp piece of writing all-around, as great bottle episodes necessitate, with plenty of suspense and humor (doy), but it never lacks visual flair, either. Plus, even after that multi-level disgusting reveal, Mallory’s kicker sends “Archer” out on a high-note.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
Other contenders: “The Alienist,” “Baskets,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Homeland,” “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “Mozart in the Jungle,” the Olympics, “One Day at a Time,” “Queer Eye” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.