Thanks to Aspire TV, I’ve been introduced to something that I didn’t know existed: The Bill Cosby Show.
No, not the 80’s hit that reminded everyone that black people could be on TV too. And no, not the bad “Cosby” trainwreck that followed. Nor do I mean some variety or talk show or anything with “Fat” in the title. Not ringing any bells? Don’t feel bad – I was pretty surprised myself. In this early 70’s sitcom sans laugh track, Cos plays Chet, a Los Angeles phys ed teacher in a multiracial school taught by ethnically diverse teachers. He’s an everyman who gets into shenanigans with sprinkles of ballyhoo and balderdash. It ran for only a couple seasons because it’s an average show at best. Anyway, now we know.
On today’s show, Chet, the school cleaning lady, and Henry Fonda (playing a teacher) fall into tomfoolery and get stuck in an elevator. That’s where the whole episode takes place. That’s an example of a bottle episode. When you’re trying to save money on your series, now and again you’ll produce a bottle episode because they cut down on set building, location shooting and time. Now we know.
Wikipedia is here to help:
“The etymology of the phrase originates with a similar term used on the set of the original 1960s-era Star Trek . Cast and crew members of the show use the phrase ‘ship-in-a-bottle episodes’ for episodes that took place only on board the Starship Enterprise.”
Sounds like a cool scheme but they can sometimes catch a bad rap. Discerning viewers might consider it lazy or a cop out. In a certain light, a bottle episode from your favorite show might make you feel cheated. And you are if it’s badly written. That’s the trick with these things – you have to make sure you can make 30 minutes to an hour in one space interesting. “Seinfeld” was exceptionally good at this. Everybody points to “The Chinese Restaurant” as their best but I think “The Parking Garage” is better.
Furthermore, these challenges have been known to produce exquisite works. Star Trek’s “Balance Of Terror,” The X-Files’ “Ice,” Community’ “Remedial Chaos Theory” were arguably the shows’ best outings. Hell, almost every time Community does it, it scores! See “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” and “Cooperative Calligraphy.” They are masterpieces.
Even movies can do it. All of “Crimson Tide” is in a submarine. “The Breakfast Club” did it and most of “Speed” is on a bus. Truth is, I think most b.e.’s are pretty good. They offer a lot of exercise for the actors and writers and little for the rest of the contributors, and that’s okay. The bulk of my creative respect goes to writing anyway, but it’s that wonderful acting performance that makes the words come alive. Just check out Breaking Bad’s tour du force “Fly.” You’ll see.
So I’m not going to rattle off a ton of examples about bottle episodes and why each individual production is cool. That’s what Google is for. But I will go so far as to say that Lois and Clark’s “Ghosts” might be the worst bottle episode ever made.
Okay that’s no way to defend b.e.’s. Let’s rename this “In Defense Of The Bottle Episode Except That One.” Pure trash.