"I read that script and I went, "˜Nothing happens! Am I missing pages?'"-Warren Littlefield, NBC Executive
One set, often one already created for the show. Few ancillary characters, allowing for a razor-like focus on the primary cast. High tensions, ratcheted ever-higher as the situation escalates. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the bottle episode. Generally done as a cost-saving measure to keep a season on budget and often resulting in some of the most memorable, original, and excellent episodes of a show, the bottle episode is unique to television and most closely approximates a one act play. The constraints involved in the creation of a bottle episode can lead to excellent results when handled correctly. Here at Bottle Up and Explode, we'll look at various examples of the form, how they fit into their particular shows, what they say about the show in general, and what they tell us about television as a medium.
The bottle episode, by nature, is better suited to a situation in which not that much is happening. The characters are generally trapped in one place for the duration and we're left with just their thoughts, conflicts, and relationships with one another. When you hear someone talking about Seinfeld, they will very often describe it as "a show about nothing." This isn't strictly true. In fact, the show is actually about the social minutiae we all spend much of our time obsessing about (or maybe that's just me, seeing as I was raised on Seinfeld) and the little rules of society that are completely unwritten and still meant to be followed to a tee. After all, as George often says (and first uttered in this episode), "we're living in a society!"
Seinfeld's reputation as "a show about nothing" really sprang from one episode, shot in the middle of the show's second season but not aired until its end, due to disagreements with the network. "The Chinese Restaurant" is the original episode about nothing, coming in right as the show was hitting its stride and becoming the legend we know it as today. Written by show creator Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, and directed by Tom Cherones, the episode occurs in real time, on one set (not counting the standard book-ends of Jerry doing stand-up of course) as Jerry, George, and Elaine wait for a table at the titular restaurant. And that's it.
When network executives at NBC got a hold of the episode, they did not take kindly to what David and Seinfeld were trying to do. The executives complained that there was no story to the episode. David argued that each character had a definitive arc (we'll get to those in a moment), but the network was not persuaded. Larry Charles, who wrote many of the show's classic episodes, suggested giving the wait for a table stakes by having the group be on their way to a one-night-only revival of Plan 9 From Outer Space, but the executives still objected. Finally, Larry David threatened to quit the show if the network forced significant changes, and with support from Jerry, was able to get his vision onto the small screen.
As the trio waits for the table, each is preoccupied with standard Seinfeld-ian conundrums. Jerry, who has lied to his uncle to get out of dinner plans, recognizes a woman in the restaurant and is plagued by his inability to remember who she is. George, who has screwed up his relationship with Tatiana due to some "coitus interruptus" (in which he had to leave during sex because of intestinal difficulties and feared her bathroom was too close to achieve privacy), is waiting for the pay phone in the restaurant to call her and let her know where to meet them. And Elaine is just starving and impatient to get to a table. By episode's end, Jerry has realized the woman is his uncle's secretary, George has missed the call from Tatiana (due to a wonderfully absurd misunderstanding in which the maitre d', played by James Hong, calls out "Cartwright" instead of "Costanza"), and Elaine still hasn't eaten a thing, in spite of Jerry's offering to pay her $50 if she'll go up to a table and eat one of their egg rolls without saying a thing. No one gets to eat in this episode, and the three don't even end up going to the movie, heading off their separate ways to solve their own problems. As the trio exits the restaurant, in a moment obvious only because it's too perfect, the maitre d' finally calls out, "Seinfeld" and sitcom history is made (apologies for the lack of embedding here. Apparently some Seinfeld Nazis want to keep me from sharing this episode's glory with you).
This was the first and only episode in which Michael Richards' Kramer doesn't appear, a fact that made the actor very upset. Larry David has said that Kramer was not present because at this early point in the character's development, he never left the apartment building and thus couldn't go out with the rest of the gang. Yet after Richards expressed his disappointment, David made a pledge that from this point forward, every cast member would appear in every episode, a promise that is almost always adhered to throughout the rest of the show.
"The Chinese Restaurant" transcends its simple premise, becoming an existential treatise on the pain of waiting while remaining imminently relatable to anyone watching. Nothing in the episode is overplayed, and yet everything feels completely, almost cosmically unfair. The maitre d' only says the ominous line that they will be seated in, "5, 10 minutes" twice and George is only kept from getting to the phone by two people, yet by the end of the episode's 22 minutes, George's anguish and Elaine's hunger are almost palpable. By narrowing the focus of the episode to a tedious fact we have all encountered at some point, Seinfeld found the perfect expression of its protagonist's observational comedy and a style that would turn it into one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. The spotlight on the main characters allows us a better understanding of each of them at this early juncture in the show as we see George's neuroses, Elaine's mania, and Jerry's awkwardness all blown up exponentially by the cramped space and the elongated time. By turning a bottle episode into a treatise on the purpose of the show, Seinfeld turned a conceit that can often appear limiting into the show's first creative masterpiece, an episode about nothing that turned out to mean absolutely everything.
Read more Bottle Up and Explode here
Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:
9/25: "Balance of Terror," Star Trek
10/9: "Ice," The X-Files
10/23: "Older and Far Away," Buffy the Vampire Slayer
11/6: "17 People," The West Wing