20
Nov
2011
Bottle Up and Explode
A Night In
Jordan
Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.

"Why don't we just have a quiet night in, right?"-Norman Stanley Fletcher (Ronnie Barker)

I've commented before that bottle episodes can be likened most to one act plays. This isn't all that strange a leap, really. Television has had a large basis in theater from its inception. Many of the earliest television shows were filmed live in front of a studio audience and had only one act break at their mid-point, much like intermission in a play. So it makes sense that the one act would be brought in its own way to the small screen, especially as a budget saving mechanism. Most one act plays have a very small cast featuring few if any ancillary characters, and generally only one set.

British television has always been markedly different from American television in many respects, yet the presence of the bottle episode is not one of them. British shows generally run for much briefer periods than their American counterparts, featuring generally only six or eight episodes per series (their term for season) and running only a few series before completion. This has its advantages and disadvantages (one of these days I hope to write more about the differences between the two systems, but that seems out of place here to me) and it means that British shows very rarely overstay their welcome or stuff their series with unnecessary filler to avoid plot development. In America, if a show is popular enough almost nothing will kill it (look, for example, at the way The Office has decided to carry on without Steve Carell or how not even the breakdown and firing of Charlie Sheen was enough to get Chuck Lorre and CBS to climb off the money train that is Two and a Half Men), a fact that often leads to shows going on far longer than their premises would allow (this is the case with Weeds, Dexter, How I Met Your Mother and several other shows that just don't know when to quit). In England, however, the show has a story to tell with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and every episode is a necessary part of that story.

Porridge was born out of its star Ronnie Barker's previous series Seven of One in which each episode is a completely different sitcom pilot. Of the seven episodes the show produced, two would go on to become beloved British sitcoms (both of which were eventually named among the Top Ten British Sitcoms of All Time by the BBC). The first, Open All Hours ran for four series and 26 episodes. The second, Porridge, ran for three series and 20 episodes, also spawning a spin-off called Going Straight, a film, and, most recently, a mockumentary set 25 years later and called Life Beyond the Box.

The show follows Norman Stanley Fletcher (played by Ronnie Barker), a career criminal sentenced to five years in prison. In the episode we will be looking at this week, "A Night In," Fletcher gets a new cellmate in Lennie Godber (Richard Beckinsale), a young man recently incarcerated and still unused to the rhythms of prison life. Over the course of the episode, which takes place over the course of one night and entirely in the cell the two share, Fletcher imparts some wisdom to Godber as the two discuss life, relationships, and freedom.



The relationship between Fletcher and Godber is the central one of the series, and watching the two spend time together and form a bond is essential to the believability of their friendship. Fletcher is by nature curmudgeonly and cantankerous, while Godber naïve and optimistic. This isn't the most inventive pairing of two characters in television history, but it appears so often because of how well it works (or at least because of how easy it is to write jokes with these two personality types). The father-son relationship that forms between these two is the emotional core of the series, which means that not a moment of "A Night In" is wasted from a master plot perspective.



Which is fairly impressive considering how easy the episode goes down. Unlike some bottle episodes, which end up feeling contrived or gimmicky, "A Night In" is so smooth it barely feels like it is contained at all. Not a whole lot happens in this episode. In fact, empirically speaking, Fletcher and Godber simply talk to each other for a while, go to sleep, and then talk some more. What is so impressive, then, is the fact that we are being asked to watch a half hour long conversation and all we're given in return is the feeling that Fletcher and Godber are closer now than they were before and that Godber may make it through his prison stint with Fletcher as his guide.



At the time this episode was made (it originally aired on September 19, 1974) the idea that an entire episode could be built around one long conversation between two characters was fairly revolutionary. Even now, over 30 years later most series balk at the idea unless budget constraints force their hands. Yet "A Night In" was not written nor filmed to save any money for the show. It was just a part of the larger story the writers were telling, an essential piece in the puzzle that was Porridge. This episode operates on the theory that people sometimes just talk to each other for a half an hour (or, gasp, even longer) and that if the characters are interesting enough, it might not be boring to just watch that. Several of the episodes I will be covering in this feature are built around just that premise, which is why bottle episodes are often seen as so inventive and so novel. When much of the television landscape is populated by action heavy procedurals where most of the dialogue is reserved for exposition, is it any wonder bottle episodes are seen as so terrifying to many show runners? If more time was put into ensuring the creation of compelling characters with complex relationships, would it be quite so scary to just let those characters sit back, relax, and have a quiet night in? I think not.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

12/4:"The One Where No One's Ready," Friends

12/18: "Pine Barrens," The Sopranos

1/1: "Three Men and Adena," Homicide: Life on the Streets

1/15: "The Dinner Party," Frasier
Tags: Porridge
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