Bottle Up and Explode
The Conversation
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.

"One shot? Twenty minutes? Do you know what that involves?"-Paul Buchman (Paul Reiser)

The bottle episode is by its nature all about restraint. The entire purpose is to save money, to save time, or to experiment with the form of television. At its best, bottle episodes can do something completely original, reinvigorating a show and demonstrating just how far television can go as a medium. At worst, they can be flat, listless, and, dare I say, pretty boring to watch.

Speaking strictly from a technical perspective, "The Conversation" is the most complex and restrained bottle episode we have yet discussed in this space. The episode is a 20-minute long shot, during which the camera never moves, a shot aimed at a door that remains closed for the vast majority of the episode. Visually, all we have to look at are series leads Paul (Paul Reiser) and Jamie (Helen Hunt) as they agonize over the process of Ferberizing their newborn baby. When the episode originally aired, it did so with no commercial breaks, save for one after the theme song and one before the end credits, so that the shot actually ran completely interrupted for the episodes full runtime (excluding a self-aware tag at the end in which Paul comments on how hard it would be to do a 20 minute long shot and Jamie tells him about how he's ruining it for her by over-explaining it).

That tag actually goes a long way toward explaining my feelings about "The Conversation," though they are different than I had expected going in. Prior to the writing of this column, I had never seen an episode of Mad About You, and I never operated under the impression that I was missing anything. If "The Conversation" is any indication, I was correct. Watching that tag at the end, I couldn't help but think that under normal circumstances, I completely agree with Paul: a 20-minute long shot is a technical marvel, and with so many potential mistakes to be made, it is praiseworthy when it is pulled off. Yet, while I see Jamie's point about over-analysis, that isn't my problem with this episode. Ultimately, my issue is that while I am impressed by the technical aspects, there's not a whole lot of interesting things actually going on in this episode.

Watching Paul and Jamie agonize over the potential trauma they are inflicting on their daughter, only to realize its been a long time since they actually had a real conversation and proceeding to do that while they wait for the baby to cry herself to sleep is a solid premise on paper, but unfortunately neither their agony nor the ensuing conversation are particularly compelling or all that funny. That Ferberizing a baby is a difficult process for the parents is obvious, but the show never goes much deeper than that. It occasionally touches on some deeper parental incompatibilities between Paul and Jamie which could have been interesting to explore, but it never goes deep enough to really resonate on a character level (though maybe these two never go beyond walking punch-line machines, and since this is the only episode I have seen I can't really vouch for the idea that they are supposed to be deeper characters). Meanwhile, the conversation they have never goes deeper than small-talk, like Paul commenting on how he thinks he's shrinking (a plotline that has itself become a sitcom cliché at this point) or Jamie mentioning that she won 500 pounds of Rigatoni.

When The Paul Reiser Show premiered last spring, people likened it to Curb Your Enthusiasm, but pointed out that it felt hollow and empty by comparison. Though I never bothered to watch that show, I can understand how it would have been developed that way, because here Paul Reiser appears to be aping the conversational patterns and tendencies to analyze minutiae of the characters on Seinfeld and it too feels somehow empty. Reiser talks less like a Seinfeld character than like that boring guy at work who saw an episode of the show once and decided to try the schtick out for himself. And Helen Hunt adds little to the equation, never even developing the annoying personality quirks that Reiser has on full display.

"The Conversation," then, is a technically ambitious episode that falls completely flat on execution. On the page this has the makings of a great episode of television, one of those bottle episodes that manages to experiment and remind us of the boundless potential of television as a medium, yet it seems that in all the excitement over the idea and the direction of the episode, someone forgot that the episode would need a good script to be successful. There are occasional hints of good ideas, but these are quickly cast aside so that Reiser can make jokes about Sylvester Stallone's bathroom and making huge Rigatoni dinners. If this is what it looks like when Paul and Jamie are actively trying to have a real conversation, I don't even want to think about what their small talk would look like.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

2/26: "Fly," Breaking Bad

3/11: "Spin the bottle," Angel

3/25: "In the Closet," Sealab 2021

4/8: "Once Upon A Time," The Prisoner
Tags: Mad About You
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