Bottle Up and Explode
In the Closet
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.

"The door's broken. We've been stuck in here for three days!"-Marco Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Erik Estrada)

How bottled up can a bottle episode get? How confined can the characters become? How much money can be saved? These questions can all be answered by "In the Closet," an episode in the first season of Cartoon Network's Sealab 2021. The show, created by Adam Reed (who would go on to create another Adult Swim show, Frisky Dingo before creating one of the best comedies on TV right now in Archer) and Matt Thompson was made using recycled animation from the Hanna Barbera cartoon Sealab 2020 with re-recorded dialogue, and followed the crew of the deep ocean station one year after that cartoon, when their professionalism and morals have degraded to the point that they spend most of their time scheming, screwing around, or behaving like complete psycopaths.

The show was reluctantly picked up by Cartoon Network, who had initially rejected the pilot because they found it unfunny, due in large part to the incredibly small cost of production. Episodes were each only 11 minutes long, and most of the animation was recycled. To cut costs even further, Reed and Thompson produced "In the Closet," an episode that takes place completely in one room and includes a downright ballsy two minutes of black screen (which we'll discuss in a moment). The premise is ludicrously simple. Captain Murphy (Harry Goz) and Lieutenant Marco Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Erik Estrada) have been trapped in the supply closet of the station for three days (and have devolved to the point where the Captain flirts with, and abuses, a woman made out of a mop and bucket) when they are discovered by first Jodene Sparks (Bill Lobley), then a maintenance worker coming to fix the door, and finally by Debbie Dupree (Kate Miller) and Dr. Quentin Q. Quinn (Brett Butler), all of whom also become trapped in said closet.

The episode is, in answer to this column's opening question, about as bottled as can possibly be imagined. It takes place, for its entire run-time, within a single room. It never leaves the closet (save for a credits sequence that has the one character that isn't trapped being chased by the starving wild dogs that are keeping the crew trapped even after they could be freed), and is very nearly a completely static shot throughout, save the movements of the characters (we looked at another show's attempt at a completely static shot earlier this year). The characters are also the most physically confined of any we have yet looked at in this space. To begin with, they have all been stationed with each other under the ocean for quite some time and have started to deteriorate mentally. In addition to that, the episode finds them all trapped in a single room, some for many days. Its little wonder that the episode's central gag has Captain Murphy repeatedly sucker punching everyone who attempts to help them; at the point we find him, he's clearly gone completely insane. And, for a show that was already being made on a shoestring budget, "In the Closet" saved even more money by so restricting its characters and bottling its format.

What is so impressive about "In the Closet," though, is how much it is willing to experiment, and how much it asks viewers to put up with during its scant 11 minute run time. Asking viewers to accept a bottle episode in animation is already quite a lot. In a format that doesn't have to pay to construct sets, people are more likely to be irked by the idea that an episode remains in a static location, especially if the shot changes as little as it does here. But the episode goes even further. Frustrated with his inability to escape, Marco decides to take a nap and shuts the lights off, at which point the show does an extended "ninja in a coal mine gag," leaving viewers watching a black screen while Debbie and Quentin enter the closet for some afternoon delight and begin to fool around before realizing they are in the presence of several other people. In an already static episode, the show goes so far as to leave us with a black screen and basically a radio play for two minutes of its already brief runtime.

And yet, these experiments work and make "In the Closet" a distinctive episode of television and one of the boldest bottle episodes I've ever seen. I have never watched an episode of Sealab 2021 prior to viewing this one for this column, and I won't be rushing out to view the rest of the series anytime soon, but this episode is an incredibly successful experiment in the form of bottle episodes. It stretches the definition to its extreme, saved money, and plays around with audience expectation for the entire medium of television, and it does it all in roughly half the run-time of any sitcom out there. In the process it serves as a reminder of just how far the medium of television can go, and just how much can be done when creative people decide to bottle up their show and shake it around to see what remains after the explosion.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

4/8: "Once Upon A Time," The Prisoner

4/22: "A is for Aardvark," Bewitched

5/6: "Day 5: 7:00 pm-8:00 pm," 24

5/20: "The Next Phase," Star Trek: Next Generation

Tags: Sealab 2021
comments powered by Disqus