In all its self-aware glory, during the Cooperative Calligraphy episode of season two of Community, while the group is stuck in the library looking for a pen, Abed (Danny Pudi) declares the group is doing a bottle episode:
“I hate bottle epsiodes, they’re wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance, I might as well sit in the corner with a bucket on my head.”
The bottle epsiode was once a staple of television with many shows churning out seasons in excess of 20 episodes per season, so, the creative well would run dry. Bottle episodes are defined, usually, by one central location or a concept that exists as an outlier to the narrative arc of the show. Sometimes, these episodes were the result of a show blowing their production budget on a big season opener, leavingt writers scrambling to amend the remaining episodes with ideas capable of being done cheaply or using pre-existing sets.
The term began as a nickname the crew working on the 1960s Star Trek would give to episodes set entirely on-board the Enterprise. Later, during Star Trek: The Next Generation, the VR-like holodeck would become host to far too many bottle episodes.
The bottle episode has appeared in many different shapes and forms over the years: Halloween specials, detective noir episodes, the one where it’s a musical or the main characters are trapped somwhere. There’s also the dreaded episode where it’s all juts a dream after someone gets a bump to the head.
The success of the Friends episode, The One Where No One’s Ready, led to the show’s creator demanding there be one deliberate bottle episode per season. Seinfeld has the The Chinese Restaurant, Breaking Bad has The Fly, The X-Files has Ice (and so many more).
The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer would evolve the bottle episode into the ‘monster of the week’ format to have characters taking a break from the through-line plot of the season. And then Community comes along to ask the question: can you make a series out of bottle episodes?
Community didn’t start out with this proposition, but the series would develop and perfect it over 5 seasons, disregarding the horrid season 4 without the show’s creator, Dan Harmon (fired over clashes with Chevy Chase and writing delays which continually halted the production). The show begian with disbarred lawyer, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), returning to Greendale Community College to redeem his illegitimate law degree. At Greendale, Winger formed a study group with a group of misfits he hopes will help him graduate with minimal effort. Community began by exploring the weird world of Greendale while teaming up each character in various sub-plots that would revolve around whatever odd classes they had signed up for.
Then a shift occurred with episode 23 of season one: Modern Warfare a.k.a the paintball episode.
Modern Warfare would become a cornerstone of the series as a loving tribute to action movies (directed by Justin Lin, who helmed Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Fast and Furious, Fast Five, Fast and the Furious 6 and Star Trek Beyond). The study group were united by the concept episodes that took the conventions of a bottle epsiode, but transformed into something that would revel in the core idea or homage, while still working to resolve or progress character beats and contribute to the overall arc of the show. In Modern Warfare, the sexual tension between Winger and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) finally broke after a circling the ‘will they or won’t they?’ for most of the first season. Bottle episodes usually do a little character work but rarely progress anything. Community figured out how to do it, while indulging in a little fun the bottle epsiode allows.
Modern Warfare would spawn several sequels: A Fistfill of Paintballs, For a Few Paintballs More and Modern Espionage.
Community later placed multiple pop culture references into a narrative blender and built bottle episodes around each core premise; a Dungeons and Dragons tabeltop episode, a claymation Christmas episode, an episode inside a videogame, and even one set inside a G.I. Joe-style cartoon.
As Community went on it would slide into the strength of these bottle episodes, comfortable in its skin. Seasons five and six would be defined by the lucky dip of each episode, but over the course of the show’s run it had earned the adoration of the study group and all the wonderfully odd side-characters of Greendale.
It became a joy to be in the company of these characters navigating each wild situation, with an excitement in seeing how they’d react. Geothermal Escapism a.k.a 'the floor is lava' episode contains the most pathos for a bottle episode as Abed deals with the departure of his best friend Troy (Donald Glover) while caught up in a game that sees the Greendale campus reduced to Mad Max levels of degradation. The final goodbye has the emotional strength of five seasons of character development within a bottle episode. Few shows would choose to send off a main character this way but this exemplifies how Community mastered the deployment of these types of episodes.
Community made the bottle episode matter and avoided being dispensable filler for bloated seasons. It set a new standard for how a show could deconstruct a television trope – as Community always did with its meta approach to everything – while still delivering an episode that had significance over the course of the season.