Can Bottle Episodes Make You An EXCELLENT Creative Writer?
“The creative process.” That is both the name of this blog and the overarching subject matter which is meant to link in some form or fashion all the pieces that will be going up on this space in the months and (hopefully) years ahead. To some of you that might sound like a somewhat limiting remit for discussion, all things told, but actually, it presents one with a wider range of potential material than I think some might give credit. For you see there is a lot more to the creative process than many people think; for example, off the top of my, take the bottle episode of a half-hour multi-camera sitcom. That might sound like a very limiting topic which I will be lucky to get a few paragraphs out of. After all the Wikipedia entry on Bottle Episode currently only barely goes above 800 words and that total drops to a mere 230 words if you take away the examples given. But you know what? Back in my high school and college days lo so many centuries ago I was the kind of student who gave any instructor looking for a quick night of grading papers nightmares.
Anyways there is a method to my madness but as this is my debut on this channel I hope you will indulge me and believe me I am going somewhere with all this. So for those unfamiliar with the terms “bottle episode” and “multi-camera”, let me explain, a “Bottle Episode” refers to an episode of a TV show where due to budget limitations all the action is restricted only to the regular sets the series use week in and week out and usually only the main cast is featured as well. In addition, bottle episodes can also often feature little to nothing in the way of guest stars or even recurring characters because again the whole point of doing a bottle episode is to try and save money for more ambitious or expensive episodes down the line in the course of a season.
Bottle episodes have been around as long as TVs shows themselves have existed and they are unlikely to ever go away as the excellent 2016 episode of the 1st season of the wonderful Netflix original series One Day At a Time - Hold, Please demonstrates. Said episode features a basic enough plot: the main character, family matriarch Penelope Alvarez, spends an anxious evening on the phone attempting to get through an endless-seeming series of holds and transfers to get approval for an important medical treatment she needs while the rest of her family causes a growing whirlwind of chaos around her.
It’s a simple sounding setup to be sure but in this case, it also allows for the show to dig deeper into the characters and their issues. These include a young girl coming to terms with her sexuality, a young boy figuring out his place in a family broken by divorce and especially a frustrated wounded vet mother who has to deal with navigating the infuriating bureaucracy of a system that seems set up to cause nothing but misery and suffering to those it was only created in the first place to supposedly help. Yeah. Much like the show itself, I have OPINIONS on such issues but that’s a discussion for another time and probably website altogether. Getting back to the topic at hand, “Hold, Please” has ended up becoming both critically and popularly one of the most memorable and strongest of episodes of the first season and this is not despite it being a bottle episode but because of it. But we will get back to that point shortly.
First, however, let us examine another example of the bottle episode this time with a more old-school choice, namely the classic season 3 episode of the classic series Friends. This episode, “The One Where No One’s Ready”, features a plot where Ross is desperate to get the other 5 lead characters ready to leave in time, and in proper fancy dress, for an important speech he is set to give in front of a massive gathering of his peers. Except this being a sitcom Ross is of course constantly stymied by a series of escalating petty arguments, mishaps and other hijinks until eventually, things come to head when a careless comment angers his then-girlfriend Rachel and he must now scramble to convince her to even attend the event at all.
Again classic bottle episode setup: all the action is limited to a single set, in this case, the apartment of then roommates Monica and Rachel, not even venturing over to Joey & Chandler’s apartment on the set next door, as that would mean new lighting and camera setups - but letting any parts there happen off screen as implied. Additionally, unlike ODAT, this episode of friends features only the main cast on camera. So outside of a small use of a couple other voices heard via an answering machine (and if any you youngins don’t know what an answering machine is go ask your parents and also get off my lawn already ya damn kids) the episode has to rely “only” on its regular players which actually is not much a problem when you have one of the best damn casts in terms of performance and chemistry ever assembled for a comedic TV series. And indeed “The One Where No One’s Ready” stands as one of the most popular episodes of the show’s entire 236 episode run because as a bottle episode it forces everyone involved to dig past all the little tricks and gimmicks than an ongoing TV show can sometimes get too much in the habit of falling back on. There is no stunt casting or flying to another country for location shoots or unnecessarily elaborate “will-they, won’t-they” storyline to get in the way of what made Friends the juggernaut of TV it became: the characters and the way they all play off one another.
All of this leaves us with two episodes of television that on the surface might appear very similar but the deeper down you dig the less true you will find this to be. What creates this illusion is the fact that both series employ/employed the same production approach for filming known as multi-camera. In practice, this is the use of a primary set or sets to anchor the majority of the action of any given episode with additional special sets added as need. Additionally, almost all sets used such as series include as a primary feature a key “wall” that is never seen by the audience because where the said wall would exist in reality is used instead by the cameras. This is the same approach used by theatrical productions long before cameras ever existed incidentally and give yourself a cookie if you also know that this is where the term “The Fourth Wall” originates from.
And speaking of cameras, another major feature of a multi-camera TV series is deploying three to four cameras when filming on any given set, with the outer cameras generally focused on close-ups of the two most active and/or important characters at any given moment in a scene. Meanwhile, the central camera or cameras are used for two main purposes: to give the audience a sense of the general geography of a location (especially important on new/one-time sets) and to serve a general overall point of view that can help anchor all the action that needs to be captured for the scene. And by deploying the three/four cameras in this manner, multiple shots and angles can be recorded in a single take which in turn allows for faster shooting during production and faster editing during post. All of which is vital to any series with a high-output requirement; not just sitcoms but also daily series such as soap operas and, of course, extremely valuable in the use of a bottle episode.
This is also what can lead to giving the impression that all multi-camera sitcoms are all alike and there is nothing new or exciting to be done with the format. Yet while series like Friends and One Day At a Time may share certain visual traits their ultimate output is different. Friends is a mostly silly and exaggerated look at life in New York for (Caucasian) 20-ish-year-old singles in the mid-90s that eventually evolve somewhat as the characters age and begin to increasingly settle down as they enter their 30s. ODAT, on the other hand, is a very socially aware series that is driven by the realities of being a minority living in modern-day America. Friends was a relatively progressive series of its time in some ways but in others looking back from a modern perspective… Well, let’s just say all the gay panic jokes between Chandler and Joey haven’t really aged all that well. Regardless Friends was never designed to be that challenging of a series while ODAT by comparison very much is interested in tackling, in an open, honest & humorous manner, a host of challenging topics including being queer, gun ownership, white privilege, etc. And yet from a mechanical perspective, both Friends and ODAT are/were ultimately filmed and produced using the same basic methods to create series that can be classified in the same basic genre. Yet the ultimate results are very different when you look at each series side-by-side which in turn is proof positive that the multi-camera format needs not be a limit on one's ambitions creatively speaking.
Which is ultimately the greater point I am trying to make with this piece and everyone on this blog as a whole: namely that there is no one right way to create. Be you a painter, a writer, an actor, a director or whatever. If you engage in the creative process it is important to view what you do with the proper perspective. And so: the bottle episode. On the surface, it might seem like a harsh limitation that would serve to only stifle creative output; the kind of highly regimented approach to producing an episode of TV that would surely lead to the same results again and again. And yet I challenge anyone to go watch the two episodes I talked about above (both of which FYI are currently available on Netflix if you really are interested) and tell me that they are the same.
Of course, they aren’t. How could they be? While both Friends and One Day At a Time feature a similar approach to making an episode and both make/made use of highly talented cast and crews, the very nature of the series in questions meant they would HAVE to generate very different episodes of TV. The Friends episode is the show at some of its most fleet-footed, making all the various means of comedy the show deployed week in and week out look easy. Never mind that it took a strong writing room to take such a simple straightforward plot and stretch it out (in more or less real time no less) in a way that never feels forced. Think about the actors who had to work around the limitations of staying on one set at ALL time (even the ODAT episode, by comparison, uses more than just the main living room set for its bottle episode) and the production crew who had to create costuming and staging that was both funny yet natural feeling and all under the stress of a weekly 25 episode sitcom schedule AND a stricter than normal budget since, again, bottle episode.
And then there is the episode of One Day At a Time: yes it was a bottle episode but this was nonetheless a key episode on a number of fronts for the series at large. This was an episode where one character confronts the truth of their sexuality (beginning a plot line that would grow increasingly have a major impact on much of the goings on of the remainder of the season) while another deals with peer pressure and stereotyping in a painful coming of age moment. And more than anything the episode builds to a blistering monologue from actress Justina Machado that seers this episode into the brains of most watchers including absolutely myself. There are a lot of laughs to be had in this episode just like the Friends ep but there are also plenty of painful uncomfortable truths presented in a nonetheless digestible and still ultimately entertaining package. It something ODAT does again and again across its two seasons and it stands as proof that form does not have to solely define a function. A comedy series making use of one of the oldest approaches to TV made in the history of the medium leads to a final product that is as fresh and relevant as anything on TV today.
But so what? Why should you care? Say perhaps you are some wannabe up and coming would-be indie filmmaker looking to strike out and make a name for yourself. You don’t have time to worry about some TV show made using techniques from the dawn of time. You are too busy trying to deal with the fact that you have almost no budget, no time, only a couple cameras (on a good day) at your disposal and so on and so forth. So many obstacles between you and that final groundbreaking film that will forever redefine the very art of filmmaking as we know it forever... Only the big epic in your head just isn’t feasible: you cannot stage some big crowd scene with hundreds of extras or shoot whenever and wherever you like and ultimately you are forced to make do with a couple rooms, a small window of time to complete everything and a limited cast of actors to draw upon and boy isn’t that starting to sound familiar… Why it is almost like there might be something for you, the hypothetical indie filmmaker, to learn from a lowly disposable piece of popular entertainment like the sitcom…
Yes, I am exaggerating to make my point but I hope that point does stand: that the creative process is neither simple nor straightforward and the sooner you come to terms with that fact the better creator you will be. There is a lot to be learned out there and if you want to create something yourself it would not be the worst idea in the world to leave yourself open to the possibility of new knowledge why not? Because when it comes to the creative process limitations are only such if you allow them to be and if you take the right approach you can turn any obstacle into an opportunity.