• Gina Denny

Episode 1.11 - Limo

Updated: Jun 16

This is a bottle episode!

First: What's a 'bottle episode'?

A bottle episode is an episode of TV in which the characters never leave a single setting. It's often used to cut costs (no scene changes, one filming location, no/few costume changes, often no guest stars or extras), but has become a staple of American sitcoms and sometimes showrunners make them just to do something challenging, fun, and different.

Warning: once you know about Bottle Episodes, it's impossible to stop seeing them everywhere. They're actually really fun to pick apart and learn from. We'll give some good examples at the end of this post.

So, if everyone is all in one place, and it's all in one day (or night), how do we maintain tension during a bottle episode?

1. Put a time clock on it: countdown to midnight, in this episode

2. The characters cycle in and out believably:

Get in

Robin gets out

Everyone gets out

30 min later, Everyone gets in, plus Natalya and Mary Beth

35 min later, everyone gets back in, minus Natalya

17 min later, Robin gets in

Lily gets out

20 min later, everyone gets in, plus hot dogs

“Moby” gets in, Marshall gets out

Moby gets out

Lily jumps in

Ted gets back in

Ted and Mary Beth poke their heads out of the limo

Mary Beth leaves

Marshall returns

Natalya returns

Ted gets out

Derrick gets in

Robin gets out

3. Stock footage between moments, gives the audience the sense that we’ve “left the scene”, even though all the live shots happen in and around the limo, with the exception of very close-up shots of Robin and Lily with almost zero background shown

4. Establish a runner and then break it to amp up the tension: Mary Beth is a hugger (does she like Ted or not?), Barney’s “get psyched mix” gets played five times and then gets stolen,

5. Fall back on easy ploys, things that you know work, even if they might feel clichéd or tropey in a different setting. This episode uses some dubious advice (put a gun in someone’s hand; they also put the gun in play just as the first act ends), then Lily sees the gun off-camera, then we hear a gunshot sound but it’s a psych-out and turns out to be a flat tire instead. Characters go “missing” just to show up at the most opportune times. Big coincidences play into the story (Moby’s party just happens to be on Ted’s list? In all of Manhattan?).

Okay, so that's the "how" of it - now here's for a few fun things to track/watch/learn about this episode:

This episode (rightfully!) won an Emmy for cinematography and camera production.

Ranjit is back!

We’re also calling back to Episode 5, “Okay, Awesome” with the idea that “NYE is supposed to be awesome, but in reality sucks”

Ted refuses to change the schedule for Lily and her shoes, but less than five minutes later, he changes the schedule for Robin (hint, hint)

Moby pulls his gun right before the first commercial break; the end of the first act. I once heard some (dubious) advice that when the story gets boring, all you need to do is put a gun in someone’s hand. Thrillers tend to do this a lot, and I’ve seen the second book in a trilogy do it at lot as a way to fend off the massively sagging middle/sophomore slump

Heading into the third act, we’ve got our darkest moment (more about this in episode 18). We’ve lost Natalya, Mary Beth, Robin’s date, Marshall, Moby, the get psyched mix, and the literal movement forward as the limo is stuck with a flat tire. Lily and Ted are increasingly desperate, Barney gives a pretty good villain monologue, but THEN.

Marshall comes back, roaring in triumph, with Barney’s CD. Everyone is ready to party, the flat tire is fixed, Natalya is back! We have a triumphant climax, but then it collapses and you get a finale/climax that is exactly what Ted wanted, but not how he expected it.

Ted was trying to create a memory for his friends, and he did. But he got left out of it, and then Robin left it all behind to come kiss Ted in a private moment, not in the midst of the big celebration everyone else was participating in. And we get the nice little symbolic touch of the “walk” light lighting up just as Ted steps into the road: He’s got a “go” signal, just when he needs it.

Couple other really good bottle episodes: Frasier’s “Dinner Party”, Seinfeld’s “Chinese Restaurant”, and FRIENDS’ “The One Where No One is Ready” are all real-time bottle episodes; they take place over the course of exactly 30 minutes in exactly one setting.

Community does several bottle episodes, since they were constantly experimenting with form and format and those one-off experiments were often expensive. The best one, though, is the one they hang a lantern on, “Cooperative Calligraphy”. Abed is obsessed with TV and claims that they’re stuck in a bottle episode and Jeff cancels his plans saying, “We’re doing a bottle episode!” while they all search for Annie’s pen and end up in their underwear in what looks like a library-based war zone. “Remedial Chaos Theory” is really good, too. But that’s not as noteworthy for its bottle-ness, more for its alternate timelines and character dynamics. I haven’t seen it, but Breaking Bad’s “Fly” episode is also consistently listed as a top notch bottle episode.

Writing Prompt: Put your characters in one room for an extended period of time. A sitcom episode is 22 minutes, and usually you’re looking at one page of script per one minute of screen time, so let’s try for 20 pages of prose. Keep your characters in one place and use the tools we pointed out in this episode to keep the momentum and tension moving in the right direction. Those tools, again are: Put a time clock on it, have characters cycle in and out believably, establish a runner and break it (or break a previously-established runner), fall back on one easy ploy to hold it together.

Listen to the episode here

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