CHUCK and Bottle Shows


Last night’s episode of Chuck was clearly what is known as a “bottle show,” an episode filmed in such a way as to come in under budget. The episode had very few guest stars — fortunately, one of them was Stone Cold Steve Austin, and another one was Josie Davis from Charles In Charge, so no one could claim we were short-shrifted — and very few sets. Much of the action took place on the regular standing sets, while almost the whole spy mission was confined to an airplane. And you know what? This obvious cheapness didn’t hurt the show at all. It was, in my opinion and other people’s, one of the most enjoyable episodes so far this season.

I often feel that, unlike clip shows, bottle shows aren’t really a bad thing at all and may even be a good thing. You wouldn’t want every episode to be like that, but sometimes when the writers are told to do a show with few sets, few characters, no outdoor shooting, they are forced by necessity to come up with creative solutions, focus more on the characters they’ve got, not waste time with extraneous scenes or characters who aren’t essential. (Even the Buy More subplot was pretty good in last night’s tightly-controlled script, though that aspect of the show is still incredibly awkward. It’s like if Star Trek included “meanwhile, at the Federation bureaucratic headquarters…” subplots with wacky comedy music.) A show may actually be more likely to go wrong by trying too much — doing large-scale things that don’t fully come off even on a larger-than-usual TV budget — than by narrowing its scope to the things that people like best about the show.

As a way of saving money, the “bottle show” technique goes back to the days of theatrical shorts, where producers/directors would sometimes spend extra money on one instalment and make up for it by spending less on another. (Chuck Jones used to say that one of the advantages of doing Road Runner cartoons was that, with only two characters and not a lot of elaborate animation, they could be done faster and cheaper than usual, freeing up some extra time for expensive projects like “What’s Opera, Doc?”) Particularly now that clip shows and re-used footage are harder to get away with for most shows, almost every show will do a couple of bottle shows a year to make up the over-spending on other episodes.

Filed under:

CHUCK and Bottle Shows

  1. Best ep. of the year for chuck last night. Also I love the Buy Morons storlines in the show. I think the comedy is pure gold. Sure it does not work some nights, but the Buy More plot lines have gave us Jeffster, BuyMoria,ass-man and some very good pop culture reference.

    Intill I read this post, I would have never thought this as cost saving episode. But it makes it perfect sense now, great post. It's ratings stayed steady at a 2.5(18-34 demo) last night. It actualy beat HIMYM(repeat) last night.

  2. Over the past year I have developed a guilty pleasure of sneaking away from the kids/dog/wife and taking time to watch many of the taped Archive Interviews with inductees into the American Television Hall of Fame … seem to remember James Arness (and others) going into great detail on why 'bottle shows were necessary to offset costs of those Gunsmoke episodes (and other TV shows in the 60s) that were shot off the lot. Was interesting stuff.

  3. I love bottle shows. I love writing them, I love thinking about them. It's the closest you come in TV to writing a play. in fact one of the faults of doing Canadian shows is that often you don't have discipline in the creative side to keep the show in the bottle. Directors, for instance, always want bigger. And producers have trouble saying no to Directors. With a strong showrunner who knows why you're bottling…problem solved.

    There's a rule about bottle shows that I can't remember if I heard somewhere or just surmised myself, but here it is: you can have bang bang in a show, but when you can't afford the bang bang, you better do the bang bang through character. So in great bottle shows, sometimes you'll find that they're the ones with the biggest emotional stakes. There may not be production value, but there are enormous, terrifying, awful, big, rending stakes for the characters. The best example of this is probably 24. In one of their seasons (I don't remember which one) the bottle show was about a nerve gas attack in the CTU HQ. You had characters trapped in the boardroom for most of the ep — including Kim Bauer, who was back as a guest, and Jack. And … they killed Louis, who was a loveable character and ally of Chloe. He was caught out, sacrificed himself and DIED IN THE MOST HORRIBLE WAY WHILE EVERYBODY WATCHED.

    And other than that, the only outside shooting was somebody who spent the whole ep streaking somewhere in the back of a car. Great bottle. Big stakes.

  4. Oh, and sometimes a bottle show is necessary, or done, even when the show's not "over budget." If you can deliberately come up with one or two eps in a 22 episode season without a lot of bang bang, that gets you your exploding helicopter (practical effect) for the finale. If you're really on the ball, you may even plot out "A" and "B" eps and know as you track all along how you're amortizing your costs. BSG did this a lot. And again, wound up with one of its best eps — the boxing episode "Unfinished Business." That show was all about the emotion, and again, big stakes (we find out when and how Lee and Kara hooked up, and where Adama and Roslin almost hooked up) and I bet the lower cost bought a lot of dead toasters and boom boom kaplow CGI later on down the road.

Sign in to comment.