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.