Everyone loves a good bottle episode. Quite literally — bottle episodes are often some of the best-received episodes of a TV show’s run, their simple structure and pared-down production offering the characters a chance to shine while the action is (usually) put on pause. But what actually is a bottle episode, and what is it exactly that makes them so great?

People like to argue endlessly about what actually “counts” as a bottle episode, but there are a few guidelines they typically follow. Bottle episodes are single episodes of TV shows that are confined to a single setting, sometimes a single set, focusing on a small cast of main characters, without a ton of music or special effects. Because of their relative technical simplicity, their budgets were low, and TV seasons used to have them built in so that other episodes could use the extra funds for their more involved productions. Given their somewhat claustrophobic settings, they often gave their characters an opportunity to boil over a little, squeezing tense or emotional or otherwise memorable storylines out of a bunch of people milling around a room.

Now, not every episode that is widely considered to be a bottle episode fits in with all of these criteria — sometimes the actors move around multiple sets, or sometimes they’re too connected to the rest of the season’s arc, or sometimes they do indeed go over budget even when designed not to. It’s a sort of “I know it when I see it” type of thing, and for this list we’ve chosen 12 episodes often deemed bottle episodes from 12 TV shows that show off the sheer versatility of the format.

The 12 Most Memorable Bottle Episodes of Television

Smaller budgets and minimal sets sometimes make for the best episodes.

Gallery Credit: Emma Stefansky

READ MORE: The Best TV Shows of the Year

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