‘Sealab 2021’s Super Stripped-Down Bottle Episode Is a Masterclass in Minimalist TV

‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined

“The power’s out, Debbie.”

“I know!”

Adam Reed is a very talented comedy writer. He’s currently doing standout work on Archer, but before that, he was slowly refining his voice and building a style on cruder programs, like his first effort, Sealab 2021.The series was basically a re-appropriation of the outlandish series from the ‘70s with a crew stationed underwater.

The episode features the simplest of plots: the power has gone out and the fusebox must be found. This is the sort of thing that works perfectly in a ten-minute slot and almost can’t be done with a full 22-minute show. It’d be too much. It’d start to anger you, even, and this is the perfect in between.

“Fusebox” is absolutely an instance where the bottle episode was being used out of necessity and time crunch limitations. The conceit of this episode wasn’t some brilliant inspiration that Adam Reed and Matt Thompson had wanted to do for years, but merely a quick way to burn out an episode. The fact that it is an impressive achievement is a testament to their ability and evidence of how they could move on to something like Archer down the road.

Sealab 2021 was also the type of series – and Adult Swim, the network – known for “laziness and cheapness” in their infancy, with many of their shows anchored on the concept of re-using old footage from Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Series would have a set of images that they would always be using, and only re-animating new elements when needed.

Naturally a bottle episode makes perfect sense for any Adult Swim show, let alone one that takes place in a contained underwater lab. This episode takes laziness and cheapness to the extreme by literally having a static image of Sealab’s exterior for the runtime, with merely the fish and bubbles that occasionally flitter by in the sea being the only animation being done here, excluding the ending. Surprisingly, the episode’s commentary track manages to subvert this idea even further and becomes a master class in laziness itself (the only thing being said on the commentary is “fish”, “bubbles”, and “fish and bottles” as the limited images periodically appear).

All of this forces the episode to be about the voiceover work being done, and the characters, and it works perfectly precisely because you’re stuck in one shot and essentially rendered blind. Then to throw this all into a blender of chaos that keeps increasing its speed setting works to great effect. Because we’re only getting the voices of these characters too, rather than visuals, the episode is also smart to play with those voices. As soon as we get used to hearing our set group of voices, there’s tremendous power in a random voice that we’ve never heard before popping up in the middle of everything (especially when they may or may not be Wally Gator).

The beginning of the episode is kind of incredible as we just hear the clueless Captain Murphy shouting out questions and getting no response. As he continues, we assume the joke is that no one is there, until finally he gets interrupted. There are so many pieces like this in the episode that shatter your expectations purely because you can’t see what’s happening. It’s hard to tell if moments are conversations or monologues, and losing such a vital sense here and being a blind fly on the wall lets the episode buzz about with a freewheeling wonder. The pregnant pauses and huge moments of silence that fill up the episode are beautifully used (seriously, they generate some of the biggest laughs here, of which there are many) and are so present that they almost feel like a character themselves here (let alone making the inspired joke of having a moment of silence after someone dies, when the episode is already so full of them already).

Repeating phrases and callbacks, which were such a staple of Frisky Dingo and Archer are so rampant here, with the cramped ten minutes becoming impressively cyclical and a large amount of in-jokes getting built (“What?”, “I’m blind!”). Granted, at times it feels like Reed and Thompson might have just been randomly mashing out phrases on their keyboard that amused them, but the performances here, most notably Harry Goz’s always-enthusiastic work as Murphy, and Brett Butler as the beleaguered Quinn who is just trying to fix the fusebox and get everything back to normal. Here’s an example of some of what is being worked with here:

“Well?….Hey?….I said, ‘Well?’…What?….Did you say something?….Hey, can you hear me?….Hey, can you hear m—“


Then suddenly when the respective sectors of Sealab begin exploding, one by one, there’s an even more ridiculous energy surging through it all.

“Fusebox” is hardly the deepest bottle episode on the list, but it’s a great example of scrambling with an idea when you don’t have a lot to play with, and somehow turning that into something amazing. It’s a thin line between “laziness” in shows being really clever or just, well—lazy, and “Fusebox” handles it well. It gets a lot done in ten minutes and shows you the power of a cast and character bouncing off of each other.

And even if “there can only be none!” I still think this one’s worth checking out.

‘Sealab 2021’s Super Stripped-Down Bottle Episode Is a […]