Unlocking the Hitchcockian Claustrophobia of ‘Psychoville’s Single-Take Bottle Episode

‘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

“You’re my little Superman. Don’t you forget that.”

Psychoville, as its name may indicate, is a pretty bonkers show. Created by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, the minds behind The League of Gentlemen (as well as the bottle-centric Inside No. 9, which has previously appeared here), it’s a weird British comedy that starts as a humble I Know What You Did Last Summer riff and ends up going as far as Nazi reincarnation. Everything about this show screams ambition, as Shearsmith and Pemberton play three and four separate main characters respectively (and do it seamlessly), while also threading along an intricate murder mystery storyline. It’s shows like this that are already so crazy that are perfect for more experimental ventures, like what Psychoville does here.

Television and sitcoms in general have an interesting history with the “oner,” which derives its name from the fact that it’s simply one long, uninterrupted camera take. An operation like this is obviously a difficult thing to pull off, even currently in television. Hitchcock’s film Rope (which utilizes the oner, quite famously) has almost become a pseudo Holy Grail for television producers, in terms of a piece of television that feels entirely attainable yet simultaneously impossible.

Community, a show with endless ambition that often feels like it’s capable of anything, tried their hand at the old Rope game (albeit in the series fourth series season, without their show engine of Dan Harmon), and even they were unable to pull off the half-hour in a single, seamless shot. There’s a beautiful, flowing style to the episode and it’s certainly composed of longer takes, but they can’t even last two minutes before the first edit. Let that speak for how pulling off this feat is an insanely difficult procedure that becomes dependent on minutiae, and Psychoville manages to not only pull it off, but turn it into a satisfying Hitchcock tribute. Not to mention, it’s also a deep, insightful character piece that moves this complicated series forward at the same time.

What works so well about this episode is that David (Pemberton) and Maureen (Shearsmith) are two characters who are drenched in serial killer iconography to begin with, so to have them murdering someone is not a stretch by any means and it even feels appropriate to put them in Hitchcock’s world. With Shearsmith and Pemberton being masters of the form though, the episode goes the extra mile by also resembling broad, stereotypical British theater. Soon an Inspector shows up (Mark Gatiss, making this a League of Gentlemen reunion of sorts) and it begins to form into a farce over him not discovering the corpse in the chest that’s acting as the centerpiece of the room. That’s an incredibly loaded, layered starting position for the episode and it makes the absolute most of it. It’s a testament to what a sitcom and a bottle episode are capable of.

Through the claustrophobia of the bottle episode structure as well as never even getting the freedom of a cut in the editing, we’re kept as close to Maureen as David has been for his entire life. A proximity that’s true dangers haven’t been able to be fully realized until this episode, appropriately enough. We’re trapped for the duration of the episode like he’s been for his whole existence, in what works as a great way of simulating David’s troubled mental state as well as the trauma the series is trying to tap into. Understanding both David and Maureen’s separate dysfunctions is fundamental to Psychoville, and this episode goes leaps and bounds to foster that connection. With all of the icky familial relations we get peppered through the episode, you’d think that Psycho was the Hitchcock here that Shearsmith and Pemberton were sending up, not Rope.

Due to the episode essentially being one long take (well, two, there’s a clever edit on a close-up of the chest, but no one’s holding that against them) it uses the camera exceptionally well to mirror the emotional intensity that the episode dips into. Pemberton and Shearsmith really nail it performance-wise, and for a show with such a large cast to take a detour like this by exclusively focusing on David and Maureen, the audience is given the opportunity to connect with them that wasn’t previously possible. Maureen’s confession about David, “He’s my monster, I created him” is gutting and it wouldn’t resonate the same way if this segment was just one of many in a regular, non-bottle offering. The camera is close-up on David and Maureen when the heavier revelations are gotten into, and it wisely pulls back when what’s important is the spectacle of the piece at hand. You almost wouldn’t realize there aren’t any edits going on if it weren’t so amazing in the first place.

While a deeply satisfying episode of Psychoville in its own right, seeing how it simultaneously services up and undercuts Hitchcock’s classic elevates the half hour to new heights. To begin with, the murder that kicks off “David and Maureen” is deliciously scored to Hermann’s music from Psycho in a brilliant, diegetic way. Rope is concerned about the execution of the “perfect murder” as an exercise that reflects Nietzsche’s principle of the Übermensch. Meanwhile, we watch David and Maureen complete what can only be described as the most imperfect murder, however the filming and artifice of the episode treat it as if it’s all calculated genius. Their version of Nietzsche’s Übermensch is not some hulking image of perfection funneled into the container of a superman, but rather Black Lace’s silly pop hit, “Superman” that the two use as a mood booster. The contrast between these two takes on the same idea couldn’t be more different if they tried.

If all of this weren’t enough to be juggling, Psychoville manages to even light all of its balls on fire, and continue to pull off the feat. There’s a surprising amount of twists and complications that arise here, and for an episode that takes place entirely in a living room, it actually goes through all of the beats that a three-act sitcom should. The ending is a satisfying conclusion to this and positions the series in an exciting spot for the next episode. David and Maureen’s relationship is inexplicably fractured, and the events of this bottle are going to be felt for some time.

As if it’s all been shaken up until it explodes.

Next week, we’ll take a breather in a waiting room and watch the growing tension in Frisky Dingo’s “Emergency Room.”

Unlocking the Hitchcockian Claustrophobia of […]