‘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.
“Oh for goodness sake, just act normal.”
You very likely might not be familiar with Miranda, and that’s exactly the sort of thing that Miranda, the star of Miranda, would bitch to you about. The girl’d be right to get on your case though, because even though Miranda might not be the flashiest comedy to blaze across from the other side of the pond, it’s a very reliable, smartly constructed sitcom that even has a very American sensibility to it. Based on the comedy of Miranda Hart, the series (which was filmed in front of a live audience, believe it or not) spanned three series, two specials, and a devout following from those that saw it. It’s even pleasantly all available on Hulu to boot.
While the series was typically preoccupied with the awkward, surreal situations Miranda would find herself in, it still wasn’t beyond taking some stylistic gambles. This is a series after all that constantly has Miranda breaking the fourth wall to speak to the audience or simply share a beleaguered look with them. Like many of the series that have been looked at here, Miranda’s “Just Act Normal” is concerned with a fractured, human relationship between two of the central characters. In this case, this honest character dissection is facilitated through the use of a therapist, but even though he’s the catalyst to all of this, very quickly Miranda and Penny begin unspooling on their own without the help of anyone.
The episode sees Miranda and her mother, Penny, being forced to see a therapist and ostensibly act normal, the one thing they’re incapable of doing. Playing off of that idea gives this episode a lot of fuel for its comedy, especially since Miranda and Penny are even more prone to bickering when trapped inside of these closed quarters together. The crux of the episode is placed on Miranda trying to convince everyone that she’s not having a breakdown. She’s repeatedly told throughout the installment that she’s “not acting normal,” with each passing reference causing her to spiral down deeper. This defensiveness is largely in part due to a secret that’s carried over from the previous episode—in fact, the way in which this episode almost makes strong use of the series’ serialization is another one of its triumphs and why it works so well. It’s an intentionally restricted story that still keeps its scope broad, with the entire season in mind. Miranda also must defend that her relationship with her mother isn’t a venomous one, as these two crucial pillars of the series are deconstructed and mined for humor. It’s a smart idea to put the very essence of Miranda on the stand here, taking the piss out of the series itself as much as it is to its titular heroine. Miranda is always the defensive type, but here she’s forced to sing for her egomaniacal supper more than she ever has before.
Miranda is a show that typically clips away at a fast speed, cramming in as much banter and entendre as possible, as these delightful characters pick each other apart. By eliminating scene changes and the rest of the series’ strong cast, all of this is allowed to be elevated to an even higher level. All that’s left is the banter and repartee, and the results are a particularly verbose and energized installment of Miranda, rather than a slowed down one that methodically deals with this intimate relationship.
A large part of the series is preoccupied with Penny’s inherent disappointment in her daughter, largely stemming from her inability to find a decent—or any—man. This integral component of their relationship is continuously played for laughs, but here it really gets a chance to be explored, with the deeper ramifications of Penny’s perspective getting to be felt. Even if much of their relationship is hidden or pushed to the side of denial here, the impact that it’s had on Miranda all of these years is certainly made clear. Make no mistake, the two of them operate in perfect tandem in this episode (whether it be through singing, dancing, incredulity at the therapist’s price, or a myriad of other behavior), which illustrates how similar they are and that Miranda’s truly her mother’s daughter, but the fractured core beneath it is still very clear.
It also doesn’t hurt that the therapist is played by standout of British television Mark Heap (Spaced, Big Train, Friday Night Dinner, Green Wing, everything else). His presence here greatly adds to the detour that Penny and Miranda find themselves on. It’s far from necessary that the odd man out in this episode be played by someone of importance, but Heap is a very welcome presence that never distracts focus away from our stars. Quite impressively, Heap is essentially silent through the first half of the episode (and even after that he doesn’t say much), with the episode turning into one long ramble from Miranda and Penny as they panic to fill silence and not come across as nutty. It’s a testament to Heap’s ability that he really gets so much done with mere gestures.
A common theme from episodes of this nature inevitably sees the patients beginning to psychoanalyze the therapist. “Just Act Normal” is no different as Miranda and Penny attempt to turn the tables here, both figuratively and literally, with them even sitting at the therapist’s desk at one point, forcing him to sit on the couch and become the patient. All of this folds in on perfect Miranda-isms, like the classic overflowing drinking fountain situation that plagues her early on, her panicking that the chair that she chooses to sit in is a psychological experiment, or even the situation that sets off Miranda’s detour into therapy, and all of these balloon in a delightful, natural way. The latter incident results in Miranda losing her ice cream and yet somehow needing to buy an additional 29 ice creams for children.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia also featured a bottle episode set within a therapist’s office, but Miranda’s entry differs in a number of ways. “Just Act Normal” seems to have a much more encouraging ending, while Always Sunny’s is resolved with none of these characters having changed. The real breakthrough has happened to the therapist character in the form of seeing that these people are impossible, and the professional even regressing as a result of all of this. In fact, a fundamental difference here is that Always Sunny’s therapist picks and prods at its characters, trying to provoke insight, whereas here the therapist is considerably more passive, with Miranda and Penny provoking themselves and becoming unspooled as they keep at it.
This episode also goes beyond what Always Sunny attempts with its entry too, by literally having Miranda and Penny try to escape this mental prison, rather than just letting their previously agreed upon session length run out. Even though she and her mother team up on the therapist and appear to have the upper hand, they’re still eager for freedom by the end of all of this, whereas the Always Sunny crew has firmly taken control of their surroundings and brought it down to their dysfunctional level. The episode even gains a certain poignancy when the therapist character carries into the next episode, the second season’s finale, with Miranda now more positive and instilled with agency.
By the end of all of this it actually feels like some progress has been made on the Miranda and Penny front, with the finale being poised to have an interesting dynamic between them. Miranda is very consistent in its short run, and while the bottle episode construct isn’t heavily focused on in “Just Act Normal,” it does accentuate everything about the show that works, turning out one of the series’ best. Sometimes the magic of a bottle episode isn’t necessarily felt in the stakes of the location or the budget being saved, but rather how the limitations can lead to a pressurized episode that’s forced to work its hardest.