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I’m living in a bottle episode

staff note

Everyone who has watched the 1998 film, “The Truman Show,” has seriously (or maybe not so seriously) considered what it would be like if their life was a TV show. At first, the idea seems ridiculous, but consider this: there is no way to prove that life is not a TV show. Unless an actor playing a friend or family member messes up their lines, a studio light inexplicably falls out of the sky or a poorly-hidden boom microphone is discovered behind a closet door, the show we star in is really no different than reality. 

Behind the cameras are directors, writers, set designers and makeup artists — all essential players in the ecosystem of the production. If one person screws up, the entire operation loses its illusion of reality, the element that makes the show charming and relatable. The idea that life has structure and narrative, just like a TV show, is very comforting. Every scene must build up to a punchline or the realization that life actually has meaning.

But life is so much more complicated than TV. There is no structure or logic to how we live while we are actually living it. In a TV show, hundreds of hours of footage are edited down to small, self-contained episodes. In real life, there are no episodes until we boil down all of our messy memories into logical narratives. There are rarely any second or third takes, and there are no deleted scenes.

Still, if I was the star of a TV show, I wonder how low its ratings would have plummeted during the past eight months of the pandemic. Willingly shut in the periwinkle-blue walls of my childhood bedroom, I spend most of my energy on introspection, not action. Usually, “The Courtney Show” has jaw-dropping action sequences, montages of training sessions before a big competition and awkward meet-cutes with my next crush. Now, these reenactments of television tropes only exist in my imagination. 

I imagine that the camera operators are yawning, bored out of their minds until I rise out of bed to brush my teeth or take a walk outside. An introvert like me naturally clings to solitude, but even I admit that it makes for boring television.

It is like I am living in a bottle episode, a cost-cutting production measure to ensure the studio stays within budget. A bottle episode leverages existing cast members and locations for cheap and expedient production. The narrative is usually confined to a single room and focused more on dialogue than actual story. The bottle episode is either loved by viewers for its emotional nuance or hated for its lack of narrative.

My personal favorite is “Community’s” bottle episode “Cooperative Calligraphy.” While a puppy parade goes on outside, the study group decides to not leave the library until they find out who stole Annie’s missing pen. The identity of the culprit is not central to the episode, but it is the unraveling of each character’s sanity that drives the story. Misunderstandings quickly come to light, which brings out each of their vulnerabilities.

Abed, the show’s awkward, pop-culture nerd, shares a few words of sarcasm referencing his hatred of bottle episodes: “I want to say thank you for doing this to me. For a while, I thought I’d have to suffer through a puppy parade, but I much prefer being entombed alive in a mausoleum of feelings I can neither understand nor reciprocate.”

The “mausoleum of feelings” of the bottle episode perfectly encapsulates the essence of pandemic life. I have learned to cope with the absurdity of the outside world by understanding that life does not need to have a narrative in order for it to have meaning. Retreating into the fiction of TV helps me understand the roots of my problems, so I can solve them in actionable ways.

I have realized that just because my experience is sheltered, it does not mean that my feelings are not worthwhile. Imagining my life as a TV show is one way for me to compartmentalize my memories, pinpoint the motives of the people I interact with and confront my issues in an inviting, fictional world instead of the frightening complexity of the real world. 

In a way, examining life through the framework of television allows me to uncover the unexpressed pains of life by empathizing with the experiences of my favorite characters. The camera operator of “The Courtney Show” might be uninterested, but the narrator of my thoughts never runs out of dialogue.

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