The recent launch of Strange New Worlds, a new series in the Star Trek franchise (a prequel starring Captain Pike, Spock’s captain before Kirk) had me thinking about bottle episodes vs. the current more episodic trends in television, and how those apply to church attendance. Buckle up, mofos, for a weird look into why Church keeps us going (or loses us), and how that relates to America’s favorite pandemic pasttime: binge-watching.
Strictly speaking, the actual definition of a bottle episode is more contained than how I have colloquially used the term. A bottle show is technically one in which the set of characters are all in one place together for the episode, like Seinfeld’s Chinese restaurant episode in which they wait for a table. The show is often cheaper as a result, focused on dialogue. Here’s a list of twenty well-done bottle episodes.
I have usually used this term in a different way, meaning a show in which each individual episode is contained without an arc that extends into additional episodes. Star Trek (the original series) is basically all episodes like this. Every episode is its own adventure or problem to solve, following a formulaic approach to identify and explore the problem. Star Trek Discovery is generally not like this. There might be some shorter arcs within episodes, but there are also extended arcs that span an entire season (season=series for those in the UK). The first show I recall running this way was Veronica Mars. It felt like an entirely new way to create a show. Each season contained one overarching big investigation, and within that, each episode contained smaller arcs, but also advanced the longer arc with a new important clue, suspect, red herring, or additional evidence. I can only think of one Veronica Mars episode that was truly a bottle show (by my definition): Drinking the Kool-Aid. It’s possible they tacked something onto the end to make it attach to the longer arc, but if so, it wasn’t really woven into the episode. Episodes like that one don’t hook you in. There’s no cliffhanger.
This type of show is sometimes done as a “filler” to complete a season. Story-telling might really only require 16 episodes, but the show is approved for 22, so there will be 6 more, even if they are subpar. The Smallville series did a lot of episodes like this, that we referred to as “Freak of the Week” episodes. Rather than advancing character development, some new person who was mutated by the Kryptonite in the meteor strike was a guest for that week’s episode (shout out to Amy Adams who devoured her way through the senior class!), went rogue, starting killing or attacking people, and Scooby and the Gang, er, Clark and his friends had to investigate and resolve the issue.
Lest we rest on our laurels and think that episodic storytelling is more advanced and better than the old one-episode story method, let’s take a moment to reflect on the aptly named Lost. We watched with anticipation, discussing the new mysteries weekly around the watercooler next to our colleagues. We went online to find even more clues and mysteries. Fascinating characters were introduced and killed, replaced by equally fascinating ones with more mysterious and compelling stories. Ultimately, though, a lot of these threads were just left hanging. It was kind of a cautionary tale for those writing shows with cliffhangers. There has to be a payoff. Ambiguity for its own sake ends up feeling lazy and disappointing. Humans like resolution.
Enter Netflix’s series Stranger Things. Now, obviously this show started before the pandemic, but this style of watching TV was a completely new experience. Like Lost and Veronica Mars, there was a lot going on in each episode, some resolved in the episode, and some carrying forward. Each episode had a “hook” that made you want to continue to watch, even late into the night. Netflix and other streaming platforms deliberately changed settings so that you had to opt out of the next episode, making it more likely you would continue to watch until there were no new episodes (and even then, teeing up something it thought you might want to watch, too).
It’s easy to see why we keep watching these types of shows, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable a single-story arc per episode show can be. Rather than being focused on character development, a twisty-turny plot, or the “hook,” these types of stories (that I will continue to think of erroneously as “bottle shows”) can potentially dig deeper into 2-3 themes and tie them all up in an interesting thesis by show’s end. If most shows have a season that’s like a novel, these types of shows are more like short stories, strung together into an anthology.
Pivoting abruptly to Church meetings, it seems to me that in the past, they used to be more thematic than they are now (or at least in prior wards they were). Perhaps there is still some attempt to make them thematic, but there is often a break between the second hour content and the sacrament meeting talks, even if there is a theme in the talks. I suspect there are two causes for this shift: 1) local leaders’ choices, particularly the “talk about a talk” trend that is basically the worst, rehashing someone else’s ideas rather than hearing the ideas of our neighbors and friends, and 2) the curriculum which feels less deep thematically than days of yore, more focused on tortured proof-texting and literal interpretations and less on open-minded exploration of application and moral implications.
If each Sunday is a “bottle” show, they just don’t seem to be as good as they used to be, even though they are shorter (hallelujah for that!). If they are meant to be episodic, stretching over a lifetime, the arc seems to be a problem after one’s early years, once the milestones are met. Having kids helps, potentially, until those kids decide this isn’t for them, or until they leave the nest to build their own. Also, if each Church president is its own “season,” that also becomes potentially problematic when a vigorous leader makes big changes that erode the fanbase (e.g. demoting Uchtdorf seems to keep coming up in progressive discussions). Plus, favorite characters die and are replaced, sometimes by ones we like less. Such is life.
It occurs to me when I see friends who have attended other Churches and been amazed at how welcoming and wonderful they are and how high quality the sermon was that this could be so, or it could be the novelty of the experience and the natural outreach to strangers that many congregations do (certainly not all do, though). In that sense, it reminds me of the Pepsi-Coke challenge from the late 70s and early 80s in which Pepsi handily beat Coke in a blind taste test, but later it was shown that it’s because Pepsi is sweeter, and in a sip, sweetness gives the taste-test an edge. Over time, the sweetness can be cloying, resulting in a stronger preference for Coke over the long run, but for Pepsi in a sip test (YMMV). Those other congregations may have a better experience overall, better sermons, friendlier people, and more Christ-centered content with better human insights. Maybe their shows are just better written.
- Does Church experience “hook” you and make you want to watch more or to change the channel?
- How has your experience changed as characters have died and been replaced?
- Do you think church attendance works better as a “bottle show” or multi-episode story arc?
- What has been your favorite individual Sunday meeting that you can remember, and what made it so memorable?