What To Do When You’re Trapped In A Room

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Television has been around for quite some time now, and it looks like it’s here to stay.  Once you’ve watched enough TV, you can begin to classify certain episodes by type.  One type that’s a bit of a dying breed these days is the Bottle Episode, usually bred out of necessity for a show with a tight budget, where the entire episode takes place on the main set as a cost-saving measure.  A subtype of the Bottle Episode is the Trapped In A Room episode, where due to some external event, the characters are separated and cut off from each other for an episode.

There usually isn’t a whole lot of plot.  The thrust of the episode is usually “restoring the status quo,” that is, undoing the event which trapped everyone.  However, what makes these episodes so fascinating is what you can do with the characters.  Take two characters who have unresolved issues, and apply heat and pressure in the form of being forced to spend time together.

It’s not all fun and games.  A Trapped In A Room Episode has to walk a fine line.  You usually have three or more separate “rooms” where characters are trapped, and you have to weave those threads into an overarching narrative while still leaving room for the individual interactions in each room.  Not an insignificant task.

Below are a handful of Trapped In A Room episodes that walked that line with aplomb.

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The West Wing – “No Exit”

Ah, the much-maligned 5th season of The West Wing.  After Sorkin’s departure, the show went reeling and took a long time to find its feet again.  However, in a lackluster 5th season, there were some gems.  “No Exit” is one such gem and a classic “Trapped In A Room” episode.  The hook that sets the episode in motion is a biological agent alert in a detection system in the White House.  For a show that vary rarely puts its characters in physical danger, a possible anthrax attack on the White House comes across as even more disturbing and threatening.

But that’s really just the backdrop.  The anthrax scare initiates a lockdown, and everyone has to stay in the room they’re in, making it a quite literal “trapped in a room” scenario.  The most fraught, interesting duo that finds themselves together is Will and Toby.  It’s a moment of transition in the series.  As Will gears up the VP for a run at the Presidency, the stalwarts of the President’s team are feeling the weight of being six years in – it’s not over yet, but sundown is coming.  Toby sees Will’s actions as a betrayal of the President, and will contends that someone has to look to the future.  It’s a very tense, very fraught debate because it’s so personal.  Will isn’t just abandoning the team, he’s abandoning Toby.  Toby, for all his gruffness, feels an undeniable kinship for the few, the very few people who “get it” like he does.  And that goes double for fellow writers, like Sam and Will.

I wish I could find the next half of this scene, where Will brings him the 500 words and Toby talks about not being able to write.  The incredibly understated vulnerability in that scene… it’s like Superman confessing to Batman that he’s losing his powers or something.

And all of that kinship gets betrayed, in Toby’s mind, when Will quits to work for the Vice President.  To have them trapped in a room hashing it out is an incredible piece of acting and drama.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Disaster”

Must be nice to write sci-fi.  Need an excuse to have the ship break down and trap everyone in a room?  Oh look, the ship ran into a “quantum filament.”  Boom, done.  For a show that usually favors plot over character, this is a welcome break. Each separate “room” has its own merits, and they’re all connected with the goal of trying to get the Enterprise running again.  Worf having to deliver Keiko’s baby is definitely one of the show’s comedic highlights.

“Now, you must push with each contraction.  And I must urge you – gently, but firmly – to push harder.”  Ranks right up there with DS9’s baseball episode for great Worf one-liners.  And Worf delivering a baby just isn’t going to happen without the framework of a Trapped In A Room episode.

Another great “room” from “Disaster” is Troi finally getting a taste of The Big Chair.  With Troi left as the highest-ranking person on the bridge when disaster strikes, she has to make life or death calls, but more importantly assert some authority.  It’s a fairly short, quiet moment, all things considered, but for a character who seems to be all about negotiation and the soft sell, seeing her assert herself is pretty cool.

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House – “Lockdown”

The frame story for this one is pretty weak – a baby goes missing, and the hospital gets locked down until it’s found, but again, the real meat is in the character interactions.  The notable thing here is that House is an incredibly formulaic show, and when it breaks out of that formula, it’s almost always good.  Case in point – Foreman and Taub getting stoned together is something you won’t see on any other episode.  Wilson and Thirteen interact one-on-one in an amusing game of Truth or Dare, and just that interaction – the two of them together, talking – is something I can’t remember ever happening on that show.

The icing on the cake is that this was Hugh Laurie’s directorial debut.  Watching how the sausage gets made is even more fascinating than the episode itself.