1. Switched At Birth, “Ecce Mono” (2013)
A heartfelt ABC Family drama about two teenage girls who were, well, switched at birth seems like an unlikely place to find a fanciful flight into an alternate reality, but that’s just what Switched At Birth did in season two’s “Ecce Mono.” When family patriarch John suffers a heart attack, he falls into a coma-induced dream detailing what might have happened if he had found out about the switch when the girls were toddlers, which turns out to be his worst nightmare. Being raised under John’s roof with no connection to her deafness turns biological daughter Daphne into a vapid rich girl desperately searching for her identity, while non-biological daughter Bay flounders in Daphne’s shadow. When Bay’s biological mother, Regina, loses the connection to her daughters and then dies, both Daphne and Bay lose faith in John forever. Deeper than the average “What if?” scenario, this episode isn’t just a collection of in-jokes; it uses the characters’ emotional narratives to inform both the alternate and actual realities, emphasizing the show’s commitment to exploring how this family was meant to parent these girls together. The result resonates even after John wakes up.
2. One Tree Hill, “Lifetime Piling Up” (2005)
One Tree Hill’s premise of two half-brothers, one raised by their controlling nightmare of a father and one raised without any paternal contact, means the show was practically required to do an episode about what would have happened if those circumstances had been switched. It managed to hold out until late in season two, when a racecar accident causes a comatose (sensing a trend here?) Nathan (James Lafferty) to dream about what could have happened if Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) had been the one raised by their father. Nathan spends most of the episode reliving a condensed version of Lucas’ season-one life, except with everything flipped on its head—which plays like the biggest Easter egg hunt ever for longtime fans. It’s also an interesting glimpse into what might have happened if the half-brothers’ casting had been switched, as Murray is far more interesting as an aggressive, entitled jerk than he ever was as the wrong-side-of-the-tracks nice guy.
3. Bones, “The End In The Beginning” (2009)
At the end of season four of Bones, Fox’s “forensic anthropology” procedural, David Boreanaz’s Seeley Booth suffers a brain tumor, causing him to hallucinate and eventually fall into a coma. On the operating table, Booth lapses into a fantasy world where the people and places in his life become noir echoes of reality. The giant science center where Temperance Brennan and her colleagues work becomes a nightclub called “The Lab,” which she and Booth own as a married couple. The rest of the cast—whether club patrons or workers—each has a nefarious connection to the dead body that appears in The Lab. Like in Bones’ reality, “The End In The Beginning” depicts the various characters coming together to solve the crime—but the time clock is finishing before a big performance by Mötley Crüe. Nothing screams “alternate reality” like a hip nightclub that thinks washed-up ’80s hair bands are can’t-miss headliners.
4. Grey’s Anatomy, “If/Then” (2012)
Nearly 10 seasons in, it can be difficult to remember that ABC’s soapy medical drama Grey’s Anatomy originally centered largely on Meredith Grey’s (Ellen Pompeo) rocky relationship with her domineering mother, Ellis (Kate Burton), who was a surgical legend before battling Alzheimer’s and dying in the show’s third season. In the eighth-season episode “If/Then,” Meredith’s late-night musings about destiny introduce an alternate reality where Ellis never got sick and Meredith didn’t come from a broken home. Meredith’s “dark and twisty” personality is replaced by a sunny disposition, but it is Ellis who looms largest over this alternate reality, turning one of the show’s most powerful women into a meek lackey, a gay orthopedic surgeon into a straight cardiothoracic one, and (somehow) transforming one doctor into a tattooed junkie. The episode argues that pretty much everyone is a little worse off in a world where Meredith had a happy childhood and never became a rallying force for the underdogs of Seattle Grace Hospital.
5. Friends, “The One That Could Have Been” (2000)
As Friends skated through its sixth season as one of the biggest shows on the planet, it was a good time to see what would have happened if its now-well-established characters made some different decisions in life. The two-part story begins when Rachel hears that the man she left at the altar, Barry, and her former best friend, Mindy, are getting a divorce. So she imagines what things would have been like if she stayed with Barry instead of leaving him six years prior. In that fantasy world, she’s a bored Long Island housewife with big hair, is infatuated with Days Of Our Lives star Joey Tribbiani, and is contemplating having an affair with him. Monica is still fat and trying to figure out who to give “her flower” to. Chandler has quit his corporate job and is a slouchy, backwards-cap-wearing schlub who tries to get published in The New Yorker. Ross is still married to Carol, not realizing she’s a lesbian. And, funniest of all, Phoebe is an ass-kicking, assistant-scaring trader at Merrill Lynch, who has multiple heart attacks and gets fired for making a multi-million dollar mistake. Basically, everyone arrives at their “real” Friends universe state, just via a different path.
6. The Sopranos, “Join The Club” (2006)
Over the course of six seasons, Tony Soprano would occasionally muse about the road not taken: the life of a regular guy “selling patio furniture on Route 22.” When he’s shot by Uncle Junior and falls into a life-threatening coma, he also seemingly slips into an alternate reality in which Tony Soprano is that ordinary Joe. On a business trip to Costa Mesa, Tony finds that his own wallet and briefcase have been replaced by those belonging to a doppelgänger named Kevin Finnerty, who has run afoul of some local Buddhist monks. All of this identity confusion can be seen as a particularly extended anxiety dream, but Tony’s coma adventures have an entirely different texture than the many nightmares that surfaced throughout the series, and creator David Chase himself told Alan Sepinwall that he didn’t consider the events of “Join The Club” (and the next episode, “Mayham”) to be dreams. As Tony’s business trip continues in “Mayham,” there are heavy hints that he may have found himself in a literal purgatory, but he wakes from his coma before he can cross the threshold. Tony is forever changed by this glimpse of an alternate life, and vows to treat every new day as a gift. That was the plan, anyway, until what Christopher once called “the fuckin’ regularness of life” took hold again.
7. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “Far Beyond The Stars” (1998)
Star Trek dealt with alternate universes often enough—the bearded, “evil” Spock is an icon even among non-Trekkies. But this sixth-season episode of DS9 takes a different approach. Captain Ben Sisko has a vision of himself as Benny Russell, a 1950s sci-fi author—long forgotten to the 24th century—who is dealing with racism. The rest of the cast appear as fellow writers, friends, and antagonists, and for those who played various aliens, it was the only time the audience ever saw them out of makeup. The crux of the story is that Benny has an idea for a series of short stories about the crew of a space station—the very show we’re watching—but after finishing the stories, his book is pulped because the publisher decides audiences won’t accept a black man as captain, even centuries in the future. Benny has a breakdown, insisting that even if the book is destroyed, the stories and the characters are still real, because they still have a life in his mind. For a moment, the audience has to wonder whether the whole series—and by extension, all of Trek—is taking place in Benny Russell’s mind, Tommy Westphall-style.
8. Xena: Warrior Princess: “Deja Vu All Over Again” (1999)
The fourth-season finale of the campy diversion Xena: Warrior Princess, is set in the strangest of all alternate realities: the viewers’, where Xena is just a character on a TV show. Series star Lucy Lawless plays a woman named Annie who is so obsessed with the character that she decides that she must have been Xena in a past life. Hoping to cure her of this preposterous delusion, her boyfriend—played by Ted Raimi, who had a recurring comic-relief role on the show as Joxer The Mighty—accompanies her to a New Age hypnotherapist, played, of course, by Renee O’Connor, the actress who played Xena’s sidekick, Gabrielle. It turns out that these actors are indeed playing the current, real-life editions of the Xena characters, but the casting office has gotten things a little mixed-up: Annie is actually the reincarnation of the hapless Joxer, and her boyfriend is Xena. All this is confirmed by the arrival of Xena’s sometime nemesis Ares, who is headed to the future, where he is fated to rule over all mankind, and wants Xena at his side so badly that he’s willing to overlook the Adam’s apple. Lawless/Raimi turns him down flat, because she/he has finally been reunited with O’Connor, and the episode ends with the two long-lost “soul mates” preparing to take their relationship to a level that they had previously only been able to reach in erotic fan fiction.
9. Ellen, “It’s A Gay, Gay, Gay, Gay World” (1998)
Ellen enjoyed a peak of critical acclaim and popular success when its star and her sitcom character came out as gay. But after the novelty wore off, the ratings slipped, and critics started complaining that, with Ellen hitting the same-sex dating scene and entering a relationship with a single mother, the show had become “too gay.” The show seemed to be hitting back in this episode, in which Ellen’s well-meaning but clueless cousin Spence (Jeremy Piven) pays a bug-bomb-triggered visit to “the nicest part of the Twilight Zone,” where gay sexuality dominates mainstream culture and Spence is living a secret life as a heterosexual male—or, to use the politically incorrect term that Ellen’s friends thoughtlessly toss around in front of him, a “stiff-wrist.”
10. Saved By The Bell, “Rockumentary” (1991)
In this season-three episode, Zack and the gang are discovered jamming in a garage and become the superstar pop group Zack Attack. With Zack playing guitar (Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s acting here is especially horrendous), Kelly singing lead, Lisa on bass, Slater on drums, and Screech on keys, the band’s hit “Friends Forever” propels Zack Attack to stardom. Jessie is conspicuously missing from this episode, but it’s probably for the best since her addiction problem would only harm her in a world full of rock stars and celebrities. Guest star Casey Kasem narrates the group’s rise, fall—typically caused by Zack’s affection for the band’s manager, Mindy—and eventual comeback. That relationship turns Zack into a “male Madonna;” Screech marries a cheerleader; Lisa becomes a gladiator; Kelly tries acting; and Slater morphs into some sort of Evel Knievel type, leading to a near-fatal accident that spurs the fanciful comeback.
11. NCIS, “Life Before His Eyes” (2012)
One of the most recent episodes to use the It’s A Wonderful Life model, the 200th episode of NCIS stopped time as Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) faces down a mysterious gunman in a diner. In the space of time it takes for the bullet to reach him, Gibbs is met by his mentor Mike Franks (Muse Watson), and shown altered futures for many of the major characters on the show. Kate doesn’t die, and has a child with DiNozzo; Ziva stays with Mossad and later gets arrested by NCIS; Gibbs meets his mother, and perhaps most importantly faces up to his decision to murder Pedro Hernandez. It’s all related to a case Gibbs dealt with the previous day, and his new perspective leads him to realize the identity of the shooter.
12. Felicity, “Time Will Tell” (2002)
J.J. Abrams’ pitch for Alias began with wondering what would happen if mild-mannered college student Felicity Porter was a spy. Since he couldn’t retroactively take Felicity in a totally different direction, those female-driven action ideas found their way into the Alias pilot. But that didn’t stop Felicity from staging an unprecedented 11th-hour narrative switch. After the 17th episode of the fourth and final season, Felicity embarked on a five-episode alternate timeline that involved character deaths, relationship swaps, magic spells, and time travel. It offered Felicity the chance for a bunch of do-overs in her relationships—and altered the interactions of other characters, splitting up or getting together—plus it steered the series away from a standard ending into one that, even today, still feels confusing and born out of boredom. The final scene of the series shows Felicity waking up from a 100-plus fever, surrounded by her friends, with the relationships returned to normal levels of melodrama.
13. The Simpsons, “Treehouse Of Horror” series (1990-Present)
The Simpsons has never been afraid to play around with its continuity—often to its detriment in later years—but there’s always one time per year when the show truly shreds the rulebook and embraces a macabre sense of fantasy. Introduced in the show’s second season, the “Treehouse Of Horror” installments have become an annual event for the series, using the Springfield universe for an anthology of horror stories that borrow from Twilight Zone episodes, classic horror movies and any other idea the writers think is fun. For one night on All Hallow’s Eve (or the Sunday closest to it) characters on The Simpsons can die horribly, turn into monsters, sell their souls, and travel through time. While the concept has been strained over the years thanks to the longevity of the show (23 installments as of the most recent season), the anthologies have contributed some of The Simpsons’ truly iconic lines—“No TV and no beer make Homer go crazy,” “There goes the last lingering thread of my heterosexuality,” “The only monster on this bus is a lack of proper respect for the rules”—and remain a highlight of each season just to see what the writers want to try out.
14-plus. It’s A Wonderful Life episodes
Outside of science fiction, the trope that gets the most play is from Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, in which one character is shown what their world would have been like if they had never been born. It’s spanned sitcoms and dramas, live action and animation, and is such a part of television history that it merited its own Inventory.