“Every time a bell rings...”: 22 TV variations on It’s A Wonderful Life
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1. Raising Hope, “It’s A Hopeful Life” (2011)
Though it took some time for It’s A Wonderful Life to become the seasonal staple it is today, Frank Capra’s 1946 film serves dual purposes in TV land. One, it reliably fills in a few two-hour programming holes around Christmastime; two, its most famous sequence—where destitute protagonist George Bailey wishes he’d never been born, and his guardian angel Clarence shows him the flaw in that logic—has become a perennial source of inspiration for television writers. In one of the most recent It’s A Wonderful Life send-ups, Jimmy, the dead-broke hero of Raising Hope, gets miserably drunk and sinks to the point of wishing that he’d never had the one-night stand that made him a single father. After passing out on the barroom floor, he comes to and finds his Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman) waiting to walk him through the terrible world he’s wished upon himself: Without his daughter to give himself and those around him something to strive for, he’s become a career criminal, his parents have divorced but are still stuck in the same house together, the girl he likes has become a hard-shelled liquor dealer with a surgically augmented rack, and his cretinous work buddy has become a disastrous mayor, all because Jimmy wasn’t there to tell him not to run. And Maw Maw is actually dead. “Actually, you did me a favor,” she tells him. “Heaven’s great. But it’s awfully hot there, there are a lot of fires there, and last night, at karaoke, Idi Amin and Hitler did a great version of ‘Ebony And Ivory.’”
2. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “The Wish” (1998)
Though it aired in December 1998, Buffy’s “What if Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale” episode doesn’t have a particularly holiday-like feel. Instead, the episode, a series high point, offers up the darkest of the Buffy timelines. Pulling equally from It’s A Wonderful Life and the classic Star Trek episode “Mirror Mirror,” “The Wish” posits a reality where, without Buffy around, the evil Master took over Sunnydale, and vampires—whose numbers now include Buffy’s pals Xander and Willow—reign terrifyingly over the city. The series’ version of Clarence the guardian angel is, fittingly, a demon named Anyanka, played by Emma Caulfield in a performance that so impressed the series’ producers, she eventually made her way back—in human form—to become a series regular. “The Wish” goes one better than the dark depths of It’s A Wonderful Life’s Pottersville, with bloodsucking assembly lines and an over-the-top gothic tone that shows off the series’ outsized emotions.
3. Beavis And Butt-Head, “It’s A Miserable Life” (1995)
After he and his friend make fun of It’s A Wonderful Life on TV—complete with George Bailey’s elation that his friends gave him money so he wouldn’t kill himself—Butt-Head learns what the world would have been like if he’d never been born. Perhaps unsurprisingly for this show, everybody—even Beavis—is much better off without Butt-Head in the picture. (On its original broadcast, this one was paired with a Christmas Carol parody in which Beavis is visited by three ghosts, thus allowing the show to bump off the two most-parodied Christmas tales in one go.)
4. Married… With Children, “It’s A Bundyful Life” (1989)
A series that was prepared to work up a sweat to establish its vulgarian-contrarian bona fides, Married… With Children was always eager to take a crap on Christmas. It got some help from the sultan of screeching in this two-parter, in which Al Bundy screws up his family’s holiday so badly that they leave him behind to go celebrate with dinner at Denny’s. Left to his own devices, Al nearly kills himself messing around with the Christmas lights, and is visited by his guardian angel, played by Sam Kinison. Kinison shows Al that, if he had never been born, his wife would have married a wealthy Ted McGinley, lived a life of luxury, and borne happy, productive children, a vision that inspires Al to go on living so he can continue to make his family as miserable as they make him.
5. That ’70s Show, “It’s A Wonderful Life” (2001)
When an It’s A Wonderful Life homage isn’t being used in service of holiday cheer, it’s often employed instead to prove how two characters ultimately hold an entire principal cast together. That ’70s Show’s take on the trope—its less-than-inventively titled fourth-season première—begins in the immediate aftermath of Eric Foreman and Donna Pinciotti’s break-up, as the mopey male half of the couple wishes he’d never kissed the girl next door in the first place. Enter guest guardian angel Wayne Knight, who shows Eric how Donna gave him a spine before pulling a trick from The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come’s book. Traveling into the future to reinforce that it’s better for Eric to have loved and lost, we see that the protagonist would have wasted much more without that kiss—he also would have lost his friends to a number of lame fates like prison sentences, anchoring the news in Cedar Rapids, and playing in a one-man synth-pop act that can only book gigs at backyard weddings and sparsely attended high-school reunions.
6. Night Court, “Hey Harry, F’Cryin’ Out Loud—It Is A Wonderful Life… Sorta” (1991)
This late-period episode of Night Court took a club to the usual idea of the journey through an alternate, protagonist-less world. Here, judge Harry Stone learns from an angel named Herb (and disguised as Mel Tormé) that if he hadn’t been born, the court would have turned into a weird dystopia ruled over by Dan Fielding as a petty despot. The episode isn’t great, but it has some solid gags, as when Herb reveals to Harry that the reason everything’s in black and white is because the whole vision is a film-noir homage, not because Harry being gone robbed the world of its color (as the self-centered judge suggests).
7. Mork And Mindy, “It’s A Wonderful Mork” (1979)
Mork And Mindy was a ratings smash in its first season, debuting to huge numbers and ending the year at No. 3 overall. The show fell off after moving timeslots and emphasizing its fantasy and science-fiction elements in season two, but there were already hints of that shift in direction near the end of season one, particularly in this episode, in which alien Mork wishes he could see what it would be like if he’d never come to Earth. Leader Orson is all too happy to oblige, and Mork discovers that if he’d been gone the past year, Mindy would have ended up married to a loser named Cliff, whom he can’t resist mocking. Robin Williams, never one for subtlety when there are pop-culture gags to be made, remarks at one point, “Hey, it’s a wonderful life!”
8. The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, “The Alma Matter” (1993)
A “be careful what you wish for” conceit is crucial to every Capra-tweaking TV plot. Of course, if The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’s Carlton Banks hadn’t wished to see a world free from his rampant overachieving, straight-shooting, and tragically unhip dancing, he wouldn’t have met his idol, Welsh crooner Tom Jones. Turns out Jones is always watching over Carlton, ready to burst in on the aspiring yuppie to lift him up with a duet of “It’s Not Unusual” and a vision of a Banks household where free-spirited cousin Will Smith has turned the family into perpetually fun-seeking new-jack bohemians. As far as life-affirming hallucinations go, Jones beats the hell out of Henry Travers in a linen tunic.
9. Saturday Night Live, “Andrew Dice Clay” (1990)
Few of Lorne Michaels’ decisions have been received more poorly than inviting Andrew Dice Clay to host SNL. Both regular cast member Nora Dunn and musical guest Sinéad O’Connor refused to appear on the same show as Clay—reportedly because they felt his act demeaned women, though they could have just as easily said that they didn’t want to help perpetrate the notion that he was funny. The episode had to address all this, and it did so in a nifty cold open that began with Clay contemplating throwing himself off a bridge because of all the trouble he’d caused. Coming to the rescue is Jon Lovitz as Mephistopheles, Clay’s “guardian devil”; he shows the Diceman how, if he hadn’t hosted that week, Dunn would have been killed by a falling amp, and a remorseful O’Connor would have quit the music business. “That’s too bad,” said the Diceman, taking a drag on his cigarette. “She was a cute bald chick.” However, considering O’Connor’s pope-defacing behavior when she finally made it to Studio 8H, maybe Michaels would’ve preferred that Clay took the leap.
10. The Simpsons, “The Last Temptation Of Homer” (1993)
Though it’s been known to devote entire episodes to parodies of Cape Fear, Lollapalooza, and Behind The Music, The Simpsons has often been at its sharpest when dealing with pop-culture in drive-bys and digressions. It’s A Wonderful Life takes its licks in the middle of this episode, which is mainly about Homer’s dangerous crush on a new co-worker. To set him straight, a guardian angel appears to him, in the soothing form of Hogan’s Heroes’ Colonel Klink (voiced by the original commandant of Stalag 13, Werner Klemperer), and announces that he intends to show him how awful things would have turned out if he hadn’t married Marge. One visit to the alternate-universe White House and a quick glance at President Bouvier’s high approval ratings are more than enough to restore Homer’s husbandly fidelity.
11. Dallas, “Conundrum” (1991)
In the two-hour series finale of the long-running prime-time soap, a broken, suicidal J.R. Ewing is visited by Adam (a tuxedo-wearing Joel Grey), who gives J.R. the ol’ George Bailey treatment: younger Ewing brother Gary would have been entrusted with the family business, which he would have run into the ground so thoroughly that their father would have committed suicide, and there would be no Knots Landing spin-off to which Gary could flee. Without J.R. there to inspire him to man up, brother Bobby would have become a shiftless drunk, and Miss Ellie would have died from the shame of it all. Oh, and Cliff Barnes, the Wile E. Coyote to J.R.’s Roadrunner, would be the President of the United States. At the end, J.R. suggests to Adam that he maybe isn’t the greatest guardian angel ever, only to be informed by Adam that, far from being an angel, he’s actually representing the other team, and wants J.R. to kill himself.
12. Angel, “Birthday” (2002)
When Cordelia Chase gets knocked unconscious by a vision during her surprise birthday party, her consciousness drifts into another plane, where she meets a chilled-out demon named Skip, who takes her on a tour of what her life could’ve been. Skip shows Cordelia that if she’d never run into vampire-with-a-soul Angel in Los Angeles—after previously meeting him when they were both characters on Buffy The Vampire Slayer—then she’d have finally had her big break in Hollywood, becoming a TV star with a hit sitcom called Cordy! (A deleted scene on the Angel season three DVD shows some of Cordy!, which looks like a cross between Friends and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) But Cordelia also gets a glimpse at what Angel’s detective agency would be like if she weren’t around: Angel would be going mad from the visions Cordelia usually fields, while their previously genteel associate Wesley Wyndam-Pryce would be a scruffy, one-armed sourpuss. Later we learn that Skip has an ulterior motive for showing Cordelia what she missed, but the motive of the show’s writers is much plainer: to show that happiness has a price that may not be worth paying, and to reveal that while Cordelia and her friends may be miserable now, at least they’re miserable together.
13. Fringe, season four (2011-)
The fourth season of Fringe—still ongoing—has taken an unusual approach to the alternate-reality plot. The show introduced the concept of parallel universes in its first season, and then at the end of the third season, the Earth-2 version of scruffy scientist Peter Bishop created a bridge between the universes, to prevent one world from destroying the other. He then promptly disappeared, his actions having apparently created a new reality in which he died as a boy on both Earths. So what’s different in a Peter-less existence? Mostly small changes. Peter’s crazy father Walter is even crazier, while his true love Olivia has led a calmer (but lonelier) life. Fringe has largely foregone the sweeping, butterfly-effect re-writing of the past that most TV shows employ when they play “What if?” At this point in the season, the prior reality hasn’t been restored, so fans don’t know yet what the ultimate point of this journey will be—which has made some of those fans impatient. But just for tweaking rather than radically reshuffling, Fringe’s version of “suppose so-and-so wasn’t around” has been refreshing.
14. Friends, “The One That Could Have Been” (2000)
Throughout the run of Friends, the show sprinkled in episodes that jumped back to when the show’s characters were younger and just getting to know each other. In season six’s “The One That Could Have Been,” the writers played with the mythology they’d built. When the gang imagines the ways their lives could’ve been different if they’d made different choices, they share a two-episode fantasy sequence in which Monica is still fat, Rachel is married to the man she left at the altar at the series’ beginning, Ross is still married to the wife who left him for a woman, Phoebe is a stockbroker, Joey is still working on Days Of Our Lives, and Chandler is a struggling writer who works as Joey’s assistant. Most of the jokes in these episodes are about how the alternate-universe versions of the Friends friends are super-different from the ones we know, but the plot inevitably follows the “cycling back around” track so common to these kinds of stories. Ross and Rachel’s marriages both fail, Monica and Chandler become lovers, Phoebe loses her job and picks up a guitar, and so on. It’s a clichéd narrative device, but a necessary one. If the whole idea of a sitcom is to create a comfortable space for people to visit for 22 minutes a week, then episodes like “The One That Could Have Been” serve to reassure fans that the everything about these characters’ lives was meant to be exactly as we like it.
15. Mad About You, “Up In Smoke” (1995)
Despite being an ostensibly realistic show about a bunch of New York City professionals—focusing on two who were recently married when the show began—Mad About You was surprisingly fond of gimmick episodes, in which the show would shift into some other genre for a while, be it a fundamentally serious drama about the hardships of marriage or a time-skipping series of vignettes designed to fill in what happened to the characters after the series ended. One of the earliest experiments of this type was season three’s finale, “Up In Smoke,” in which a magical wind (no, really) remakes the world so the central couple never came together. The two eventually find each other at the ruins of the burned-down newsstand where they met-cute in the original timeline, though, and reality shifts back to where it belongs—thus ending the episode’s long series of close calls between the two.
16. Supernatural, “What Is And What Should Never Be” and “It’s A Terrible Life” (2007, 2009)
Perhaps fittingly for a series that features so many potential wish-granting entities, Supernatural went to the It’s A Wonderful Life well twice, with episodes that show what would have happened if Sam and Dean Winchester’s mother had never been killed by a demon and what would have happened if the two hadn’t been born to the same family, respectively. The first—in which a djinn tosses the two into the alternate world—remains one of the series’ highlights, with a great deal of angst about choosing a life where Sam and Dean’s loved ones remain alive, but those they’ve saved from monsters over the years are all dead, and the two have a strained relationship. The second offers a more direct copy, with angel Zachariah taking on the Clarence role, while disguising himself as Dean’s new boss in a world where Dean works on Wall Street.
Though perhaps closer to a straight-up alternate-universe story than a direct It’s A Wonderful Life homage, Doctor Who’s “Turn Left” still pivots off one key disappearance: that of the Doctor, who’s killed after he never meets Donna Noble. Designed to give 10th doctor David Tennant a little time off, the episode takes Donna through the formation of the hellish alternate world that would normally be the destination in an It’s A Wonderful Life homage. Aliens bombard Earth, Donna ends up worse off than she was before (and without the freedom to traipse about the universe), and Britain descends into a dystopia straight out of Orwell. It’s a bold, fascinating episode, one that plays off of our knowledge of what should be by showing its opposite.
18. ALF, “Stairway To Heaven” (1988)
One of the most common ways for a show to undercut the predictability of the It’s A Wonderful Life device is to show that all of the characters are better off without having met each other, or without one of them having been born. ALF’s third-season episode “Stairway To Heaven” is a fairly typical example of this type: After ALF’s guardian angel (using something called “the Capra amendment”) shows him what his life would have been like had he never crashed into the Tanners’ house, ALF discovers that he and the Tanners would have become incredibly rich (ALF as a CEO of a cosmetics company, of all things). Even rich, however, both halves of this little family find life rather blah without each other, so ALF eventually wishes his way back to the “real” world.
19. The Christmas Clause (2008)
Cable networks have created a surprising number of made-for-TV movie versions of It’s A Wonderful Life copycat The Family Man, the 2000 film where Wall Street hotshot Nicolas Cage gets to see what his life would be like if he married ex-girlfriend Téa Leoni. Strangely, almost all of these cable movies star women who have to choose between career and family—perhaps reflecting that females compose the majority of the television viewing audience. One of the most notable is The Christmas Clause, in which Lea Thompson makes a wish to a mall Santa—who turns out to be the real thing—that she could just ditch her husband and kids and have her high-powered career as a lawyer. Naturally enough, this all comes true because Santa loves nothing more than showing rich people what they didn’t realize they already had. You can guess how it ends.
20. The O.C., “The Chrismukk-huh?” (2006)
The O.C. lost some viewers and cred in its later years, but season four’s Chrismukkah episode was as strong as anything Josh Schwartz and company ever did—and Wonderful Life-themed to boot. In it, bad boy Ryan and his girlfriend Taylor get in an argument over Christmas lights, fall off a ladder, and wake up in a world where Ryan never moved to Newport Beach. The Cohens aren’t married, Marissa’s dead of an overdose in Tijuana, and Summer’s a mindless, Paris Hilton-style party animal engaged to a dude who’s banging her best friend’s mom on the side. It’s a distorted version of reality, though pretty much everything on The O.C. was, so this George Bailey twist wasn’t really all that much of a stretch.
21. Moonlighting, “It’s A Wonderful Job” (1986)
For the Christmas episode of its third and best season, Moonlighting applied the experimental tack that had taken over the show to a fairly straightforward remake of It’s A Wonderful Life, in which Maddie wished she had never kept the detective agency at the story’s center open during the events of the show’s pilot. In this reality, everybody else is happy, but Maddie is miserable, on the verge of suicide. And even though she probably shouldn’t—since David is married to model Cheryl Tiegs and everybody else seems pleased with their new lives, too—she can’t help but find a way back to the real world, where she and David share a merry Christmas kiss.
22. It Happened One Christmas (1977)
As this list demonstrates, there have been many homages to It’s A Wonderful Life, but rarely one so direct as It Happened One Christmas, a made-for-TV remake starring the Jimmy Stewart of ’70s television, Marlo Thomas. The film borrows shots (which, with Conrad Hall as cinematographer, at least look good) and dialogue from the original, which sounds pretty peculiar coming out of the mouths of Thomas and co-stars Cloris Leachman (presaging her role in “It’s A Hopeful Life” as the angel Clara), Wayne Rogers (in the Donna Reed role), and Orson Welles (as Mr. Potter, of course). Strange as it seems now, the remake wouldn’t have looked that odd to audiences in the mid-’70s, when It’s A Wonderful Life had yet to become a fixture on television during the Christmas season. Viewers turned it into a hit, even though Frank Capra didn’t care for it. In the end, Capra’s version endured, while this one faded from memory. Merry Christmas, you old venerable holiday classic!