‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ – for a lot of TV shows, too


Fanning Out


Many series have ‘borrowed’ the plot of the classic movie


You know the story. And a lot of television writers and producers clearly do, too.

Director Frank Capra’s 1946 movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” — which NBC again gives its traditional Christmas Eve showing Monday (Dec. 24) — is legendary for its plot of a man being shown, much to his dismay, by a novice guardian angel how life would have been if he never had existed. (Said characters are George Bailey and Clarence, played by James Stewart and Henry Travers.)

Over the years, that premise has inspired numerous TV series to come up with their own variations on it … to the degree that viewers in the know have nodded their heads and said, “Ah. It’s the ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ episode.” Here’s a look at some notable examples of how shows have put the idea to their own use.


“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: This series added some twists to the “Wonderful” concept, since Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) wanted Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) never to have existed – but it ultimately was a good thing for Cordy that the wish went only so far.


“Dallas”: In the series finale, “Cabaret” Oscar winner Joel Grey was the angel who showed what would have happened without J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) around …including Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) being elected president!


“Friends”: A two-part episode allowed everyone in the gang to reimagine their lives, with Courteney Cox spending a lot of time in the suit that made her look like Monica before losing weight.


“Mad About You”: The clock turned back magically for Paul and Jamie (Paul Reiser, Helen Hunt) as they pondered if they ever would have met without the existence of the site where they did.


“Married … With Children”: Leave it to this show to have made brash comedian Sam Kinison its “Clarence,” with Al (Ed O’Neill) as the surrogate for George, with the latter’s relatives all leading very different existences.


“Moonlighting”: Maddie’s (Cybill Shepherd) second-guessing about keeping the detective agency open fueled this “Wonderful” variation.


“Mork & Mindy”: How would Mork’s (Robin Williams) life have been different if he hadn’t met Mindy (Pam Dawber)? Well, he might not have had his own series … but there were other possible results, as seen here.


“NCIS”: Gibbs (Mark Harmon) got to review several pivotal events in his life, and to see how those would have affected not only his life but others’ if things had played out differently.


“Night Court”: The presence of music veteran Mel Torme, the idol of Judge Harry Stone (Harry Anderson) as Harry’s guardian angel was a big plus in this sitcom’s take on the tale.


“Psych”: Not for a second did Shawn (James Roday) believe anyone’s life would have been better without him in it … at least in the early going of his alternate-universe journey.


“Scandal”: The show’s 100th episode projected how things would have evolved if Olivia (Kerry Washington) had made a different professional decision, though she still would have been with Fitz (Tony Goldwyn).


“Smallville”: Clark (Tom Welling) got mixed results as he wondered if Earth would have been better off if a certain super-baby hadn’t been launched from Krypton before that planet met its doom.


“Switched at Birth“: This drama’s version of the “Wonderful” story went for the most logical plot — what would have happened to the two central families if Daphne and Bay (Katie Leclerc, Vanessa Marano) hadn’t been switched as infants in the hospital.


“That ‘70s Show”: Wayne Knight, alias “Seinfeld’s” Newman, stepped in to show Eric (Topher Grace) how things would have been if he and Donna (Laura Prepon) hadn’t gotten involved romantically.

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

jbobbin has 1935 posts and counting.See all posts by jbobbin

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