This post is going to focus on two tried-and-true, and overused, Christmas plots: “A Christmas Carol,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
I’m going to assume that you’ve watched and/or read the source material for both of these plots. If not, go ahead and do so now, and avoid all of the television episodes that have paid homage to them.
“A Christmas Carol” was a novella by Charles Dickens, of course, in which the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly hard-hearted moneylender, is visited by the ghosts of his late partner and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, who make Scrooge change his ways and become a respected and generous person.
Even if you haven’t read the novella, you know the story. The story has been retold by Muppets, Mr. Magoo, and Disney cartoon characters, in several film versions, including Bill Murray’s Scrooged. But, we’re talking about television episodes that have used a version of the plot here.
In “Scrooge Gets an Oscar,” a 1970 episode of The Odd Couple, Oscar Madison has a dream where he’s visited by Christmas ghosts. Afterward, Oscar gets the Christmas spirit.
In 1984, in “A Keaton Christmas Carol,” the Family Ties family experiences a similar experience, when Michael J. Fox’s character, Alex Keaton, is visited by Christmas ghosts.
In 1992, the series Rosanne gave this trope a Halloween twist in the episode “Halloween IV.” Rosanne is visited by Halloween ghosts, of course, but the plot remains the same.
There are literally dozens of other examples, and this trope continues to this day.
Similarly, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has also been done to death. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, even though I don’t watch it every year. George Bailey is at the end of his rope and is about to commit suicide when Clarence, his guardian angel, intervenes and shows him that life in Bedford Falls would be worse off without him. It’s difficult to find a television series that hasn’t run short of ideas and borrowed this plot.
To name a few:
On The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Carlton Banks gets to see what life would be like without him, and Tom Jones is his guardian angel. It’s not unusual.
Married . . . with Children guest-starred the late Sam Kinison as Al Bundy’s “Clarence.” The world actually turns out better without him.
The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Wish” did a variation on this plot. Cordelia Chase wishes that Buffy never came to Sunnydale. Cordelia doesn’t live to see the error of her ways in this version.
Other versions can be seen on That ’70s Show, Mad About You, Smallville, Laverne & Shirley, Malcolm in the Middle, Lost, and . . . oh, just name your favorite show here. It’s probably had an “It’s a Wonderful Life” episode. If not, it will someday if it stays on the air.
Personally, I don’t want to see another episode based on either of these tropes. Not unless it has a fresh twist.
Come to think of it, Star Trek: The Next Generation had the episode “Tapestry,” in which Q showed Jean-Luc Picard how his life would have turned out if he hadn’t gotten into the bar fight that damaged his heart. I did kind of like that one.
Tropes become tropes for a reason. Be on the lookout for new examples this Christmas season.