TV’s Greatest Alternate Reality Episodes


What if Buffy never came to Sunnydale? Or Ryan Atwood, Newport Beach? Or even Clark Kent, Earth? The “What if?” question has become a staple television plot device, usually executed in the form of an “alternate reality” episode somewhere between the middle and end of a popular series. So it’s about right that Grey’s Anatomy, now halfway through its eighth season, has decided to take a stab at the question: what if Meredith’s mom never had Alzheimer’s? Here’s what we’ve gathered from tonight’s much-hyped previews: Meredith wears pink cardigans, Cristina has bangs, and Derek is now known as “McDreary.” We can’t wait to see what fun, wacky ways the alternate versions of the Seattle Grace staff collide. In the meantime, we invite you to click through our roundup of TV’s best “What if?” episodes and add your favorites in the comments.

Smallville: What if Superman didn’t exist?

We’d rather refer to Smallville’s “Apocalypse” episode as “Superheroes and Their Guilt Issues.” Clark wishes he had never existed, waxing about all the lives he’s ruined (seriously, can the guy focus on one good thing he’s done? Or at least have a beer?). Thankfully, the clone of his dead father, Jor-El, is around to knock some sense in him. He shows his son what life would be like if he had never been born, and it’s bad. Real bad. Lex Luthor is president. And he’s planning to nuke the world. Needless to say, when Clark returns to reality he decides to go back in time to Krypton to save himself as a baby (if you didn’t get that last part, just know it means he accepts his existence after all).

The O.C.: What if there had been no Ryan Atwood?

After a rocky third season, The O.C. made a solid comeback, bringing in new characters (Che), replacing boring, old ones (Taylor for Marissa), and bending the rules of reality. Even if “The Chrismukk-huh?” episode is established on the wackiest of premises — Taylor and Ryan simultaneously fall off a ladder and share the same alternate-reality coma-dream — it’s entertaining to see all the “what ifs”: Seth still a bumbling nerd, Sandy married to Julie, Marissa dead three years ago in Tijuana. Lesson learned? In a world without Ryan Atwood, rich people are slightly more miserable. Watch a clip here.

Family Matters: What if Laura Winslow were Steve Urkel?

In the Family Matters episode “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Urkel,” Laura’s guardian angel Tyrone shows her an alternate reality (on the Angel Broadcasting Channel) in which she is the annoying next-door neighbor and Steve the handsome, perfect son. As you can imagine, Laura learns that being a nerd is a very sad life and decides to be nicer to Steve. This lasts until approximately the end of the episode, and her guardian angel earns his wings. A solid addition to both the alt-reality and holiday episode canons.

Friends: What if the friends weren’t friends?

In “The One that Could Have Been,” or as we affectionately call it, “The One where Ross does a lot of Kara-tay,” the group imagines the paths they almost took: What if Rachel married Barry? What if Ross stayed married to his lesbian wife? What if Phoebe took a job on Wall Street? What if Monica stayed fat? What if Chandler had quit his job to be a writer? What if Joey hadn’t been fired from Days of Our Lives? The overall moral of the episode of is that they still would be friends in an alternate reality. We’ll just assume Paul Rudd, the honorary seventh, is there too. Watch the opening sequence for the episode, which stars the friends as their bizarro selves, here.

Boy Meets World: What if Shawn Hunter wrote for Rolling Stone?

Enlarging on the “friends” theme, Mr. Feeny stages an intervention to save the Boy Meets World gang after a prank war in the last season. Here they glimpse a future in which they are no longer friends: Topanga and Cory have marital problems, Jack is an unhappy, rich businessman, Shawn and Angela are successful journalists who never made time for love, and Eric is a hermit who has changed his name to “Plays with Squirrels.” The alternate future convinces them to make amends so they don’t destroy the group forever, but we gotta say, we don’t entirely agree with the lesson here. Maybe Eric needs to take his existential bearded man journey. Shawn and Angela’s globetrotting lives sound awesome. And we’re sure Jack would have eventually bought happiness with his money. Point being, if your marriage or identity is completely dependent on a group of people, perhaps you’re due to explore the world. At least cut the ties with Feeny, man. This relationship is just not appropriate anymore.

Felicity: What if Felicity Porter was supposed to be with Noel?

Being caught in a love triangle is never as easy as it looks on TV. Especially if you get the benefit of time travel for no explicable reason. In a bizarre twist, the last five episodes of Felicity are set in an alternate reality where our heroine chooses Noel instead of Ben. Even though she begins her relationship “do-over” with the knowledge that Ben future-cheats (yes, please wrap your head around that one for a moment), Felicity is drawn back to him by the end. We know this is a soft spot Team Noel, and we apologize.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: What if Buffy never came to Sunnydale?

The greatest thing about Buffy’s “The Wish” is that it needed to happen for “Doppelgangland” to exist. In the former, Cordelia wishes Buffy never came to Sunnydale, and Anya grants the vengeance demand. The alternate Sunnydale is, of course, a disaster, but luckily Giles figures out how to break the spell and everything returns to normal. Or so we think. Later in the season Willow’s alternate self, Vampire Willow, returns for one of the most memorable face-offs in Buffy history. As a whole the episode is widely heralded for its character introspection and foreshadowing (“I think I’m kinda gay.”).

Roseanne: What if Dan had lived?

In a huge finale twist, we learn that Roseanne is actually an alternate reality, dictated by Roseanne Conner as she writes her book. And in the final minutes we become privy to the details she changed from her reality: Jackie is really gay (and not her mother), Darlene is with Mark, and Becky with David. They never won the lottery, and Dan died when he had the heart attack. This alternate reality was a love letter to him, and we have to admit it’s difficult not to tear up during the show’s final monologue.

St. Elsewhere: What if this was all a daydream?

Another “gotcha” finale, St. Elsewhere‘s last episode leads us to believe the entire series took place in Tommy Westphall’s head. The final scene ends with a close-up of the snow globe he stares at all day, inside of which is a replica of St. Eligius, the hospital the show takes place in. This finale spawned the Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere theory, which posits all the other shows that must also be “the prolonged daydream of an autistic child” because of the myriad crossover connections. Shows on this list include everything from Homicide and X-Files to Ally McBeal and Frasier. We recommend you check it out.

Community: What if…you left to get the pizza?

We saved Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory” for last, because it just might be the best alt-reality episode TV will ever see. Troy and Abed have a housewarming party and the pizza delivery guy arrives. They leave the selection of the pizza retrieval person up to a Yahtzee die, and we get to see the outcome of each possible roll. Turns out going downstairs to get the pizza can change your life – as well as the lives of your study group.