The film Sliding Doors had a bit of a moment back in 1998. Following a two-tier narrative structure, Peter Howitt’s film explores how different things might be if Gwyneth Paltrow’s Helen Quilley misses her tube home. In one timeline, she catches her train and makes it home in time to catch her boyfriend cheating, and in the other, she remains blissfully unaware.
Though not as fondly remembered two decades later, Sliding Doors belongs with Groundhog Day and It’s A Wonderful Life in the ranks of time-bending films that have inspired numerous structural riffs in TV episodes. Cinematically, it’s used to portray the various ironies and agonies that plague the two Helens (an anniversary special we’re sure we’ll never see), but some of our favorite TV writers have turned the same structure to other ends.
While it seems impossible to imagine The Simpsons hasn’t got around to doing one of these yet, the shows that have worked in a similar two-tier narrative with subtle adjustments usually use it to reaffirm things about the show and its characters. Whether one version is canon or not, we normally learn something as a result of the conflicting timelines.
For the following feature, we’ll be sticking quite closely to that structure. With the Arrowverse’s Crisis On Infinite Earths looming, we should say that these aren’t the same as time-travel or mirror universe episodes, which have a sub-genre and format onto themselves. These are shows that usually have little to no sci-fi elements.
Likewise, plenty of episodes take direct influence from Sliding Doors that simply show an alternate version of the status quo seen in other episodes rather than cutting between two outcomes of a specific decision. That includes Broad City’s part-prequel, part-alternate universe episode, Doctor Who’s extremely “Doctor-lite” episode “Turn Left,” and most of the worst non-clip-show episodes of Friends.
Oh, and before anyone says it, we’re not counting Black Mirror‘s Bandersnatch. Of course, in the timeline where we did include it, the same people would probably point out that Charlie Brooker was more inspired by ‘choose your own adventure’ games when creating Black Mirror’s brain-melting interactive film. Anyway, read on! Or don’t, and forever wonder how your day would go otherwise…
Frasier – “Sliding Frasiers” (Season 8, Episode 13)
What’s different? After asking for Roz’s advice, Frasier goes speed dating and wears a sweater/shirt.
What do we learn? Whatever choices he makes, Frasier’s gonna Frasier. Aired in 2001, this is one of the earliest takes on Sliding Doors that we can think of (hence that blatant title), and it’s one that barely warps the series’ format at all. Making a classic Frasier flap into a time-splitting dilemma suits its more farcical leanings right down to the ground.
As well as a B-plot involving Daphne’s varying knowledge of Niles’ allergies, the episode’s Valentine’s Day shenanigans alternately find Frasier lavishing his new girlfriend Monica (guest star Charlotte Ross) with attention or having a miserable time being single, before converging on a more spontaneous choice at the end. Reassuringly, the end credits tag show Martin and Eddie to be the constant, sitting in his chair and enjoying a beer, oblivious to any heartache elsewhere.
Malcolm In The Middle – “Bowling” (Season 2, Episode 20)
What’s different? Hal/Lois takes Malcolm and Reese to a bowling alley, while Lois/Hal stays home with Dewey.
What do we learn? “Next time, you take them.” That final perfect line, delivered from an exhausted parent to a more relaxed one, is the capper on the best episode of Malcolm In The Middle. Making the most of its mind-boggling chaos theory experiment, “Bowling” gives us two episodes for the price of one, building distinctive but equal amounts of carnage in each timeline and giving each of the regulars a pair of duelling storylines.
On top of the main scenarios, where either Hal bowls a perfect game or Lois over-parents her sons into terminal embarrassment, there are mirroring sub-plots with Malcolm and Reese vying for the same girl’s attention and Dewey having varying degrees of success in outwitting Hal or Lois. Bagging writer Alex Reid and director Todd Holland Primetime Emmy Awards for their work, this stylish, side-splitting diversion ranks among the best sitcom episodes produced this century.
Scrubs – “My Butterfly” (Season 3, Episode 16)
What’s different? A butterfly lands on a woman’s cleavage/an overweight man’s cleavage.
What do we learn? No matter how different you wish things were, fate doesn’t always hinge upon tiny differences and superstitions. Playing out the same sitcom-friendly interconnected events, “My Butterfly” unfurls its standalone take on the butterfly effect with a literal butterfly’s choice of ‘hillside landing’ in the Sacred Heart waiting room.
In the first half of the episode, JD and Turk ogle at a busty woman, kicking off a chain of events where a patient called Mr Strauss dies during surgery, prompting JD to wonder how it could have gone differently. In the second half, the butterfly lands on a fat bloke’s chest instead, altering the day in small ways, but ultimately not changing Mr. Strauss’ fate. Even in an experiment with format, it serves the show’s realistic but ultimately optimistic view of working in a hospital.
Community – “Remedial Chaos Theory” (Season 4, Episode 3)
What’s different? The study group rolls a dice and Annie/Shirley/Pierce/Britta/Troy/Abed/Jeff has to go and collect the pizza delivery from downstairs.
What do we learn? Everyone in the study group is better without Jeff. Despite Abed’s caution that rolling the dice will create multiple parallel timelines, “Remedial Chaos Theory” is a stunningly crafted episode that shows us how the group dynamic is altered if you remove each one of them in turn. The results include recriminations, accidental deaths, and Donald Glover’s face falling as he returns to his new flat being destroyed by fire (a.k.a. everyone’s favorite Community GIF).
Written by Chris McKenna, this weird and wonderful episode represents the peak of the cult sitcom’s craft. Series creator Dan Harmon has copped to the episode being more directly inspired by Malcolm’s riff on the concept than Howitt’s film, but this still stands as a strikingly original version of it, which makes the most of the lovable ensemble. Callbacks to this episode’s Darkest Timeline bogged down some of the later episodes, but this one packs in more jokes per timeline than most of the examples on this list. “Roxanne…”
Psych – “Right Turn Or Left For Dead” (Season 7, Episode 8)
What’s different? Juliet knows/doesn’t know that Shawn is not really psychic.
What do we learn? The truth will always out. For the uninitiated, Psych stars James Roday as Shawn Spencer, a crime consultant who uses his heightened powers of observation to masquerade as a psychic detective. Under threat of prosecution if he’s discovered to be faking, Shawn keeps his deception a secret from all of his police colleagues, including his eventual girlfriend, junior detective Juliet O’Hara (Maggie Lawson).
In the episode before this one, Juliet twigs that Shawn is faking and storms out, prompting an episode in which our hero imagines what might be happening if she didn’t know. In the end, it doesn’t affect how he solves the case of the week one bit, and the episode shows that lying was his failure, not keeping the lie going. Juliet was always going to find out someday, and the couple duly breaks up at the end.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – “Sliding Van Doors” (Season 4, Episode 9)
What’s different? Kimmy and Titus go to see Sliding Doors/Kimmy and Titus don’t go and see Sliding Doors.
What do we learn? Beyond the excellent gag that more people seeing Sliding Doors results in second and third instalments of “Sliding Doors” (“Tokyo Doors” and “Jingle All The Door,” respectively) our principals live vastly different lives in this special double-length episode. Kimmy goes to college and grows up much more close-minded and Titus joins a Scientology-like church that propels him to closeted super-stardom, which also has ripple effects on dirt-poor Jacqueline and meth kingpin Lillian.
Happily, the episode’s not so simplistic as to define Kimmy by her past trauma. Instead, the different ways that the episode shows how startlingly different characters would have to be to get what they thought they wanted makes for a funny, callback-heavy hour. Plus, its more in-character exploration is buttoned by a scene in the prime timeline that elevates it far above the fat-suited frippery of Friends episodes that wonder aloud about life being different.
Honorable Mention – Awake (All 13 Episodes)
Finally, what if instead of a feature about TV episodes that riff on Sliding Doors, it was about entire shows that did it? To be fair, there’s only one time we can think of it being used as the hook for an entire series. For that, you have to look at NBC’s one-season wonder Awake, starring Jason Isaacs as LAPD detective Michael Britten.
After Michael and his family are involved in a fatal car accident, he finds his consciousness is split between two different realities – one in which his wife (Laura Allen) is still alive, and another where his son (Dylan Minnette) is – and switching from one to the other whenever he goes to sleep. Wearing wristbands to distinguish these realities as “red” and “green” (both for his sanity and the benefit of viewer comprehension), he sees two different therapists about his predicament, while continuing to work as a cop with two different partners.
Devised by Kyle Killen, it’s an absolutely bonkers premise on which to hang a show, whether you take it as a fantasy drama with police procedural elements or a cop show where the main character has the superpower of investigating cases across the multiverse. Despite being cancelled after just 13 episodes due to low ratings, this is a hugely acclaimed and wildly creative series, bolstered by strong performances and an endearingly mad structure.