It’s A Wonderful Life owes its status as a holiday classic to television itself. Due to a copyright snafu, the film slipped into the public domain during the 1970s. As a result, television stations across the country reran it constantly throughout the holiday season, and it steadily picked up fans in younger generations. The film has returned the favor many times over, lending its plot to holiday-themed (and some non-holiday-themed) episodes of dozens of TV shows over the years. Much like its spiritual ancestor, A Christmas Carol (arguably the greatest Christmas TV trope of them all), the plot asks the protagonist to examine his life, but unlike Scrooge, who needs to see the error of his ways, George Bailey’s supernatural friend wants him to know that the choices he’s made have been correct. It’s a theme that’s ripe for retelling, parody, and even outright subversion, as these five episodes demonstrate.
One of the most memorable TV riffs on It’s a Wonderful Life, the second half of this Christmas-themed two-parter subverts the film’s cozy moral with the kind of sneering bitterness at which Married With Children excelled. After Al Bundy fails to retrieve his Christmas fund from the bank in time to buy gifts for his family, he suffers a near-death experience. Legendary comic Sam Kinison takes on the Clarence role to show him that everyone would actually be much better off if Al had never been born. In response, Al decides to stay alive out of sheer spite.
In the middle of How I Met Your Mother’s sixth season, the holidays find most of the main cast at something of a crossroads: Barney wants to spend his Christmas bonus on himself rather than altruistically. Robin’s about to abandon her journalism career. And Marshall and Lily are ready to stop trying for a baby. As the gang meets up for a screening of — guess which movie? — it’s up to Ted to show them how far they’re all straying from their true desires. Since nobody has to confront a vision of the world without them, the parallels are subtle, but they’re unmistakable once you’re looking for them.
It’s an audacious move to completely divorce a retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life from its Christmas roots, but casting the perfect stand-in for Clarence makes this one a classic. After Carlton is rejected from Princeton (and Will gets in), his guardian angel takes the form of none other than Carlton’s favorite singer, Tom Jones, who shows Carlton that the Banks family owes their success to Carlton’s drive. Two years earlier, Night Court did its own mid-February It’s a Wonderful Life spoof (featuring Mel Torme in the Clarence role), so apparently it’s not unusual to tell this story outside of the holidays.
With Sheldon visiting family in Texas, the Big Bang Theory gang spends the holiday watching It’s a Wonderful Life and pondering the parallel universes that might exist in which Leonard and Sheldon had never moved in together. The scenarios range from believable (Leonard never has a prayer of dating Penny) to entirely bizarre (everyone is either extremely fat or constantly peeing their pants). In the end, of course, they conclude that Sheldon is the glue that holds the group together.
True to Arthur C. Clarke’s axiom that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, Person of Interest’s Machine spends the series’ penultimate episode running It’s a Wonderful Life-esque scenarios for Finch with the same accuracy as your average guardian angel. Once Finch understands what his team’s lives would have been like had The Machine never existed, he’s ready to make the moves that will finally end their battle with The Machine’s evil counterpart, Samaritan. Though the episode never explicitly invokes the holidays, Finch’s epiphany is about as heartwarming as this techno-thriller ever got.
SNL has gone to this well a few times in its 45 year history, but its most spot-on takedown of the idea cuts right to the heart of the movie’s biggest flaw: why didn’t Mr. Potter get any comeuppance? When Dana Carvey’s gloriously over-the-top George Bailey leads an angry mob to Potter’s office to mete out his own brand of justice, it’s the catharsis you never knew you needed.
Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.