Among the warmed over elements of Shrek: The Final Chapter, the fourth and hopefully ultimate entry to the franchise in Irish cinemas this summer, filmgoers may recognise the return of a favourite hackneyed plot device, the “What if” episode. For any uninitiated readers, the “What if” is a plot where the protagonist is shown what life would be like if they had done things differently. For example; what if you were never born? What if you didn’t get married? If Mike Myers had retired after the first Austin Powers, would we be praising him as a comic genius today?
Of course, the answers to these questions are unknowable. However, the “What If” storyline has appealed to audiences from as far back as one Christmas, when Jimmy Stewart stood on a bridge, holding a heavy rock and wished that he had never been born. This possible originator of the plot device, and certainly most famous example, is the seminal Christmas staple, It’s A Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart is shown an alternate reality where he was never born, and he sees the detrimental effect this has on his hometown and his loved ones. He is shown this future by an angel, in order to convince him that his life is worth living. The idea is a memorable one, and has provided writers with a compelling, easy to copy plot device. While the forementioned Shrek movie and Nicholas Cage drama, the Family Man, are cinematic examples, the “What if” scenario is most popularly used in TV. In fact, It is practically a tradition in television shows, next to the musical episode and the clip show episode. It pops up in a wide range of shows, including Futurama, Friends, Buffy, Nip/tuck, and Doctor Who. It is generally a mid season filler and a chance for writers to throw their characters into unfamiliar terriority, with no consequences on the overall story. We get to see Rachel and Chandler as a couple. We see the world decimated by aliens. A recent show did try to be more ambitious with the “What If”. The “flash sideways” which formed part of the final series of Lost was a season long “What if”, and fed directly into an ending which caused some viewers remove the “if” and just say “what?”
Overall, the “What if” endures as it appeals to a common instinct. Everyone has at some point looked over their life and thought how path untaken may have led to vastly different destination. It may be pertinent to note that in most cases, the alternate realities are far worse than the original. Jimmy Stewart’s Hometown is awash with crime and poverty in his absence. Without Buffy there are very few humans left in Sunnydale, and in the case of Futurama, the universe implodes. It is good to know that, no matter what decisions you make in life, you could have easily made far worse ones. For example, you could go to see Shrek 4 instead of Toy Story 3.