How Has Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Sliding Doors’ Become Such a Touchstone for Sitcoms?

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‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.

“I know that this might seem like nothing to you but the smallest decision can shape your whole destiny.”

When Peter Howitt wrote and directed the 1998 romantic comedy Sliding Doors, a slightly more ambitious-than-usual Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, I’m sure he didn’t expect it to still be referenced nearly 20 years later. The film details two alternating storylines for its protagonist that are set in motion based on catching/missing a subway train.

Frasier and Gwyneth Paltrow don’t exactly seem like two things that work together — in fact, Frasier’s focus on the film also seems to retroactively convey that Sliding Doors is a little more sophisticated than it actually is (although “Sliding Frasiers” isn’t the most elegant title). This is a show after all that picks films like My Dinner With Andre as the sort of pop culture that’s in its crosshairs. But regardless of the trappings, the episode uses the film as an excuse to do a busy, ambitious what if? sort of experiment.

The situation that Frasier finds himself in is a speed dating session that he’s dreading. As Frasier tries to prepare himself for the occasion, he laments over whether he should wear a suit to his speed date (appearing as the confident Dr. Frasier Crane), or choosing to sport a more casual sweater as he goes in “Just Fraz’” mode. It’s the perfect innocuous decision that shouldn’t hold such a bearing on Frasier’s future, but it does. The fact that this decision of his comes down to a coin flip in the end, the most arbitrary of decision makers, is certainly saying something on the topic of fate.

The episode’s opening title card says, “THIS GETS TRICKY, SO PAY ATTENTION,” which is a reflection on Frasier’s complicated speed dating, but also the ornate structure that the episode takes on. The “suit” timeline even seems to have a brighter lighting scheme, signifying its slightly more optimistic slant. As soon as the episode “splits,” the differences begin, with Frasier not even making it to the speed dating in the “Suit” timeline. Innocent lines from Martin meet disdain from Frasier in one timewhile while the same dialogue is answered with playful ribbing in the other, again effectively demonstrating how everything, both big and small, can become affected by a simple difference. The “suit” timeline somehow strays so far as to arrive at Samba Dancing Frasier, which is never something that you want to squander.

As these timelines progress, one has Frasier pouting over his loneliness while the other sees him going overboard in the affection department with his date. Meanwhile other floating details like Niles’ food allergy become roving agents of chaos. It doesn’t feel like a single line is wasted, with everything corresponding to some causal effect in one of the two timelines. It’s eerily efficient. A lot of the fun of this episode lies in contrasting the differences between the two timelines in play, and yet certain things remain as constants. For instance Niles and Daphne’s relationship will be perpetually Teflon, regardless of whether they go on vacation or not, which ends up saying some interesting things on the topic of destiny.

In both timelines Frasier and Roz’s dates, Mike and Monica, still manage to find each other and end up together. This episode isn’t about Frasier finding his true love, but that doesn’t mean that certain people still aren’t fated for one another, which acts as a pretty poignant conclusion to everything. Even someone as simple as Martin can help prove that there are still constants throughout timelines, like in the episode’s pitch-perfect tag which depicts both Martins enjoying their sedentary lifestyle. The episode goes out on Frasier having another fork-in-the-road decision to make. The episode has us follow one of the paths that Frasier chooses, unsure where it’s going to lead him, but relieved that he’s still able to take such chances after an experience like this.

The show Psych also did a send-up of Sliding Doors in one of their many stylistic jags, however they did so with one of the more crucial plot points of the series. There’s absolutely more weight to such a concept when it’s put into practice for a gamechanging episode. With Frasier this is just a fun, random episode, but here the bifurcated structure is represented as a coping device as Shawn’s secret of being a fake psychic gets out. The structure then gets to explore the consequences as the shoe does and doesn’t drop, and what things would be like if Pandora’s Box isn’t opened.

Frasier and Psych both illustrate accomplished takes on Sliding Doors’ premise but that still hasn’t stopped even more recent takes on the concept, too. As recently as last year, Bob’s Burgers put together an entry called “Sliding Bobs” that posits a bunch of different realities regarding Bob and Linda’s love life, with Bob’s mustache being the agent of change throughout the storylines. The premiere of The Mindy Project’s latest season also took the concept to heart, with “While You Were Asleep” detailing two radically different futures for Mindy after a pivotal moment in her life involving Danny occurs. It’s crazy to see this film still coming up in pop culture.

Sliding Doors is far from trash, but it’s also not Apocalypse, Now, Run, Lola, Run, or The Shining. The film benefits from adopting a creative stylistic touch before such a thing was overdone. It’s inherently fun to show parallel stories and what if? scenarios, so it’s not surprising to see so many shows indulging in the idea. It’s just so silly that it’s done by creating an association with the Gwyneth Paltrow rom-com. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of the Sliding Doors homages out there — hell, maybe we’ll even see a remake of the movie in the near future — but as long as it’s handled with the same care that Frasier and Psych apply, it won’t matter what ridiculous sitcom it’s turning up in next.

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