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1) You can't win.

2) You can't break even.

3) You can't leave the game.
—The Laws of Thermodynamics summarized.

A series premise that allows the heroes or the villains to win minor battles along the way but prevents them from ever truly winning their overall "war" and achieving the Series Goal without ending or completely changing the series. They can't win, because then, of course, it would end the series.

On shows with premises like these, there will be episodes in which the characters make an attempt to actually resolve the premise. The frequency of such eps can range from occasional (Star Trek: Voyager, "Future's End") to frequent (Gilligan's Island, Samurai Jack, Dungeons And Dragons). Conversely, a character may briefly rise above his Genre Blindness and try to take advantage of the permanent state of failure, consequently falling right into Springtime for Hitler.

A related trope is Perpetual Poverty; the show's plot is the characters making a living doing something entertaining to audiences such as catching criminals for money (or maybe being criminals), and if they ever had a windfall they might actually choose to do something less troublesome and therefore less entertaining.

When a show's impending end is known ahead of time to the producers, they may choose to go out with a Grand Finale, in which Failure is no longer the Only Option.

Frequently results in viewers noticing writers like to Yank the Dog's Chain.

Ontological Mysteries are subject to this trope.

Road Runner vs. Coyote is a Sub-Trope of this.

Compare Easy Come, Easy Go, Status Quo Is God, General Failure, Victory Is Boring, Time for Plan B, You Can't Thwart Stage One, Joker Immunity, Foregone Conclusion

See also Fission Mailed.

Examples of Failure Is the Only Option include:

The Noid's Problem to ruin Domino's Pizza.

The Trix Rabbit over Trix Cereal and yogurt.

Anime/Manga

Other characters in Ranma try to get rid of other Jusenkyo curses as well; also, Akane's efforts to learn to swim or stop being a Lethal Chef, and Ranma's attempts to shoo off members of his Unwanted Harem.

Ranma ½ did have one exception: Ryoga; who, by the last chapter, only had lingering feelings for Akane, and was perfectly happy to let Ranma and Akane wed as long as he wasn't there (unfortunately, he was the only one that felt that way and ended up at the wedding anyway). The pig curse, on the other hand, is still there, but that just makes his girlfriend like him more. The whole Nodoka subplot was also resolved—fitting, as the various reasons for the endless string of failures for Nodoka to see Ranma as a man are some of the most convoluted that this troper has seen in a long, long time.

  • Detective Conan - Goal: Find the men in black that shrunk Shin'ichi and get the antidote.
  • Most of the cast of Urusei Yatsura had differing and often conflicting goals which would never be achieved: Lum, to get Ataru to settle down; Ataru, to be free of Lum without actually losing her; Shutaru and the Stormtroopers, to get rid of Ataru; Ataru's mother, to be a respected member of the community; and so on.
  • Pokémon - Goal: To Be a Master. Ash can never seem to win a major Pokemon battle tournament. The only time he did so was in the Orange Islands (and that was filler). It's also left rather vague about what it actually takes to be a Pokemon Master: whether Ash would qualify even if he did win one of the regional tournaments is dubious. Indeed, it's never even stated whether "Pokemon Master" is any kind of officially sanctioned ranking or simply a status of recognition.

Also consider Team Rocket. Since their goal is usually to capture Ash's Pikachu, they simply can't win. Ironically, several episodes make it appear that if they tried going after someone else's Pokemon (or tried a non-criminal path) they'd be successful. Unfortunately for them, the plot dictates that they must follow Ash and Co. around the planet.

    • Team Rocket have actually recently stopped following Ash around, and immediately become Badass legitimate threats. Still, whenever they do challenge Ash and the others...
  • Inuyasha - Goal: Twofold. One, to defeat Naraku, the villain whom everyone in the cast, be they main character, side character, hero, villain, or occasionally filler cast, has reason to hate (Except Shippo, directly at least). Second, to collect all the shards of the Shikon Jewel. In the manga, the pace moves like a snail giving a lap dance, with the ratio of jewels collected goes approximately from 1/2, to 3/4ths, to 7/8ths, to 15/16ths, and so forth. Until only one shard remains, and remains so for about half the series. The anime, on the other hand, moves at a pace that makes the heat death of the universe seem downright zippy, until it reaches the point where plot progress is made but it still feels like it's spinning its wheels.
    • Even after the entire jewel is accounted for (all shards in possession of one of the main characters), the manga is only 60% over. The final battle alone takes almost 50 chapters (10% of the series!).
      • Honestly, with the length of Rumiko Takahashi's other works, did you expect it to go quickly?
  • Excel Saga - Goal: Conquer Fukuoka/F City for the glory of ACROSS. Between Excel's energetic stupidity, Hyatt's penchant for dying and coming back to life (sometimes multiple times within an episode) and Il Palazzo's side hobbies, it doesn't look like the citizens will be subjugated any time soon. How far ACROSS progresses in this goal depends on the continuity.
    • In the manga: Il Palazzo starts a electronics company and floods Fukuoka with cheap and effective products, earning him a lot of influence in Fukuoka. Il Palazzo doesn't progress from there though, and starts to feel like he has gotten sidetracked.
    • In the anime: Il Palazzo gets rid of Excel near the end of the series and successfully conquers the city in the next episode.
      • In both instances Il Palazzo does a lot better once he gets rid of Excel.
  • Inspector Zenigata will never catch Lupin III. He's even admitted that he wouldn't know what to do afterwards if he did.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion. Humanity was doomed no matter what happened. In one corner, the Angels trying to bring about 3rd Impact, in the second corner, SEELE trying to bring about 3rd Impact and lastly NERV (Gendo) trying to bring about 3rd Impact.
    • In the middle of the arena, we have Shinji who decides to settle it all quickly and initiates the Third Impact and kills humanity by himself. Despite having fought to prevent this the whole time.
      • Well, that was after he crossed (again) the Despair Event Horizon with Asuka's death. And even then, he manipulates Third Impact from within so that any who want to come back can. Though only Asuka and Shinji seem to have taken advantage of this by the end of the movie.
  • Subverted in Chrono Crusade to earth-shattering effect, when Aion actually successfully goes through with the Atonement Ritual.
    • And failure is the only option for the heroes.
  • The goal in the 2003 anime version of Fullmetal Alchemist is to create the Philosopher's Stone, and once it's actually created, the only way for the brothers to accomplish their goal is to have Al die. Failure IS the only option, even until the end.
  • Marie Kagura in the Tona Gura manga has the goal of restoring her 'perverted' brother to his pre-puberty status as her friend and playmate. She does not understand that, even if he behaves himself, that boy is never coming back.
  • Outlaw Star has Gene Starwind and Jim Hawking's desire to make it rich. Instead, partially due to the fact they are Blessed with Suck in the form of having a Grappler ship (a very rare and large ship that consequently costs a fortune in docking fees, ammo and basic maintenance) that is sought after by the Kei Pirates (which means they're constantly getting shot up and thusly needing to spend more money on ammo and repairs), they're constantly on the edge of bankruptcy. The one time it looks like they might succeed, heading after an ancient sunken Outlaw ship containing a stolen shipment of Unobtanium, they succeed... and discover at the episode's end that, because the treasure comes from a time when the Unobtanium was harder to find and consequently it's purity level isn't up to current standards, it's actually worth less now than it was when first stolen, so their net gain is $0—what money they did make from selling it was just enough to pay the bills and fix the damage the ship took getting it in the first place!
    • In the very end, Gene manages to survive the whole Galactic Leyline incident and gets just enough notoriety to get the honor of a nickname in the Outlaw's hangout Blue Heaven: "I'll Pay You When I Make It Big". Yup, he's still at it, his nickname is a joke. At least it's not all thorns for him, though; he's used to space now and he's even got a girlfriend.
  • Cowboy Bebop - The crew of the Bebop: they're reasonably competent in fighting, killing, or catching bounty heads. But, some random technicality or accident always prevents them from actually getting the reward and escaping Perpetual Poverty—and worse, any money they DO get is usually bled away to nothing by the bills run up by Spike's destructive tendencies on the job.
    • From the very beginning of the series:

 Spike: What happened to the million-woolong reward we got for that last guy?

Jet: The repair bill from that cruiser you wrecked...and the one from that shop you trashed...and the medical bill from the cop you injured...KILLED THE DOUGH!

    • And they always pass on the opportunity to get rich by less ethical means. For example, once they stumbled onto a secret that could make them billionaires, but when they blackmail the Gate Corporation with it, all they demand is that they stop trying to find an old man their resident kid hacker has befriended in online chess games...who drops dead of old age a few minutes later anyway.
  • Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei - All of Nozomu Itoshiki's attempts at suicide fail. I mean, he even survived having his name written in the Death Note!
  • Bleach: Pretty much any attempt to inconvenience Sosuke Aizen. No matter how hard you try, new revelations will always appear to make the point moot.
    • Well, until recently anyway. Time will tell if it sticks.
  • Shaman King: From the beginning, Yoh's goal was to become Shaman King. Later on, it gets to the point where Yoh admits that his brother Hao/Zeke is going to win...period. There's only a matter of what to do next.
  • Haruhi-chan - Nyoron Churuya-san : Ashakura will never get Kyon and Churuya will never get her smoked cheese, nyoro~n.
  • In Bakuman。, the main characters are trying to get a manga published that will get an anime, so that Moritaka Mashiro's love interest Miho Azuki can star as the heroine, and they can marry after fulfilling their dreams. Not counting the many times they submitted one-shots or names that got rejected even before they could be considered for serialization, their first manga, Detective Trap, gets canceled and their second manga, Tanto, ends after they decide that they're unable to make it popular enough, and that it would likely be canceled before it got an anime. Their third manga, PCP, defies the Rule of Three when parental concerns that kids will imitate the "perfect crimes" prevents it from getting sponsors for an anime despite being popular. They're secure in their manga career for now, but they're back to square one as far as getting an anime goes.
  • In Nerima Daikon Brothers- Goal: Get enough money to buy a dome for the band to play in. Even after defeating the villain and getting enough money to buy the dome, something happens (The people usually come back for their money), and the band ends up just as penniless if not in debt by the end of the episode.
  • Eureka Seven: Renton's quest to sneak a kiss to Eureka.
  • GetBackers: Aim to earn money to clear debt.
  • Hell Girl: Hajime's goal: Stop people from using Hell Corrospondence for sending people to Hell, and thus damning themselves in the process. No matter how close he gets to stopping somebody from pulling the red thread on the Curse Doll, they'll always do it. Probably the worst example is in episode 18, where a Fat Bastard Rich Bitch has been holding a little girl's dogs hostage and killing them whenever she suspects the little girl might be telling somebody about what she's doing. Both Hajime, the little girl's teacher AND two police officers manage to break into her house when they hear the little girl over the intercom begging the Rich Bitch not to kill the puppies one of the dogs had, and subdue her, uncovering the fact that she'd not only murdered her parents to get her inheritance, but also her infant son to keep him from potentially trying to steal her money. At first it seems that Hajime finally stopped somebody from pulling the thread, and was just moments away from taking the doll from her, when she discovers that the Rich Bitch had already drowned the puppies in the bathtub...
    • There's one exception to the rule, and even then the show leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not the victim will simply try again.
  • Baki the Grappler: Baki, and just about every other fighter in the series, dreams of beating Yujiro. Not. Gonna. Happen. The only fighter who's ever come within a thousand miles of beginning to give Yujiro a decent fight is Kaku Kaioh, and that all went south as soon as Yujiro figured out the secret to his Xiao-Lee technique. It's likely that Yujiro's defeat will finally come when the manga ends, but that seems very far off.
  • Keroro Gunsou: The successful invasion of Pekopon (i.e. earth) would pretty much end the series...
  • In Berserk, this was deconstructed and then horribly, horribly reconstructed in the case of Griffith's dream of getting his own kingdom through winning the Kingdom of Midland's war against the Tudor Empire. All he had to do was wait around for the right moment to get Princess Charlotte's hand in marriage and the kingdom would be his. Of course, taking place in the Berserkerverse, you knew that this was too easy to accomplish. So after everything falls apart for Griffith (which was actually partially his doing, since he took Guts' departure AFTER winning the war little over the top, which led to his erratic behavior with Princess Charlotte, which led to his horrible imprisonment and torture) and his dream looked all but destroyed... hey, whaddya know? Griffith has the chance to go after his dream again! ...By making the most vile and horrible of all decisions that he could possibly make! Hooray!
  • Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica: Homura's goal to defeat Walpurgis Night and preventing Madoka from becoming a magical girl.


Comic Books

  • The entire DC & Marvel superhero universe is built around this. The popular villains; The Joker, Magneto, Lex Luthor, etc. have too much of the appeal of the comics to ever be dispatched for good. Decades of excuses as to why they can always come back have have ultimately formed the basis of what these worlds are. Heroes have codes against killing, even though this invariably results in an endless series of deaths of innocents when the villains strike again. This makes such codes look foolish and hypocritical. When villains are arrested, they either escape prison with ease, or are released by a corrupt and foolish justice system—making the hero's commitment to law and justice look equally foolish. (And blame laid on "weak liberals" for what is really marketing controlling the world.) The result: While good wins at the end of most comics, the good seem to suffer far more and accomplish little in the greater scheme of things.
  • Groo the Wanderer - Goal: Stop wandering. Since Groo causes chaos everywhere he goes, this will never happen.
  • The original premise of Swamp Thing was that Alex Holland had been changed into a swamp monster in a freak accident, and was trying to find a cure. The original series, once the book's original creative team left and were replaced, DID end with Swamp Thing cured but the condition was quickly overturned in haphazard fashion during a guest-spot Challengers of the Unknown. His series was relaunched in 1980 and the focus once again became on Swamp Thing wanting to become human, which writer Alan Moore (who took over the book with #20) felt had to go and go for good since it left the series stuck in an endless loop of failure. He promptly spent his second issue of his legendary run on the series revealing that Swamp Thing was a plant elemental creature with Alex Holland's personality/memories and sealed the deal by producing the remains of Holland, having Swamp Thing meet Alex in heaven and having Swamp Thing pretty much not care about his life being a lie after a brief Heroic BSOD.

This is ironic, given that in spite of the popularity of Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing and his retcon, DC pretty much refuses to market Moore's version of the character in other media. Pretty much every Swamp Thing show, movie, cartoon uses the original "man to monster" origin for Swamp Thing and the Failure is the Only Option trope to drive the plot.

  • Sleepwalker - This 1990s Marvel Comics series had the title alien hero trying to find a way to return to his home dimension. Several opportunities come up throughout the series, but Sleepwalker is forced to repeatedly give up his chance at returning home for reasons ranging from the need to protect civilians in danger, to defeat a group of supervillains, to retrieving Spider-Man from another alien dimension.
  • Jimmy Five - Originally Cebolinha. Brazilian comic Monica's Gang. Goal: take over the street and/or a plush bunny from Monica. And it brings another example of this trope, by his best friend, the Genre Savvy Cascão/Smudge - Goal: not joining the beatings after the plans fail. But Smudgy spoils Jimmy's plans almost every single time! It's almost like he wants to be beaten!

For Cascão, there's also the goal of getting him to take a bath.

  • Sonic the Hedgehog - Invoked from the villain's side. Mammoth Mogul can't defeat Sonic the Hedgehog? Fine. He'll just quit trying—he's immortal, after all, so he's easily going to outlast that annoying blue blur. And in the meantime he'll amuse himself making life difficult for Sonic in any way available short of outright attack.
  • The Hulk - Bruce Banner will never get rid of The Hulk. Heck, one time Bruce lost the ability to turn into the Hulk, he was Genre Savvy enough to observe he would be back. Sure enough.
    • One story has Doc Samson and the army capture Bruce and place him in a chamber filled with NOX. General Ross (IIRC) says that they will lobotomise Banner to stop Hulk and Samson is shocked. Bruce says that he accepts this, since his only wish is to die. Samson says that it's both the wish of him and the Hulk and shuts off the oxygen valve, making Banner breathe pure nitrogen. The last screens of the comic show Banners heart beat slowing down, until he dies. The last panel shows one, big, green, powerful heartbeat.
  • Any hero or villain whose motivation is I Just Want to Be Normal, including The Thing, The Scorpion, and the aforementioned Hulk and Swamp Thing. In Marvel 1602, Reed Richards actually tells Thing that the universe will never let him become human again for very long because that would make his story less interesting.
  • Mr. Freeze will never be reunited with his wife. Depending on the continuity, either her health will never recover to the point where he can thaw her out, or Batman and the police will keep foiling his attempts to help her, or she won't love him anymore because he's a supervillain, or she won't love him anymore because she herself has become a more villainous villain than he is. Any option is possible except the one Mr. Freeze wants, because then he has no motivation anymore.


Commercials

  • Trix commercials - Goal: Eat a bowl of Trix. Despite many, many attempts, is only achieved when the company holds a vote, and the voters overwhelmingly support giving the rabbit some damn Trix. In an early commercial for Trix, he actually did get a bite of trix. You can see the commercial Here. Of course, it doesn't help that he gets the Trix and then proceeds to dance around, singing about the flavors, giving the kids plenty of time to steal it back.

For that matter, that leprechaun never achieved his goal of keeping his Lucky Charms Cereal. It seems that kids love dicking around with cereal mascots.

Trix used to have the Trix Vote every presidential Election year. Trix Rabbit won in 1972, 1980, and 1996. The election wasn't run again since 1996.


Film

  • The Legacy, a 1978 horror film. The two main characters cannot leave the mansion, no matter what they try.
  • Godzilla - The goal of the JSDF (Japanese Self-Defense Force) in nearly every film is to destroy Godzilla himself.

Needless to say, they never do. And, this is even when they build weaponry specifically designed to kill Godzilla. IE: Mechagodzilla, M.O.G.U.E.R.A, Kiryu, the Dimension Tide, etc. No matter what they try some twist comes along that repowers Godzilla and lets him destroy the weapon or they are forced to use that machine to help Godzilla against a bigger threat and the machine ends up being destroyed in the process.

  • The film Dog Day Afternoon The whole bank robbery was one big blunder, just like the protagonist personal life. There was hardly any money to steal, and the protagonist whole goal to leave the country with most of the hostages, scot-free, was nothing but wishful thinking.
  • Dr. Strangelove, in which an insane US Air Force General sends his nuclear bombers to attack the Soviet Union, without orders to do so, in the belief that a lightning strike will successfully defeat the Soviets. The President and his war cabinet overcome repeated crises in order to prevent the attack from going ahead, and are almost successful, but it is all for naught. A combination of systemic and personal failures on both sides leads to the end of the world. The theme of failure is subverted in a series of vignettes in which the last remaining bomber crew go to their deaths believing that their mission was a complete success.
  • Pocahontas: After Meeko breaks into his room and takes his food for absolutely no reason, Percy naturally wants revenge. As he receives a villain label merely because of association, he never gets it. Even after he disassociates himself with the villains, he still never wins.
  • WALL-E: The captain seems like this (though it's worded more "Success is not an option") towards an EVE coming back positive.

  Captain: No EVE has ever come back positive.

  • In the Ice Age series, no matter how hard he tries, poor little Scrat is never going to get his hands on that acorn for more than a few seconds.
  • No character in the Final Destination movies ever succeeded in cheating Death (as in not a single one who was supposed to die didn't eventually die a violent death). In the second movie, it looked like there were two people who did succeed, but newspaper clippings showed they died violently afterwards anyway. A character from the fifth movie managed to have someone else die in his place, but that person was going to die in a few weeks anyway, so he dies a violent death too. A second character manages to have someone die in his place (it's hard to explain) but he dies violently too because he was on a flight his girlfriend was destined to die on.


Literature

  • In Harry Potter, Big Bad Voldemort is a practically invincible Magnificent Bastard against everyone else, but against Harry Potter? Anything from Deus Ex Machina to playing the Villain Ball will happen to ensure he somehow fails. When he killed Lily Potter, he effectively signed a contract with this trope. It may be true that Anyone Can Die, but Harry inevitably has to survive to the next book. Prior to the end of the series, J. K. Rowling liked to tease fans about the possibility of this being subverted in the last book, suggesting that the series might end with Harry's death. For years, fans debated whether Harry would survive or if he would be forced to destroy Voldemort in some kind of Heroic Sacrifice. Both turned out to be true.
    • Also, Hermione's attempts to shut down Fred and George during Order of the Phoenix. The closest she ever got was stopping them from testing the things on other students by threatening to write to their mother. While she got them to go along with that in an act of instant compliance (a reaction from the twins that had never been seen before or since), all it caused them to do was test their sickness sweets on themselves.
  • In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novels, Ibram Gaunt was promised that the first planet he conquered in the Crusade would be his. He told this to the Tanith First & Only, and that they could muster out on it. In the first novels, various factors ensure that no one will let him conquer a planet, or admit it if he did. It gets mentioned much less in later books.
  • JRR Tolkien just loved this one for his Middle Earth mythologies, probably influenced by, you know, actual mythological tales which are just full of death and stuff. Two names in particular from The Silmarillion: Feanor. Turin.

Feanor, the mightiest elf that ever lived, made the Simarils, jewels so beautiful that Morgoth (Sauron's boss) himself stole the jewels. He led an entire army of high elves across the sea, slaughtering the elven shipwrights to get the needed ships. When he does get to Middle Earth, he is killed by the Balrog Captain in the first battle. His oath to get the Simarils back kills five of his seven sons, and the oath forces his sons to attack friendly elven nations when Luthien manages to retrieve one of the Simarils from Morgoth. After the final battle, the two remaining sons of Feanor steal the two remaining Simarils; only for their holy light to burn their hands which had been stained with elven blood, to the point that one kills himself and the other throws away the simaril to wander Middle-Earth in penance. In short, Feanor is directly responsible for all occasions of elf-on-elf bloodshed, and the destruction of his sons.

  • Catch-22 - Goal: Leave the army alive. Yossarian does eventually succeed at the book's conclusion, but by deserting rather than being discharged.
  • Invoked as the basis for a brutally satirical short story in Stanislaw Lem's Memoirs of a Space Traveller: The Further Reminiscies of Ijon Tichy. Attempts to correct history and create a better world fail spectacularly due to a combination of mishap, incompetence, and malice; resulting in a thoroughly fouled-up world—ie. the one we currently live in.
  • In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the government says this to the rebels. Whether or not this is true is up to debate.
  • In The Red Tape War, this comes in two flavors:
    • At the beginning, Millard Fillmore Pierce is dispatched to investigate an attack from one warring planet on a battleship temporarily dry-docked on a neutral world in the war zone. Before he can even start heading towards the planet in question, he stumbles on not one, but two interdimensional invasions. Guess what he hasn't even started on when the book ends?
    • Each chapter presents at least one problem for the protagonists to solve. The most dire of these must be solved by the next chapter, but attempts to solve any of the others are doomed to fail until the book is near its conclusion, leading to a steadily amassing pile of increasingly bizarre problems.
  • C.M.O.T. Dibbler is like a rat, firmly convinced that just around the corner, there will be cheese, even though every corner turned has so far been cheeseless. Some of his schemes worked, but were unfortunately tied to the near-destruction of the world. So he always reverts to his sausage cart.
  • Thanks to a curse, this is literally true for Kallor of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. No matter how high he climbs, he inevitably goes down in flames, and takes everyone else with him.
  • It isn't just that Failure Is the Only Option when it comes to trying to assassinate the Antichrist Nicolae Carpathia in the Left Behind book series; it's also that only Jesus Christ is able to defeat him, as the Word of God dictates.
  • Invoked, enforced and conversed throughout the Sven Hassel novels to the point it became a running joke - regardless how brutal the victory was gained, how boring the inactivity is or how hard the Schnapps hit the poor Wehrmacht trooper in the head, someone, usually Obergefreiter Joseph Porta, would remind the others they fight for defeat, they expect to loose, they would never imagine the Reich could win, the war is lost, usually ending with a drunk "Hail Defeat!" (pun based on the Third Reich slogan "Hail Victory!" - Sieg Heil!). As most of the men in the 27th Panzer Regiment were convicts who had all reasons to hate the Third Reich and anything pertaining to it, loosing the war meant their liberation as well.
  • Time Scout: Things are looking very good for Skeeter at the end of Wagers Of Sin. At the start of Ripping Time, he's working several menial jobs. Given his past, there really wasn't any way he could just become a hero.
  • In Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, the epilogue reveals that Roland is stuck in an endless loop of finding the Dark Tower and being sent back to the middle of his journey.
    • Although this time he has an important Plot Coupon that he'd never been able to hold onto before, hinting that maybe he'll be able to finally win for good.
  • This is how most of the characters in My Name Is Red see the world. Things can only decay and get worse. The viewpoint is culturally informed.


Live Action TV

  • 24 - It gets tricky - Goal: stop the threat immediately (i.e. in less than 24 hrs). You know that the threat won't, in fact, be stopped by episode 7. But this is lampshaded in that, usually one threat is thwarted, but then the heroes are surprised with back-up plans or secondary plots; thus the show's love affair with the trope. Conversely, in the final episode of the season, you know that no matter how well they've planned, the Big Bad has to lose.
  • Averted on Alias, when SD6 is, surprisingly, defeated in the middle of the second season. They are, of course, replaced by a new series of goals, some of which are also resolved before the end of the series.
    • Played straight with Sloane himself, though. At least as straight as it can be when a Heel Face Revolving Door is involved.
  • Arrested Development embodies this trope from the very first scene in the pilot to the last scene of the finale. It ends with the two characters who moved in with the family in the pilot to help them out basically saying, "**** this," and running away to Mexico.
  • A twist on this trope is The A-Team, wherein one of the goals: to evade capture by government forces, was met continuously until the show was Uncanceled after four seasons with the fifth, in which they are captured and subsequently work for a covert federal agency headed by Robert Vaughn. (However, the underlying goal, clearing their name or at least getting a pardon, was never achieved.)
  • In Battlestar Galactica Classic, the goal was to find the mythical planet Earth. In the followup series Galactica 1980, the Galactica did in fact find Earth. The resulting episodes were bad enough to guarantee that there would be no Galactica 1981.

In Battlestar Galactica Reimagined, they find Earth before the end of the series...only to find the planet in an post-apocalyptic state, presumably from nuclear war. Later, they get a Deus Ex Machina trip to another habitable planet that they also call Earth, mingle with the locals, and 150,000 years later we develop Roombas. This could be said to be an aversion, as current humans are much more Genre Savvy about the danger of building machines that could turn against them. The earliest warning against this (the story of the golem) goes back several hundred years.

  • Between the Lions character Cliff Hanger. Goal: Rescue himself from hanging from the cliff.
  • Both 1960s/1970s TV Westerns The Big Valley and Bonanza had the same thing happening: every time a male character on the show got serious with a woman or got married, she got killed off in some gruesome fashion or died of some horrible disease, or in childbirth, on the same episode. (Exception: Hoss' mother on Bonanza lasted two episodes.) In fact, the Cartwright Curse is named for Bonanza's Cartwright family.
  • Blackadder. Series 1 -- to become heir to the throne, or at least get noticed by his father. He becomes King after murdering everyone in his way, then dies 30 seconds later. Series 2 -- not as clear as other seasons, but apparently to marry Queenie and become the richest and most powerful man in England. He seems on the cusp of doing so; when Prince Ludwig the Indestructible, self-proclaimed master of disguise, kills him and the entire court, and in disguise as Queenie assumes the throne. Series 3 -- To get rich and improve his station. He finally achieves this after Prince George is shot and Blackadder becomes the new Prince Regent thanks to the madness of King George.. Series 4 -- the clearest example of this, Captain Blackadder's endless attempts to get out of the trenches before he dies. He fails. Cue one of the most famous Tear Jerker Downer Endings in the history of, well, history.
  • Blakes Seven - The objective of Blake's Seven—or at least of Blake himself—was to destroy the Federation. Even with the most advanced ship in human hands, it's not very likely you're going to do that with a crew of seven. The first three seasons had several successes, but by season 4 the Liberator was destroyed and every single thing they tried failed. The ending was inevitable.
  • The Bob Newhart Show: Bob Hartley is a psychologist with a core group of dysfunctional regular patients; episodes may end with him making a minor breakthrough with them, but they never actually get better.
  • Burn Notice. Every time Michael thinks he's found out who and what's really behind his Burn, he discovers it's only another layer of obfuscation.

As of the end of season two he's decided to finally forget about finding out who burned him and move on with his life—only for Big Bad Gilroy to come waltzing into the picture.

    • Michael is still looking into the mystery in Season 5.
  • On Castle, any time Beckett comes close to finding her mother's killer, she fails. First time, she finds her mother's shooter, only to have to kill him to get Castle out of a hostage situation. Second time, the guy she finds escapes during his trial, and later kills Montgomery.
  • Charlie Jade - Goal: Get back to his home dimension. Achieved, but soon he has to leave to stop the Big Bad's plot, which as far as he knows requires a Heroic Sacrifice. The series' last scene before cancellation reveals that he survived after all.
  • Chuck - Goal for the first two seasons: Get the Intersect out of Chuck's head, and/or find out how to build another one so the government doesn't need to depend on a bumbling flighty geek. Fully a quarter of the episodes of the first two seasons revolved around pursuing one of those goals, and failure was the only option for them. As of season three, the trope was finally averted and the show continues with a related premise.
  • Dollhouse. Viewers may empathise with Ballard's (ineptly pursued) goal of bringing Dollhouse down and freeing the Actives, but if he were successful, the show would be over. He, Echo and the others do manage that. In the penultimate episode. Though it turns out that doesn't totally fix things.

They probably indirectly caused the bad things that would happen. If they had publicized both the technology and the vaccine people would have been ready, and no-one would have had a monopoly over the information, but instead they thought that blowing up a mainframe and covering up the rest was enough to foil the evil corporation's plans.

    • Of course, that's what the Big Bad (Boyd) told them - the genie is out of the bottle. They didn't believe him.
  • Farscape - Goal: Find a way back to Earth. Subverted magnificently in the middle of the third season (in a series with 4 seasons), where he manages to get back to Earth. Of course, Crichton then discovers That's Not What He Really Wanted, and the entire idea of his goal of "Finding A Way Back To Earth" is deconstructed to the moon and back (literally). The other goals that he amasses throughout the series don't really fit into the Failure Is the Only Option category... unless getting blown up by a hand-made nuke is considered a goal. And, of course, this being Farscape, Genre Savvy John Crichton lampshades this (referring to a couple of long-running TV series in the process), but by this point in the series has enough insight to manage to turn his Savvyness to his advantage.
  • Reversed in Hogan's Heroes, where Colonel Klink's actor only participated in the show under the condition that the Nazis would never, ever come out on top in anything. This being a comedy and Nazis being an Acceptable Target, it wasn't hard to pull off.
  • Father Ted - Goal for the priests - well Ted at least - get sent to a parish not on the island. For Ted this would require him to replace the money that was "just resting in [his] account".

Goal achieved by subversion in The Passion of St. Tibulas then inverted in order to maintain the status quo. Charged with a task from Bishop Brennon, not only does Ted fail in the task he achieves the opposite effect. Thus the Bishop having had enough of them sends them to even worse parishes, where they won't be his problem. Inverted when they successfully blackmail the Bishop on his vows of celibacy.

Also achieved in the first episode of the third season. Ted, possibly as a reward for his actions in the Christmas Special, is sent to a much nicer parish. But when his fellow priests notice some irregularities in the accounts, Ted is promptly sent back to Craggy Island ... where he discovers Mrs. Doyle bent almost double due to back trouble, Dougal's pet hamster riding around on a miniature bicycle, and Father Jack living in the chimney.

The finale looks to be the eventual ending of this, with Ted being offered a place at a parish in Los Angeles by an american priest who was very impressed by Teds managing to talk a suicidal priest off a ledge. Subverted when he quits when the priest actually tells him its a Parish in a gang warfare zone. Lampshaded by Dougal, when he says Ted is stuck with them forever.

  • Firefly played with it, as at least twice the crew pulled off heists that, if successful, would let them live their lives in a significantly less impoverished state while still on the run. However, we find in the next episode that, for one reason or another, they are unable to capitalize on the gains. Arguably, in Serenity, it is the fact that the crew is actually able to pull off the heist at the beginning and then cash in on it in the next scene that makes all the forthcoming fighting-the-power action plausible.

This is actually a long-running minor trope in Firefly, as mentioned by Mal Reynolds at least once: "It never goes smooth. Why does it never go smooth?" (In the Serenity RPG, "Things don't go smooth" is actually a character trait you can take. Mal has the major version of it.)

  • The Fugitive - Goal: Get the one-armed man jailed to clear your name. Resolved in the Grand Finale.
  • Gilligan's Island - Goal: Get off the island. The series was abruptly cancelled after Season Three, so they never did achieve this in the series. They did finally get rescued years later in a reunion movie, but in the second movie (when they met up again for a reunion trip in the first one after they were rescued, they got washed up right back on the same island; they were rescued for good in the second one) it turned out they hated life on the mainland so much that they returned. At least this time, they were no longer stranded, and set the island up as a resort.
  • Good Times - Goal: Get out of the projects. Resolved in the final episode by all (except Bookman). Michael moves into a dormitory. Thelma and Keith move into a duplex when his football career rebounds, only to have Florida move in with them. JJ gets his own place. Willona and Penny move to the same duplex.
  • The Greatest American Hero - Goal: to gain complete control of the supersuit.
  • How I Met Your Mother - Goal: Meet wife and mother of children.
    • Although, as opposed to most examples on this page, we know that it will succeed, thanks to the premise.
  • The Incredible Hulk - Goal: Find a cure to the Hulk transformation.
  • Kung Fu - Goal: Find Kwai-Chang Caine's long lost half-brother. Achieved in the four-part Series Finale.
  • Land of the Lost Escape the Land Of The Lost.
  • Lazarus Churchyard - Goal: Die
  • Life On Mars - Goal: Return to 2006. Achieved in the last episode, only to have the main character realize it was not what he wanted after all.

Subverted in the American version when it's revealed that Sam isn't a cop from 2008 after all but an astronaut in 2035 caught up in a glitched virtual reality program

    • This trope also applies to spin-off Ashes to Ashes, with Alex's main goal always being to get back to 2008 and make it to her daughters birthday party. This appeared to have been achieved at the end of series 2, only for episode 1 of series 3 to reveal it was just a Dream Within a Dream. And unlike Sam Alex never even got a choice - the final episode revealed she never could have gotten back as she was Dead All Along!
  • Lost: With the premise of "people stranded on a deserted Island", it was pretty obvious to Genre Savvy viewers that any attempts to get off said Island were doomed to fail. It was the famously subverted when some characters left the Island and their goal became to get back there. And then totally inverted in the final season: the goal of the main characters becomes to stop the Big Bad from leaving the Island - something they have attempted themselves for so long early in the series.
    • The other goal for Lost is to figure out what the hell is going on. Characters and the viewers alike were fated to fail here.
  • Lost in Space - Goal: Find Earth Alpha Centauri.
  • Klinger of M*A*S*H fame attempting to get out of the army by acting crazy (getting a Section 8). This was of the every episode variety, at least until later seasons. In the last season, reasoning that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, Klinger is promoted to sergeant.
    • Inverted in the finale, when the war is officially over and everyone is being discharged. Klinger elects to stay in Korea to help his new wife find her missing family.

 Klinger: I can't believe I'm saying this. I'm staying in Korea.

Hawkeye: You don't have to act crazy now. We're all getting out.

    • Also, Winchester trying to get out of the 4077th. Shown less often than Klinger's, he mostly tried to throw his weight around to get transferred back to Tokyo.
  • Monk - Goal: discover the truth surrounding Trudy's death (achieved in series finale). There's also Monk's OCD, which isn't exactly a problem that the characters actively attempt to solve, but it is an essential part of the series' premise. Monk is occasionally cured of this ailment, but it is always undone by means of the Reset Button because he doesn't have his crime-solving abilities without it (not to mention because Status Quo Is God).
  • The Monkees: Goal: get big break and reach success as a rock and roll band. Often when it seems as though they've finally found their chance at stardom, something always ends up getting in the way, causing chaos, and numerous epic fails.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 (especially the later seasons) - Goal: Escape the Satellite of Love and return to Earth. Achieved in the final episode.

Also achieved by Joel in the middle of the 5th season (Mitchell), though ironically he had grown content with his life aboard the Satellite and was tricked into leaving by Gypsy because she thought the Mads were going to kill him. Later, Crow got Mike off the Satellite retroactively using Time Travel to convince him to stop temping. He returned to learn that he died pursuing his dream of being a rock star and his Jerkass older brother was launched into space in his stead, so he went back and undid the change.

  • Northern Exposure: Joel Fleischman's Character Development from being a stereotypical neurotic New Yorker to embracing the folksy wisdom of the inhabitants of Cicely, Alaska was the point of the show. They dragged this premise out for about five seasons until Joel's actor left the show, the character found enlightenment, and the show imploded on itself.
  • Only Fools and Horses. Goal: make a fortune ("This time next year, we'll be millionaires!"). Heartwarmingly achieved in the finale (with something that's been lying in their garage for years), then undone for a Christmas Special some years later, only to be slightly fixed by a dead relative's will.
  • Phil of the Future - The time machine being fixed so the Diffy's can return to the future. Slightly subverted in that Lloyd purposefully procrastinated/sabotaged the systems because the family enjoyed the 21st century so much. He really could've just fixed it at any time.
  • The Prisoner - Goal: Escape from the Village. Achieved at the series end. Or is it? Also, McGoohan's repeated return to the village is, arguably, one of the themes of the series.
  • Quantum Leap - Goal: Stop leaping and go home. In a twist, the series ended with Sam realizing he could go home if he wanted, but he chose to continue leaping.
    • Of course, that's because no one has bothered to remind him that he has a wife back home.
  • Red Dwarf - Goal: Get back to Earth, and several smaller themes such as Rimmer wanting a real body, the Cat wanting a mate, and Holly wanting his/her intelligence restored.
    • In the later seasons, many of the smaller themes have actually been achieved in some way - albeit happening in sometimes almost literal Deal with the Devil way of going horribly, horribly wrong. Rimmer, for example, got a body by getting a Hard Light drive for his holographic body, after which he left to become the next Ace Rimmer; later, in Series VIII, a new version of him was reincarnated in human form with no memories his death or his time as a hologram. Holly was done similarly, with a completely different Holly being restored alongside the crew in Series VIII, with his IQ back to the original 6000. Most of the minor goals searched for were technically achieved, just not the way we thought. Except the Cat, but that's more of a problem with a script being scrapped in Series VII.
    • Lister's desire to get back to Earth is so unachievable (its going to take at least 3 million years to get back to Earth) that the second episode Future Echos shows a 170-something Lister still on Red Dwarf.
  • Sliders - Goal: 'Slide' back to our dimension. This goal was actually achieved at the start of the fourth season, causing the show's Jump the Shark moment. There was also a much earlier instance where they were implied to get back to their own dimension... but did not realize it, and moved on to the next one.
  • Space: 1999: Goal: Find a planet to settle down on.
  • Square Pegs: Patty and Lauren's attempts at popularity, victory, or winning boys' hearts will always, without a doubt, fail.
  • Stargate Atlantis - Goal: Secure enough ZPMs to fully power Atlantis. In the first season, there were concerns in the Fandom that Failure Would Be The Only Option for the expedition's attempts to contact Earth, thus turning it into the Stargate equivalent of Star Trek: Voyager, but these fears turned out to be unfounded. They do in fact end up getting three ZPMs after the Asurans temporarily take over and leave a set behind. However, Reality Ensues - in the Stargate Verse, people who are not main characters also need ZPMs, so Atlantis only gets to keep one anyway.

In the last episode Todd supplies two ZPMs stolen from Asuras before it went kaboom. Though Earth was saved from invasion, it is very unlikely that the IOA will let Atlantis take off for Pegasus since with it floating conveniently in the Bay of San Francisco, they can mine the tech without danger from the Wraith.

  • Stargate Universe - In episode 7, there's a plan to get everybody back home. It's not much of a spoiler to point out that this is not a seven-episode series. (A couple of episodes earlier, everybody's worried that the ship may be destroyed outright. Well, everybody but the audience, anyway.)
  • Star Trek: Voyager - Goal: find a way home. They finally do it in the last episode, thanks to a time travel paradox.
  • Subverted painfully in Supernatural. The show starts off with the boys searching for their dad and what killed their mom and after some close calls, it looks like failure will only ever be their only option. Then they succeed by the ends of seasons 1 and 2. Of course their father dies and gets sent to Hell shortly after being reunited with them and the demon that killed their mom was a Magnificent Bastard who ended up winning anyway due to a Batman Gambit centred on Sam. After that Things Get Much Worse.

Season 3's goal: Save Dean from his Deal with the Devil. Dean goes to Hell anyway. Though he did get better.

Season 4's goals: Prevent Lucifer from rising and kill Lilith. Sam succeeds in killing Lilith, only for it to turn out that doing this broke the final seal, resulting in Lucifer being released anyway.

Season 5's goal: For the boys to stop the apocalypse without saying "yes" to Michael and Lucifer, and hence preventing pushing the entire world beyond the Godzilla Threshold, which would happen if the angels made it their battlefield. Sam says yes to Lucifer in order to trap both him, Lucifer and Michael (along with Adam) in the Pit, and the world still gets worked over by Lucifer in the upcoming months, and then worked over by Mother in season 6. And that's ignoring all the psychological torment and torture both Sam and Dean went through in that period of time. Let's just say, you don't get many happy endings in Supernatural. If you do, there will be a catch.

  • The Trailer Park Boys are always coming up with various illegal schemes to make enough money to retire from crime. Most of their schemes fail for one reason or another, and the Boys quickly blow through the money they make for the schemes that actually succeed. This is subverted by the end of the seventh season, where the Boys make over $450,000 in a scheme that involves shipping marijuana to the United States and getting contraband cigarettes in exchange, which they sell at cut-rate prices in Canada.
    • Which they end up losing later, proving that this trope always takes precedence in this show. If that wasn't bad enough, virtually everyone ends up going to jail due to a well-crafted Plan by Mr. Lahey. The Grand Finale movie was more of the same.
  • WKRP in Cincinnati slowly moves away from this, with the goal of making the radio station truly successful after being dead last in the city. Their ratings do improve, but hardly to the degree that the lead character, program manager Andy Travis, is trying to reach. It was revealed in one episode that the station's original dead-last performance was in fact deliberate on the part of the owner, Carlson's mother, who had been using the cash-hemorrhaging station as a tax write-off.
  • The X-Files - Goal: Find the truth behind the conspiracy. Achieved by the last couple seasons of the series, opening the door to the far more insurmountable... Goal: Stop the conspiracy.
  • This Morning with Richard not Judy - In the weekly Nostrodamus routine the terms for success get two out of three predictions correct. So, the trope was played usually by having one obvious prediction and two laughable to think that they'd come true, thus always failing. One week, a laughable prediction was "A member of Boyzone will come out as being homosexual." Shock—horror, within a week a member of Boyzone came out! This would have been a simple aversion, had it not been for the predictable prediction being a Lampshade Hanging: "Nostrodamus will fail to get two of his predictions correct." Consequently causing a Played Straight/Aversion feedback loop.
  • See All That and its running sketch of a gameshow, literally called "You Can't Win". Questions asked (if they're not skipped over entirely—because who cares, they'll never get it right anyway) include such examples as "Who am I thinking of right now?" or simply "How many shoes?" There are also physical challenges, such as teaching a basset hound Spanish within ten seconds, or eating exactly 400 meatballs in 30 seconds (the contestant lost by eating the full amount given—404 meatballs).
  • The Wire is a perfect example of this. In a show with cops, drug dealers, politicians, union workers, and school students barely anyone really wins in the end. "The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play." Practically every major character on the show experiences this:
    • Detective McNulty's goal is to stop Marlo Stanfield by fabricating a series of murders to "juke the stats" and divert police resources to the Major Crimes Unit. While he does arrest Marlo and his crew, the victory is hollow: the fabricated murders are discovered, leading McNulty, Rhonda Pearlman and Commissioner Daniels to all fall on their swords. Marlo ends up getting off scot-free (with caveats), the reporter who covered the fake serial killer story (whom the Detective chewed out) wins a Pulitzer Prize for his stories, and McNulty realizes in the end that he can't change the system.
    • The kids introduced in the fourth season (and, by extension, the entire Baltimore school system). Roland Prezbylewski realizes that nothing he does can curb the school system's trend of cutting corners and mismanaging internal resources, even though he tries to give the kids a better education. Most of the main students end up becoming "hard" to the Baltimore street life and take up the roles of past main characters (Dukie becomes a drug user like Bubbles, Michael becomes a stick-up artist like Omar, and Randy becomes a thug in a group home).
  • The Babylon 5 sequel Crusade was meant to feature a subversion, with the supposed plot hook of finding a cure for the Drakh plague that will kill all humans in five years resolved in just one season. Then the means of finding the cure would lead to more story arcs involving corruption of the Earth government that were what J. Michael Straczynski really wanted the show to be about; the plague story had been forced on him by executives who wanted the show's core premise to be able to be summed up in a few words. Unfortunately, it was cancelled long before this could happen.
    • The problem was that the parent show has already established that the cure would be found. It was a Foregone Conclusion from the beginning. Unfortunately, JMS didn't get a chance to explain it to the fans, who had decided that Crusade wasn't worth it.
  • Peep Show is built on this trope, because it's a Crapsack World and Status Quo Is God. Likewise, Armstrong and Bain's sitcom The Old Guys.
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyles the Lost World—Goal: find a way out of the Plateau.
  • LazyTown. It makes sense that Robbie Rotten's schemes always fail. If they succeeded, there would be no more show.
  • Saturday Night Live's "Celebrity Jeopardy!"—Goal: Make the game easy enough for the celebrities to win.

 [shows picture of Batman]

Trebek: Is this Batman or Robin? Chris Tucker.

Chris Tucker: Yo I know this, man. That's Robin!

Trebek: No. So since it's not Robin, that leaves only one correct answer. Anne Heche.

Anne Heche: Who is Robin?

Trebek: Amazing. Sean Connery.

Sean Connery: What is Robin?

  • Sesame Street: When Mr. Snuffleuppagus was first introduced, all attempts by Big Bird to get anyone else to see him, or to believe in his existence were destined to fail. This drove Big Bird crazy, along with a number of young viewers. Eventually, the producers relented and allowed others to see and interact with him, starting with small children.


Myths & Religion

  • In The Bible, Ephesians 1:4 [1] says that some people were eternally chosen to be given salvation because Romans 3:23 says that all people are eternally damned to hell as they inherited the genetic material of cosmic treason from their federal head Adam, [2] leaving their wills totally corrupted if left to themselves. This has proved to be a controversial aspect of The Bible. However, that is just one interpretation of those texts, based primarily on the work of St. Augustine, Luther and Calvin. Various other traditions - Orthodox, Catholic, and Methodist for example - state that divine foreknowledge and human free will are compatible, and that no one is "predestined" to go to Hell.
  • The Mythology and Folklore of nearly every culture on Earth are brimming with examples of such situations. Greek mythology in particular stands out, because the gods are dicks and You Can't Fight Fate. Celtic mythology takes this to an incredible extreme, placing an elaborate system of taboos upon their mythic heroes that all but guarantee they'll incur the wrath of some deity or other sooner or later. The fate of Cu Chulainn, hero of the Tain Bo Cuailnge, is a prime example: he was invincible as long as he abstained from consuming dog meat. But before a major battle he found himself visiting an old woman who offered him dog stew. It was either eat it, and become mortal; or refuse it, and violate Sacred Hospitality. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.

Newspaper Comics

  • Peanuts: Charlie Brown. Lucy Van Pelt. Football. At the end of the comic, Charlie Brown possibly succeeded. Lucy was called inside, when Charlie Brown was about to kick the football, so she asked Rerun to hold it. When she later asked Rerun what happened, he said: "You'll never know!"

However, Schulz said, after drawing the last strip, that he'd just realised "that little round-headed kid is never going to kick that football", we can presume the ball remains unbooted.

In 1983, there was a strip that featured him choosing to walk away from Lucy and the ball, which certainly represents a kind of victory in itself. In the last panel of the strip Charlie Brown, having walked away from Lucy, sees a number of other kids holding footballs for him. This actually would have been a poignant and fitting end to the series, though the gag would later be re-used (though not for the next three years).

There was one comic story where Snoopy took up magic tricks and turned Charlie Brown invisible. While in this state, he does manage to sneak up on Lucy and kick the football. It would be used in the animated special It's Magic, Charlie Brown.

See also Charlie Brown and baseball-playing, kite-flying, writing with an ink pen, talking to the Little Red Haired Girl, etc. Similarly, Linus and seeing the Great Pumpkin, Lucy and getting Schroeder's attention (same story with Sally and Linus), and Snoopy shooting down the Red Baron or getting one of his novels published.

  • Charlie Brown's problem kicking the football is referenced in a Family Guy episode: Peter actually beats Lucy and makes her hold the ball for Charlie, and Charlie actually kicks it! It is also subverted in this video.


Professional Wrestling


Tabletop Games

  • Call of Cthulhu. Defeating the Elder Gods. The only rules given for Cthulhu itself is that it consumes 1d6 investigators per round. Later editions give it a full stat workup, meaning that's it's not impossible to kill it, just desperately unlikely—and part of that stat block specifies that being dead isn't permanent for him.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade. "Rules for Fighting Caine: You lose."
  • In the official Warhammer and Warhammer 40000 worldwide campaigns, the bad guys (okay, the worse guys) will lose. No matter what. Honestly, you might not even bother. It's like the creators have already thought up an ending in advance! True, they always lose. But as it is said in the Horus Heresy books they are destined to win. Well, Chaos at least. It is said that they will whiddle away at the Imperium until eventually all of humanity is destroyed. Considering most every daemon or Chaos Space Marine can't die, this is easily understood.
    • In a particularly silly example, the Storm of Chaos Fantasy campaign: One small backwater village, intended merely as a speedbump for the bad guys, was held for somewhat like five weeks, finally forcing the Chaos players to find a way around it. In the fluff summary after the campaign, the village got merely a passing mention - as being easily overrun. The guys who'd spent the past weeks successfully defending it were somewhat annoyed, to say the least.
    • Abbadon the Despoiler in background, Justified in that the only way out of the Eye of Terror is to attack a heavily fortified sector of space that has entire planets populated by Badass Normals plus with twenty Space Marine chapters on hand. (Note this is all before the Imperium starts to sent reinforcements), then throw in the fact that Chaos is inherently self-destructive and it's no wonder Chaos always peeters out and fails in every Black Crusade......
    • Played quite blatantly with the Medusa V campaign. The Space Marines did, in fact, fail to achieve all their goals; leaving the Imperial Guard and Eldar roughly tied for first place, with the Eldar being the ones to kill the Big Bad Ygethmor. Since the Space Marines are Games Workshop's major cash cow, allowing a Xeno race the victory simply would not stand; so they were declared to have achieved enough of their goals in both the planetary and space campaign to be granted the "moral victory"; thus keeping the Imperium in the first two slots, and pushing the Eldar to third.
    • Though in a larger context, even the forces of Chaos are doomed to failure, because the stalemate of eternal war has to be maintained to keep the game marketable. The World Is Always Doomed can't be maintained if the world actually meets a definitive doom.
    • Tzeentch actually invokes the trope on himself and his forces. If his forces were ever to definitively win, then he would have no one to plot against, which would range from being boring him for him to literally wiping himself from existence. So, if his forces ever started to win, he would be just as likely to be the source of their downfall as his enemies.
      • He is the only Chaos god this truly applies to. Khorne doesn't care who is dying, just as long as someone is. Slannesh and Nurgle just don't really require an antagonist for their worship.
    • Despite the issues with Games Workshop having to maintain a stalemate at least for the Imperium, if you focus on the setting itself, pieces of fluff from the Codexes and all the supplementary material, you realize this might as well be the motto of the Imperial Forces. They are faced with half a dozen threats which could single-handedly destroy them. In fact the only reason for the Imperium still existing is the fact said threats are fighting each other. If the creators of the game weren't forced to keep the cash flowing in by keeping the Spaces Marines as the victors, humans would be dead already.
    • The Orks actually invert this trope, being a race of Blood Knights, they believe there are only three outcomes to a fight. They win, they die fighting so it doesn't count and it's the only way they would accept dying as well as releasing fungal spores into the soil, or they retreat which isn't failure because they can just come back for another go.
    • In truth, it's more anyone who attempts to change the Status Quo who loses. But since Villains Act, Heroes React, most of the time the evillest side loses.
    • Interestingly played in Graham McNeills book Iron Warriors, where the titular Iron Warriors and thus Chaos actually win; but this keeps in spirit with the bad guys losing because in this book the Adeptus Mechanicus are even WORSE.
  • Paranoia - Goal: Survive. Failing that, see to it that one of your back-up replacement clones survives.

Secondary goal: make it up to Ultraviolet clearance. This conflicts spectacularly with the GM's goal below, and usually results in upwards of five hundred percent casualties, thanks to characters coming in six-packs.

There are also plenty of other possible uses of this trope, such as requiring the players to test out a new form of grenade and provide accurate data on their explosive yield (with failure to do so being treason), but they have to return all grenades intact (with failure to do so being treason) and without an "ally" with Telekinesis activating them while they're still on your belt (which is also treason, but awesome treason).

  • Ravenloft: this trope applies to most of the Darklords, who have been stuck in an Ironic Hell for their sins. Generally, they have something they think will end their suffering, which they will periodically go after, and which will without fail screw them over. Count Strahd will never be able to successfully romance Tatyana's latest reincarnation. Ivana Boritsi will never have a happy relationship since her kisses are lethally toxic. Kas's dreams of conquest will never achieve anything but disaster and the list goes on. Unbeknownst to most of them, their actual win condition is to admit that they reaped what they sowed, but most will never achieve this state since if they were humble enough to actually do that, they would never have become Darklords to begin with - the requirement for that post is literally crossing the Moral Event Horizon.


Theatre

  • There is a lot of Lampshade Hanging in Pippin on Pippin's persistent failure to find something completely fulfilling to do with his life.


Video Games

  • In Diablo 2 the unnamed protagonist is met with failure at every turn due to arriving ever so slightly too late to have stopped the villain from doing what they were trying to do.
    • Act 1: The hero arrives too late to catch Diablo in his new body and Andariel is successful in delaying his venture to the east to go after Diablo.
    • Act 2: The hero arrives in what couldn't have been more than a few minutes before Diablo got there and freed his brother which is precisely what you were trying to stop him from doing. They leave Duriel there to delay the character's pursuit.
    • Act 3: You make it to Mephisto mere moments before he activates the power of the soulstones on his brother Diablo and opens a portal to hell for them to escape to, staying behind himself to delay the player's pursuit.
    • Act 4: You actually make it to Diablo and kill him before he does anything too terrible but that's only because he wasn't actually trying to do anything to Sanctuary at that point. While you were messing around with Diablo in Hell Baal amassed an army of demons and is assaulting the Worldstone Keep to merge hell with Earth and destroy humanity. Maybe should have done something about that instead of killing Diablo.
    • Act5: Half way through you arrive just too late to interrupt Baal from getting an object that will allow him to walk right through the front door of the Worldstone Keep. Afterwards you get to Baal and suprise suprise he actually hasn't corrupted the Worldstone yet. You fight him and defeat him thinking that you arrived just in time to stop the world from being destroyed, but wait! Tyreal then tells you that the mere act of Baal touching the Worldstone corrupted it completely, meaning that after the fight you find out that yet again you arrived too late, this time by were minutes at the very most.
    • The entire quest you set out on in the beginning of the game turns into failure after failure, sure you destroy 5 of the most powerful evil beings in existence but not before they succeed in doing the very thing that they set out to do in the first place.
    • Let's not forget Diablo is using the body of the Warrior from Diablo 1.
  • In ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman, your first attempt at defeating the last boss is met with failure. Hence you go and train in the game's dungeons to gain the power needed to contend with the boss again, only for you to get beaten again and require more training. It goes on like this for a good long while.
  • Fable I, in trying to be evil. The fact that most missions (and all plot-critical ones) are of the "good" variety coupled with the game's sliding scale of morality meant that the player must be dedicated to being a total dick through out the entire game if they wanted to be evil. Even at the fully good side, slaughtering an entire village, normally a Moral Event Horizon, barely gets the bar halfway to neutral. Plus the only moral decision that has a serious impact on the game comes at the END and only affects whether you get the most powerful sword or not.

In Fable the Lost Chapters, you can play past this end and ironically you get the sword either way (good/evil version of it). It's even more pathetic that in the real end you are stuck with a choice whether to put on the mask of the Big Bad and let his soul take over your body OR destroy the mask. Even if you're trying to play an evil tyrant and you decide that you don't want anyone else's soul in your body, not to mention ugly unable to be removed head gear, your Karma Meter still swings to maximum good due to your choice—and you get that pesky halo and so on. I liked my horns and swarms of flies!

  • Super Mario Bros. featured Mario storming castles and fighting hordes of monsters, alone and with very little firepower, to save Princess Toadstool, only to keep finding out that he's stormed the wrong castle. He gets there in 8th and final castle. When he gets to the end of the final castle, he finds out there's another princess. There's always another princess, and there always will be until Mario runs out of lives or suffers from a fatal hardware or software error.
  • In most Final Fantasy games, no matter how hard the heroes try, the villain can never be prevented from becoming all-powerful. Their victory only comes after the villain has already brought the world to its knees.
    • Particularly, the plot of Dissidia Final Fantasy has an infinite number of possible worlds in which the characters are always fighting each other. When one side wins, things just start over.

Final Fantasy II also deserves special mention, because even when the heroes actually succeed in killing the BBEG, he just takes over Hell and comes back stronger.

    • Final Fantasy Tactics: Advance plot is about you trying to destroy the world, your friends, your cripled brother and even the in-game police tries to stop you, the final battle is againts the materialization of "all the dreams and hopes of the world", they all fail hard.
    • Final Fantasy XIII-2: as revealed in the secret ending, all possible timelines lead to Caius winning. Realizing this sent Lightning over the Despair Event Horizon and she voluntarily crystallized herself.
  • Penumbra: Black Plague features a scene where you accidentally kill someone while hallucinating that they are a monster trying to kill you. You have to go through with it, refusing to do so gets you a Game Over.
  • In the Cavia game Drakengard the protagonists endeavor to prevent the seals that hold the world together from being broken, however they always seem to show up just a few minutes too late. Then there's the endings...
  • Present in the ending to Kane and Lynch, where the two possible endings to the game involve Kane abandoning his allies to save Jenny, proving in her eyes that he's every bad thing she thought he was, or Kane going back to save his allies and getting Jenny killed..
  • Deus Ex features the fairly unique (for an FPS) feature that your actions in-game modify the storyline and how characters interact with you. However, you are still limited to the same basic story-for example, no matter how badly you want to play the part of cold-blooded assassin working for the hideously corrupt UNATCO, you are forced by your brother to go to a captured NSF base and send a distress signal. This action immediately causes you to be considered a rogue by UNATCO and all the agents will become hostile. It's required to advance the storyline and cannot be avoided.
  • Kana: Little Sister - Goal: save your most important person from succumbing to her illness and live happily ever after. There is actually no real way for the player to win in the end. In most endings the protagonist's (adopted) sister dies despite his efforts, whereas in the one ending in which she survives she decides to leave him after a while. The only difference is the measure of defeat.
  • DEFCON. Goal: Win a nuclear war. You may have spotted the problem already. Hell, even the tagline: "Everybody loses...but maybe you can lose the least!" (Paraphrased, anyway...). The website is even named www.everybodydies.com.
    • One of the best examples of this comes from a metagame strategy known as the "Star of India", a formation that you play with as Asia when fighting 1v1 against Russia. You're aiming to get 99% kills on Russia, but to do so you're completely sacrificing 90% of your population (ie. all of eastern Asia and Japan) to do so.
    • If it has a win condition, you can win it. Definitely qualifies as a Pyrrhic Victory in most instances, but failure is most definitely not the only option.
  • FEAR. Goal: To stop Alma's shenanigans. Two games in, and she's only made things much worse. As an icing on the cake, the people who could do something about it manage to be even worse than Alma (I am looking at you Genevieve Aristide).
  • Grand Theft Auto IV: Niko Bellic. The end game gives you two choices for endings: Choice one is to work with the main bad guy, in which case the game punishes you for compromising on your values, and Niko's cousin Roman is killed as a direct result. Choice two involves getting your revenge and killing the main bad guy, in which case Niko is punished for choosing revenge, when the one woman Niko might love, and his one chance at salvation (Kate Mcreary) is killed instead. While Niko gets revenge on the murderer either way, it's implied that he will NEVER find peace.
  • While it is possible to get happier endings in the first two Fatal Frame games, the endings where you fail to save your brother/sister are the canon endings.
  • Mega Man X spends half of his time destroying Mavericks, and the other half trying to put a stop to the war. A hundred years later, war is still in full swing. In fact, the war only ended at the end of the Zero series, long after his "death". There's a reason why fans think of him as The Woobie...
    • A more literal example comes in the first few minutes of the first game, when you fight Vile. The fight is scripted so it can only continue when he kicks your ass. It doesn't matter if you know his pattern and somehow dodge his attacks, or if you shoot him with your Infinite Ammo plasma blaster . . . to continue the game Failure Is Literally The Only Option!
  • Dwarf Fortress literally has no win condition. Just an astonishing number of lose conditions. There is a reason the official motto is "Losing is Fun!"
    • There is only one actual lose condition: everybody dies. And many, many ways to get there.
  • Fallout 3 - the quest Tenpenny tower is about getting a load of intelligent ghouls into Tenpenny tower and gives you two main options, let in a load of feral ghouls and get all the human residents killed or the peaceful solution, where you convince the management let the intelligent ghouls move in. Unfortunately many of the human residents get killed which ever you pick as there is a 'disagreement' shortly after you leave.
    • Unless you Take a Third Option and kill the Ghoul leader just after you arrange the peace. You'll get some evil points, you'll 'fail' the quest and the other ghouls will turn hostile, but you can escape without killing the normal ghouls and the massacre will be averted. How killing the murdering, psychopathic ghoul leader is a bad act will forever remain unknown.
  • Pretty much every classic arcade game. Or any Endless Game. In the old days, success was measured by the score. The ultimate goal was to be The Best, i.e. have the top score on that machine. There were things like kill screens and rollovers, but those were unintended glitches.
  • Alone in The Dark 2008: Take your pick of allowing Sarah to be possessed by Lucifer, or killing her and having Carnby become the embodiment of Lucifer himself and unleashing the forces of Hell on the world.
  • The first act of Modern Warfare. After your failed attempt to capture Al-Asaad, the city where most of your missions took place gets nuked and You Are Too Late to escape it. And Price's attempt to snipe Zakhaev will inevitably be non-fatal. Attempting to capture Zakhaev's son for information will always end with him committing suicide when cornered.
  • Modern Warfare 2 also pulls this multiple times. In "No Russian", your character will be shot at the end - and the Russians will blame the attack on the United States based on your body being the only 'terrorist' body recovered. Attempting to rescue "Icepick" will fail as he will have died before you reach him. Finally, infiltrating Makarov's safehouse and copying all the information on his computer will result in your entire team getting wiped out except for you and Ghost - who are promptly shot, covered with gas, and set on fire by General Shepard, who was apparently supposed to extract you.
  • Resistance 2: All your efforts against the Chimera are in vain. Then they succeed at turning you into one of them.
  • Dragon Quest VIII: The Big Bad Rhapthorne needs to kill the descendants of the seven sages that sealed him away to be free. The party arrives in time to save three of the seven, fighting a Boss Battle that they have to win each time, only to fail anyway thanks to Cutscene Incompetence.
  • Academagia: Many adventures and events within the game will fall into this. Especially when all the options are either red, or, (gulp) purple.
  • Halo: Reach. You are Doomed by Canon.
  • Little Busters: Rin's bad end is mandatory before you can reach her better end. And then there's Saya's route...
  • Starcraft 2 has an apocalyptic mission in which you will eventually be overrun no matter what you do. In order to "win" the mission and advance the plot, you must kill a sufficient amount of enemies before this happens.
    • Battle Kid Fortress of Peril (and its upcoming sequel) is just like this, even going so far as to be considered the spiritual sequel to IWBTG.
  • Inverted with You Have to Burn The Rope. Though the Grinning Colossus shoots projectiles which knock you back, there is no way to actually die.
  • The main goal of World of Warcraft is presumably to end the war between the Alliance and Horde. Whether one side wins or the two sides come to a peaceful conclusion and finally decide to stop killing each other is up to the individual person. However neither option seems all that obtainable. Any progress either side makes toward the former is washed away by Status Quo Is God, and the two sides will never reach peace as long as a good number of the faction leaders despise each other enough to want to kill each other more than anything else. Essentially the war has to continue or there won't really be a game anymore. However the massive amount of Enemy Mine toward common enemies makes it look a little weird that the two sides would continue to kill each other despite how counterproductive it is, so the Conflict Ball and Idiot Ball are juggled around quite a bit to keep things going.
    • There's a reason the name of the game has the word "war" in it.
  • At the beginning of Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen, it's possible for Kain to wipe out all of his would-be assassins, even without a Game Shark, if proper caution is taken. However, all the exits out of town are blocked off, and you'll just have to walk in and out of a building to respawn the enemies and let Kain die like he's supposed to.
  • In Ace Attorney series, any true culprit will fail to get away with their crimes if Phoenix Wright is involved as the defense attorney in court. Lampshaded further in the 3rd game's final case by Mia and Wright who told Dahlia Hawthorne that all the crimes that she has ever involved in has ended in failure.
  • Multiple fights in the story of Disgaea 2 Cursed Memories are Hopeless Boss Fights unless you've gotten levels you wouldn't realistically have on a first play-through. Some of these fights, while winnable if you power-level or in New Game+, cause a Nonstandard Game Over for your trouble.
  • In the downloadable game Which, the door to freedom opens only for one. There are just you and a woman-like being with a knife.


Web Comics

  • Get Medieval - Goal: Build a signal device to attract someone who could get Asher (and Neithe) off this backwater planet (Earth, specifically 14th century France). When people weren't eating Asher's power sources (citrus fruits), the signal served as a beacon to mob hitmen already looking for Asher's dad, and was picked up by an archeologist already on the planet (who ended up getting ship-jacked by the aforementioned hitmen). The comic has an actual ending where they succeed, but the Big Bad gets a Karma Houdini.
  • Terror Island - Goal: Convince the other roommate to buy groceries. Vaguely achieved with Bartleby, but the groceries were taken away by Aorist. When Stephen and Sid finally get groceries together, the comic immediately ends.
  • Misfile - Goal: Reverse the misfile. If Ash and Emily were restored to their original bodies and lives, the main dramatic tension of the series would disperse.
  • Starslip - Goal: Find a timeline or universe in which Jovia is alive. Subverted when, after failing to steal a time machine so he can save Jovia, Vanderbeam's future self travels back and gives him the time machine, which he received from his future self twenty years earlier. Then double subverted when Vanderbeam fails to put the time machine to any use.
  • Kick The Football, Chuck - Goal: Charlie Brown must fight and overcome his cancer after being treated with chemotherapy. This fight is represented metaphorically with Chuck trying to kick the football Lucy has laid out for him. Seriously.


Web Original

  • Lonelygirl15 - Goal: bring down the Order of Denderah.
  • The Whateley Universe also falls under this with a few character arcs, generally intersecting with Mandy's Law of Gender Bending. However, it is also subverted in at least one case. Jade gets to become closer to being a real girl...using plain old surgery!
  • In The Salvation War, Satan himself orders the daemon Grand Duke Abigor to lead an army of approximately four hundred thousand daemons to Earth, to subjugate humanity after Yahweh reveals to the world that the pearly gates are closed, so that all humanity is doomed to go to Hell when they die, and Satan doesn't feel like waiting that long. Unfortunately for them it's 21st-century Earth (the point of divergence being January 2008), so forget the plan, the army itself does not survive first contact with their human enemies, and an overarching theme of the story is just how doomed the daemons were the moment they entered Earth.
  • Red vs. Blue. Most of the Blue's and Red's plans end horribly. Only time they really win is when they work together. When they are trying to kill each other, for obvious reasons, they can't.

In Revelation it's revealed that Alpha was tormented by being placed in scenarios where it could never succeed. Also, because Tex was based on the Director's memory of a woman he loved, but her death was the thing he remembered most clearly, she also can never succeed; this is the reason why she never really accomplished her goals in Blood Gulch. She was designed to fail at the last moment.

Western Animation

  Mrs. Puff: Not even in your dreams, Mr. Squarepants!

  • Johnny Bravo - Johnny will never succeed when it comes to women. This goes to the point that a few examples borderline on Diabolus Ex Machina.
  • Invader Zim is one of the more obvious shows that use this premise. Both of the show's main characters (Zim and Dib) never actually complete either of their goals. Zim's goal is to take over the world (and be rid of Dib), Dib's is to expose Zim as an alien. Likewise, Zim never finds out that the Earth "invasion" was just a set-up by the Tallest to get rid of him. Had the series went on, a TV movie finale would have had Dib defeating Zim and the Irken Empire with his own army.
  • Almost every cartoon with a Failure Is the Only Option premise never gets the luxury of actual proper closure. Many expected that Samurai Jack would become an exception, since it was on Cartoon Network, which had been known to actually treat cartoons with the respect they deserved. Sadly, Jack found itself cancelled, with Tartakovsky not being able write a movie to conclude it.[1]
  • As for actual exceptions in animation: Conan the Adventurer and the animated adaptation of Jumanji.
  • Without this, Dungeons and Dragons wouldn't have been the same. Also, this is the source for a bunch of rumours about the Missing Last Episode, with fans claiming that the heroes had died and gone to Hell, and Uni, the Team Pet, is a demon whose only task is to prevent them from going away. Again, these are rumors.
    • The writer of the lost final episode did release the script onto the web—revealing quite a different set of Epileptic Trees. The D&D realm is a kind of Cosmic Zoo and all of its mythical creatures were stolen from their homeworlds and forced to coexist, including the kids - and Venger wasn't such a bad guy after all. Failure wasn't the only option in the end after all.
  • Pinky and The Brain - Goal: To Take Over the World, despite only being lab mice (with a ton of resources to go by, however...).
    • Success: They managed to bait the entire living populace to a duplicate Earth. Day Two with Brain as leader they find that the original Earth is in the path of an asteroid, he and Pinky escape to the duplicate whilst the original is destroyed. New Goal: Take over the duplicate Earth.
  • You could say that the trope can be applied to almost all villains in Saturday morning cartoon shows; no matter how hard they try, the heroes always must come out on top in the end for the sake of the status quo. Likewise, if the heroes could really get rid of the villains, the show is over.
  • Lampshaded somewhat in Ruby-Spears' Mega Man, "2,000 Leaks Under the Sea": Wily's plan seems to be succeeding wonderfully, and Protoman remarks that it's about time something went right for once. Then Mega Man shows up...
  • Subverted in a Justice League episode where Superman must stop Lex Luthor from pressing the red button, but the only way to stop him then is to kill him. Luthor states that Superman needs him to be a hero, and that they will continue playing hero and villain forever, as this allows them to have a purpose. The subversion comes when Superman takes a third option and kills Lex Luthor. Then Batman says he's okay with it. Then we pull back to realize the whole thing just took place in The White House. Cue Alternate Dimension reveal!
  • The Venture Brothers makes a living off this trope with nearly everyone. Not only are the villains meant to fail, but the main protagonists are basically failures themselves, except Brock (and he's got some failures himself). There is a whole section on The Other Wiki about how, according to Word of God, the theme of failure is very key.
  • Most Warner Bros. Cartoons, with the goal of eating/shooting/defeating Roadrunner/Bugs Bunny/Speedy Gonzales.
    • There was a roadrunner short that ended with the roadrunner being "caught", after a fashion. Wile. E. Coyote chases the Roadrunner through a series of pipes, which get progressively smaller. Upon emerging, both the Roadrunner and Coyote have been shrunk to only a few inches in height. The coyote whistles to the roadrunner to turn around, and they go back through the pipes in reverse. The Roadrunner comes out restored to his normal size but the Coyote remains small, and grabs onto the Roadrunner's ankle before realizing what has happened. In the last shot he turns to the camera and holds up a sign that reads "Okay, wise guys, you always wanted me to catch him. Now What? do I do?"
    • In the case of eating Tweety, when Sylvester finally did that in the final episode of The Sylvester And Tweety Mysteries, it resulted in the show being cancelled.
  • Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines: - Goal: Catch That Pigeon!
    • Subverted in the episode "Stop Which Pigeon?", in which Dastardly uses a Yankee Doodle Pigeon doppelganger to fool the General into thinking they caught him. Lampshaded and then averted in the same episode when Dastardly catches the pigeon diving into a flying pool of water (what Iwao Takamoto wouldn't think of) but then letting him go when Dastardly learns he can't swim.
  • Super Mario Brothers Super Show - Goal: For Mario and Luigi to get back home to Brooklyn. While this was mentioned as the reason the four heroes were traveling all over the vast multiverse, it's not a frequent topic of discussion in most episodes.
    • There was one episode where Mario and Luigi did get back to Brooklyn once, only for Bowser to follow them and invade, which causes the Princess and Toad to go to Brooklyn and attempt to help the Mario Bros. Mario and Luigi returned to the Mushroom World after that. Another episode also showed Mario and Luigi having one chance of returning home, only for them to pass it up since they couldn't simply leave the Princess behind, even though she wanted them to go after she got captured by Bowser.
    • In a piece of irony, in the show's sequel, The Adventures Of Super Mario Bros. 3, the characters were frequently able to visit "the Real World". By then, though, Mario and Luigi had apparently given up their old goal of returning to Brooklyn and were comfortable living in Toad's house.
  • The Smurfs - Goal: Kill the Smurfs. Sadly, Gargamel never got that chance. in the last season, the Smurfs were sucked into a time warp and spent the remainder of the series desperately trying to make their way back to Smurf Village. So it's two Sisyphean goals in one!
    • Actually, only one Sisyphean goal replaced by another, as the time-traveling Smurfs dealt mostly with Gargamel's ancestors and not the wizard himself.
  • Kidd Video - Goal: Escape the sinister music executive and return to their own world.
  • Silver Surfer - Goal: Find and return to Zenn-La. Would have been achieved in the first season finale if the producers hadn't decided to bank on a cliffhanger.
  • Class of the Titans- Goal: Defeat Cronus. As it is, the heroes tend to just defeat the monsters he sends their way.
  • The Secret Saturdays seems to be shaping up this way for the titular family. No matter how hard they try that can't seem to keep up with Argost, except for the handful of episodes where they come ahead.
    • They finally succeeded in the last episode, obviously.
  • Tale Spin Goal: For Baloo to buy his beloved plane, the Sea Duck, back from Becky. This actually happens more than once, but in every case he's forced to give it back by the end of the episode. In fact, in more than one episode Baloo acquires a huge amount of money, more than enough to buy back the Sea Duck, but is later forced to pay the EXACT same amount to someone else to settle a bill. Another he actually buys back the Sea Duck but gives it back out of guilt after Rebecca's business falls apart without him, implying he is doomed to failure willingly or not.
    • Also the Sky Pirates getting past Cape Suzette's security to plunder the city. They actually succeeded in the pilot thanks to the Lightning Gun however.
  • In almost every original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles season, Shredder and Krang's goal is to free the Technodrome from wherever it the universe it's trapped. It's always in the season finale or next season opener that they succeed, only to get it trapped somewhere else.
    • The Turtles are essentially victims of this trope as well, as Shredder and his minions always escape through the dimensional portal or transport module, thus avoiding being brought to justice. (Just how many episodes climaxed with "they got away again?")
    • There was also the goal of Master Splinter to return to human form. Happened once, but he was back by the end of the episode.
  • Challenge of the Superfriends - Goal: Catch the Legion of Doom. They always escape via some ridiculous method, sometimes not even really escaping, just turning invisible in front of them or slooowly pushing a button to teleport away.
  • Inspector Gadget - Does it three times: Doctor Claw's Goal: Conquer the Earth (or at least a little bit of it, maybe buy a small country). Doctor Claw's secondary goal: Kill Gadget. Gadget's Goal: Arrest Doctor Claw. None of these goals are ever achieved.
    • Gadget almost never actually solved a case himself either. Even in his rare bouts of competance it was Penny that stopped MAD ultimately, Gadget at his best assisted or rescued her while doing so (at his usual worst he just spent the majority of the episode on a wild goose chase). Of course, for all he and and the majority of the population except Penny and Brain know, Success Is The Only Option for him.
  • Dave the Barbarian - The parents are out fighting random evil around the world, and they never call it a day. Apparently, they consider this to be much more important than raising their three children and running their kingdom.
    • In one episode, the parents actually DID achieve the goal of stomping out all evil everywhere in the world...except that MORE evil had popped up back in the place where they started, so they had to do it all over again!
  • Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy. Usually the goal is a variation on getting jawbreaker/money/respect. Never works out due to wacky hijinks, and the few times they manage to get one of the three they lose it in the end of the episode.

Driven Up to Eleven in one episode, where the candy store is giving away free jawbreakers, and the Eds have ten minutes to get there before the place closes. Everything that can possibly go wrong goes wrong: Sarah blocks them, Eddy accidentally runs into Kevin, who drops a piano on him later, the Kankers attack, they lose the Bamboo Technology vehicle that Edd makes, and when they finally reach the store, the sky opens up and they get pelted with a sudden storm of rain and driving winds. At this point, Edd laments that "Fate has conspired against us!" When Ed uses his brute strength to get past the storm, a completely random "Chicken drive" overrides Ed's priorities and he dives into the crowd of chickens. Eddy gets out and has to make a "Friend or Idol?" Decision: get a jawbreaker, or save Edd. He chooses the jawbreakers, but in the time it takes him to jump at the door, the place suddenly closes and he just ends up smacking against the door. Oh, and the storm then immediately ends. Just wow. The Eds finally win their peers' respect in the finale movie.

    • Which is Lampshaded.
  • Phineas and Ferb - Neither Candace nor Doofenshmirtz will ever succeed in their goals, or at least not any kind of success that will affect the status quo. For example, in Phineas And Ferb Get Busted she finally busts the boys but then it turns out to be All Just a Dream. She succeed again in "She's The Mayor." where she bust the boys but then Doofenshmirtz's latest invention makes time go back to the beginning of the episode.Doofenshmirtz also succeeded in taking over the Tri-State Area in Quantum Boogaloo. Said episode also featured Candace (a future version) busting the boys, but then she has to stop it from happening as it creates a dystopian future. The present version of Candace does it in the future, but then decides to simply keep on trying anyway.
    • the creators have stated that, if Quantum Boogaloo is taken as the canonical future of the characters (barring the various ways futures can be messed up, of course) she will never succeed in busting her brothers, but eventually learns to accept it.
    • The episode "The Doof Side Of The Moon" featured the boys making the tallest building ever that stretched to the Moon. It was literally said by one character that no force on Earth could make it disappear and it disappears anyway when Doof's Lunar-Rotate-inator causes the moon to rotate and drag the building away.
    • In "A Real Boy", Candace manages to get Linda to see the giant spring-loaded toy the boys have built... and then Linda gets zapped by Dr. Doofenshmirtz's "Forget-About-It-Inator". After this happens several times in a row, Candace ends up leaving when Linda blurts out the hypnotic code phrase that makes Candace want to stop busting the boys, and after getting hit by the Forget-About-It-Inator one last time, Linda wanders off before she can see the project again.
    • On the Doofenshmirtz front, the movie reveals that in Another Dimension, he actually has taken over the Tri-State Area.
    • Exploited by Candace in the movie, where she attempts to get her mom to see outside where robots from the alternate dimension are invading. She reasons that getting her mom to see them should make the robots disappear since her mom never sees what Phineas and Ferb have done.
  • Street Sharks - Goal: Find their dad, get the Mad Scientist arrested, get turned human again. None of that happens. One episode has them temporarily turn human, but they decide that they like being sharks better, since they can fight off the evil mutants. There are rumors of an episode in which they nearly meet their dad and he leaves them a note saying that he'll see them soon, but they never actually find him in the series. The last few episodes actually do have Dr. Paradigm exposed and arrested, but he escapes.
  • Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?? Obviously, if they catch her, she has to escape. Depressingly lampshaded in one episode, when Zack moans to Ivy that they never seem to catch her.
  • The goal of The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang was to get back to 1957, except when there was a "Friend or Idol?" Decision, in which case some of them would reach 1957 but have to leave to save their friends.
  • The Cutie Mark Crusaders from My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic will never get their cutie marks (not at the rate they're going, anyway). This is not an issue in-univers though, as all ponies eventually get cutie marks.
  • Zordrak and the Urpneys capturing The Dreamstone, or at least holding onto it long enough to do much constructive with it.
  • In Hey Arnold, Arnold never ends up finding his parents. Furthermore, Helga's secret infaturation with him is a pivitol theme in the show and in several episodes her secret is almost revealled... but of course, Arnold never does end up finding out. Even when Helga eventually confesses in the movie, the two later decide to blame it on the "heat of the moment" and forget all about it.
    • Becomes more painful when you consider the rumored second movie, which was to resolve both of these issues by having Arnold find his parents in San Lorenzo and finally reciprocate Helga's feelings. But then the second movie was Uncanceled...


Real Life

  • Death is unavoidable. No matter how healthy, accomplished or fruitful a human being's life has been, the longest it will last will be little more than a century at most.
  • The Game, a mental game where you lose the game when you think of it. There's no winning condition for most versions, so the best you can do is avoid losing for as long as possible.
  • In 2011, a twenty-year-old woman came forward claiming to have been knocked up in 2010 by the then-sixteen-year-old Justin Bieber, and attempted to sue him for compensation. If she had been telling the truth, she could have been charged with statutory rape. Since she was lying, she could be charged with making false accusations. She did not think this through.
  • In TV Tropes, anything listed on the Permanent Red Link Club is basically this. If a trope or page gets so misused, become a magnet for racial slurs and personal attacks, and the like; and the page cannot be fixed, the entire page (and in some occasions, the entire trope) will be deleted and never to be used again. Forever.
  • As the page quote suggests, the universe is apparently like this. You can never get more energy out of a system than you put in, you can never recover all of the energy you put into a system, and you can never avoid entropy, even at absolute zero. Good luck with those perpetual-motion machines!

Notes

  1. There is an episode which depicts Jack failing to gain access to a time-portal shows a visibly older Jack in the portal, implying that he will one-day succeed in his goal, but not quite yet. The Future Jack that will apparently make it through the portal carries a different sword and wears a crown on his head. Presumably, the point of the quest will be to bring him to that state.
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