A Sitcom plot where the characters are trying to pull off some kind of easy, straightforward operation; throw a surprise party, open a restaurant, or pick someone up at the airport. Either a series of things go wrong, they screw up through their own natural laziness, cheapness, or stubbornness; or one solitary thing goes awry and the whole simple plan falls to pieces.
Once things have disintegrated, the characters go to ludicrous extremes to fix them, and a Fawlty Towers Plot or Indy Ploy evolves.
A phrase often invoked in the formulation of these plans is: "What's the worst that could happen?" or "What Could Possibly Go Wrong??" — which, if you are Genre Savvy or familiar at all with the concepts of Finagle's Law or Tempting Fate, is a sure sign that things are going to go wrong in the worst way, often with a Gilligan Cut to the protagonists running from angry bikers or such.
Contrast with Zany Scheme. When the end goal goes through despite this trope, you have Despite The Plan. When the character expected circumstances to arise and improvised about them, he's playing Xanatos Speed Chess. Plethora Of Mistakes is this trope applied to crime thriller fiction, and involves everything going wrong for the sake of going wrong in order to teach the Aesop that crime doesn't pay. A plan revealed to the audience tends to fail miserably due to the Unspoken Plan Guarantee.
In more serious stories, anything described before the fact as an "in-and-out" operation is almost certain to fall into this trope.
Not to be confused with the film of the same name, which used a related trope. Also not to be confused with the band of the same name.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
Mazinger Z: In episode 46 Dr. Hell's had a pretty simple plan: send two Mecha-Mooks to infiltrate into the Institute and planting several nukes in Mazinger-Z's launching dock. Everything explodes, he wins. However that simple plan met due to his Robeasts and his troops running into abandoned babies, suicidal mothers, and at a point they got involved in a manhunt through a woodland.
Astérix And The Golden Sickle: Asterix and Obelix go to Lutetia to buy a new golden sickle for Getafix. They soon become involved in a mystery involving a gang of golden sickle traffickers, and end up being arrested by the local Romans several times.
Asterix: To think we only came for a golden sickle!
Shaun of the Dead. "Take car, go to mum's, kill Phil (sorry!) Grab Liz, go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for this all to blow over." Goes about as well as you'd expect in a zombie movie.
The poster for the 70's classic Dog Day Afternoon even describes the trope as its plot: "The robbery should have taken ten minutes. 4 hours later the bank was like a circus sideshow. 8 hours later, it was the hottest thing on live TV. 12 hours later, it was history."
Neatly done in Quick Change; the complex, intricate bank robbery that the protagonist and his friends have planned goes off without a hitch. However, what should be the incredibly simple matter of driving to the airport to make the getaway turns into a convoluted, mishap-ridden nightmare.
Adventures in Babysitting: Chris is babysitting when she gets a call from a friend who is stranded at a city bus station and in need of a ride home. Chris takes the kids (and their tagalong neighbor) along rather than leave them unattended while she's supposed to be babysitting them. Matters quickly fall apart from there.
The film Inception plays a tune from its official soundtrack as they plan their mission into Fischer's subconscious: "A Simple Plan." When they enter the dream and find that Fischer's subconscious has been weaponized and attacks the team, the entire mission has to be improvised. Not to mention that Cobb's dead wife is still haunting his subconscious...
Plan B: The plan is for Bruno to win back his ex-girlfriend by seducing her new, bisexual boyfriend, causing them to break up. Things start getting complicated when the Faux Yaystops being so fake...
Inverted in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Breaking Jim back out of slavery would be an almost effortless operation for Huck and Tom Sawyer, but Tom insists on doing outlandish things like sneaking tools in through Jim's lunch, trying to dig an entrance hole into the (unguarded and unlocked) slave quarters with pocket knives, and trying to scare the Phelpses into staying inside so they can kidnap Jim without fear of getting caught. All on top of the long process of forcing Jim to keep a prison diary.
This is even more cruel (and hilarious) than it seems, since Jim has been legally freed by his owners days earlier, and could just walk out at any time. Tom doesn't tell him until later because he wants an adventure.
Donald E. Westlake likes to use this trope. The Hot Rock and, of course, What's the Worst That Could Happen? are two examples. The Worst is interestingly the one Dortmunder book in which the plan went perfectly.
Getting the Hrum gold in the Farsala Trilogy. It starts as a plan so simple it could probably be described in less than a sentence and evolves into about a third of Forging The Sword.
This is what Frasier generally does when it's not doing Three's Company. Lampshaded at one point when Martin scoffs at yet another Simple Plan that Niles and Frasier have devised (sharing an office as psychiatrists):
Martin: The book you two tried to write together; that was a bad idea. The restaurant you opened together; that was a bad idea. But this... no, that restaurant was still the dumbest.
As indicated above, it also happened frequently in Fawlty Towers.
Frequently occurs, and is lampshaded, in Farscape. As Aeryn puts it to John "Your plans never work! Not the way you detail them!" Eventually he admits this when an unspoken plan actually works as planned, "Yeah, it's a first, isn't it?"
There is even an episode subtitled "A Not So Simple Plan".
Played painfully straight on the My So-Called Life episode "Life of Brian" where the simple plan is to go to the school dance. One kid changes dates, which sets off a chain reaction of people changing theirs, until nobody is happy with what results. Despite sounding comedic, the episode showed what it would be like to actually have to deal with that in real life.
The collapse of "simple plans" was a common plot point in Firefly, although usually due more to bad luck than anything else. This led Mal to gripe in the episode "Safe," upon finding himself in yet another shootout, "Why don't it ever go smooth?"
He suffers this to the point where it's made into a character trait ("Things Don't Go Smooth") in the Serenity RPG. Mal has the severe version of this trait. Player-made characters can take this drawback as well, giving the Game Master an excuse to ensure that Hilarity Ensues no matter how well the players plan their various hijinks.
Many an episode of Drake & Josh uses this trope, memorably one where their attempt to deliver a cake to their elderly aunt's wedding leaves them stranded in the middle of nowhere and blowing up the car they borrowed.
A somewhat common theme in Leverage. Of course there's a reason it takes five of the world's best thieves to pull these cons off. Even the simplest plans have potential to go all to hell for reasons as simple and unpredictable as a mook of the bad guy calling his cousin or as large as someone trying to crash land the plane they're on to run a con.
Lampshaded to a degree in The Mentalist, a drama. Patrick Jane refers to one of his schemes as being a "simple plan" and Lisbon says that she likes it simple. It's when he starts getting out the costumes and such that she gets worried.
On one Friends episode, the plan is to throw Rachel a birthday party. Things start getting messy when the parents refuse to be in the same room and two parties get planned and then...
Happens all the time in Stargate SG-1, nicely lampshaded in the episode "Off the Grid" after a plan has gone pretty badly wrong:
Jackson: Uhh…I have a question: Why would we make the Gate magically disappear BEFORE we had a chance to escape through it?
Worrel: Bad timing?
Jackson: Th-that's got to be the single stupidest thing I've ever heard.
Worrel: Do things always go according to plan in your world Dr Jackson?
Doctor Who. Anytime the TARDIS lands and the crew has something relaxing or normal planned—going to the beach, visiting their family, maybe just picking up some milk—will end up with them all running for their lives. Every. Single. Time.
In "The Doctor's Wife", the TARDIS, temporarily put in a human body, says that she doesn't bring the Doctor to where he wants to go, but where he needs to go.
The MythBusters have often come across myths that, on the surface, seem easy enough to test...and then some factor they hadn't counted on makes it a nightmare.
Adam: You should never expect Plan A to go off without a hitch! Me and Jamie, it's usually Plan D.
In Season 3 of Justified a corrupt prison guard and his prison nurse buddy have the great idea to break Dicky Bennett out of prison, have him lead them to the $3 million his late mother hid away and then kill him. They do not count on the fact that they will have to take Dewey Crowe with them or that US Marshal Raylan Givens will suspect them right away. They also do not realize that most of the money is already gone or that the person holding the rest of the money feels honor bound to keep Dickie alive and is much deadlier than they are.
Happens often in the series Sanford and Son when not a Zany Scheme. In an example, one episode begins with Lamont bringing in an old Revolutionary War rifle to restore and quickly leaves the title characters wondering if they have accidentally murdered a neighbor.
The RPG Exalted has a dramatic example: as penalty for their actions in overthrowing the Primordials, the Sidereal Exalted, Heaven's bureaucrats, were cursed so that whenever they get together in large numbers to create a plan, it usually goes horribly, horribly wrong. How horribly wrong? Well, seeing as their last great get together resulted in the death of Creation's god-kings (mind you, they kind of deserved it) and could be indirectly blamed for an apocalyptic disease, an invasion by The Fair Folk, the fall of a Golden Age of magic and technology, and untold amounts of Creation's landmass dissolving back into the Wyld, they can only go up from here.
And that's not even mentioning how the rebellion against said god-kings broke a constellation.
This sort of nonsense is de rigueur in Paranoia, but occasionally, you can get a subversion.
The introduction of the Shadowrun Fourth Edition rulebook has an experienced runner asserting that the scariest words in the world are not "trust me" (since many people in this Crapsack World learn young not to trust others), but "It'll be easy." Then goes on to detail a supposedly easy corporate espionage and sabotage mission that, due to a double-cross by the Johnson's Humanis-connected assistant, ended with two of the narrator's team being fatally shot, as well as the team almost being responsible for the mass murder of a sizable amount of the ork and troll population because of the assistant's poisoning of the stuff that was supposed to go into the rival company's drink to make it taste bad.
Le Bret and Ragueneau plan to leave Roxane unaware of Cyrano’s mortal wound when they left the nunnery to attend him.
The Playstation game Incredible Crisis revolves around a day in the life of the Tanamatsuri family. The Simple Plan is to get home in time for grandmother Hatsu's birthday party, but the other members of the family get involved in one bizarre misadventure after another. To name just a few: Taneo, the father and a grade-A Salaryman, gets chased around by a giant globe that fell off a statue, and at one point ends up going the wrong way down a busy highway on a stretcher; Etsuko, the mother, gets kidnapped by robbers and eventually ends up piloting a jet fighter into battle against a giant rampaging teddy bear; Tsuyoshi, the son, gets shrunk by weird alien rays, and has to dodge insects while trying to make his way home safely; and Ririka, the daughter, has to protect a tiny UFO while helping it reunite with the "mother" ship.
There is of course Conkers Bad Fur Day where Conker's plan of simply going home after a night of drinking doesn't work at all.
The real-life development of the game is arguably an example as well, since the development team started out with the goal of making a generic cute-animal 3D platformer. Quite a lot of delays later, it didn't quite turn out that way.
Combined with a massive dose of Genre Savviness in Sluggy Freelance. After a relatively simple plan to steal a Mad Scientist's Displacement Drive Vehicle goes awry and ends up destroying the vehicle and scientist's entire island complex, Torg learns the experience. So, when he decides to try and take down Hereti-Corp he figures the best way is to pretend that they have a Displacement Drive Vehicle, too, try and steal it, and cause so much unintentional pandemonium that it brings the whole company down.
"I just wanted a Good plan! Torg, that's nigh-foolproof!"
The tendency for simple plans to go horrible wrong is lampshaded in thisWapsi Square strip. Said simple plan results in being shot at and bringing down a group of smugglers in Cairo.
Happens with such frequency in Legostar Galactica that Captain Smith has started viewing it as little more than a mild, entirely routine annoyance, sighing "of course it is" whenever he's informed of some new, bizarre, unpredictable development
Most Strong Bad Emails are like this. A simple e-mail asking if he's ever been on a road trip leads to him and The Cheat being stuck in the car all day, and a pretend pizza place to meet some girls results in an actual, well-reviewed pizza place.
Anika just wanted to get some water for her parents. Then an eagle mistook her toy for lunch.
Somewhat subverted in the Jem episode, "Broadway Magic" in which using a forged letter from "Rio", the Misfits are able to lock Jem in the crown of the Statue of Liberty. However, the Misfits are unaware that Jem's earrings are part of a illusion-creating computer. The show plays this trope straight in many episodes.