1) You can't win. 2) You can't break even. 3) You can't leave the game.
— The Laws of Thermodynamics summarized. And consequently the lyrics to one of The Wiz's songs.
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 & 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. When a show's impending end is known ahead of time to the producers, however, they may choose to go out with a Grand Finale, in which Failure is no longer the Only Option.
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. Thus, if they ever do get their hands on a windfall they have to quickly lose it.
The Hopeless Boss Fight and Fission Mailed are when this trope is applied to video games, where the player must be defeated in order to advance the story. This is usually done by making the hero extremely weak at that point in time, or making the boss unbeatable due superior level or some outside force, especially if it's still early in the game. Mind you, it is almost guaranteed that somebody somewhere will come up with a hack or unorthodox strategy to get around this, resulting in either crashing the game or some kind of easter egg.
If the Big Bad of a given work appears at the prequel, you can be sure that he will not die at the end: he has to live on, to be the big bad of the main work. In fact, all the initial conditions of the main work are unavoidable, including but not limited to the presence of the villain. Consider for example the first Star Wars trilogy, and the prequel trilogy. It is a Foregone Conclusion that Anakin would live on, that he would fall to the dark side, but also that most Jedis would be killed, that the Republic would turn into the Empire, etc. Any attempt of the heroes in the prequel to change this is doomed to failure.
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. 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.
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.
Fred, Barney, and Barney sneak-swiping Fruity Pebbles. The only break comes with the Christmas commercial.
Ranma ½ did have one exception: Ryōga; 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 possible.
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.
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 Bad Ass legitimate threats. In at least one case they even decided to become a legitimate business venture, and was making a decent living and contemplating giving up a life of crime. Unfortunately Ash and Co turns a corner and the moment they spotted Pikachu they promptly forgot every single word they just said.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. He succeeds beyond that: Eureka reveals she loves him and shares a real kiss with him.
Hell Girl: Hajime's goal: Stop people from using Hell Correspondence to send 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 BastardRich 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.
Homura's goal to defeat Walpurgis Night and preventing Madoka from becoming a magical girl, and has been doing this for about a couple of times now (maybe even a thousand), but Madoka still becomes a Magical Girl, and rarely a Witch. In an odd subversion, Homura fails and Madoka becomes a magical girl in the finale, but because Madoka knew of the Awful Truth behind the magical girls, her wish in trade for becoming a magical girl is to rid the world of that truth, messing up time and space to the point where she gets a Cosmic Retcon and turns the world into a better place.
All magical girls, prior to Madoka's wish in the "current" timeline, fall victim to this trope because they all eventually gave in to despair and became witches themselves.
A more personal example is what Word of God says will happens if Sayaka Miki contracts and becomes a magical girl or not in a given timeline, If she doesn't in she lives if she does she will always fall into despair and become a witch, or if she's lucky enough to not witch out, she winds up dead by some other means which is what happens in the post Cosmic Retcon universe.
All of the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime series are pretty bad about this. Even though they're playing a card game, of which the consequence of losing would normally only be a hit to the loser's ego (if that), Yu-Gi-Oh! animes tend to have the heroes facing challenges where losing = death for various reasons (be they shadow duels or other), meaning that it's essentially a Foregone Conclusion that the heroes will win before they ever start their duel and Failure Is the Only Optionfor the villains.
WATAMOTE ~No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!~ is about the introvert main character, Tomoko, seeing that her years of playing Dating Sim games haven't helped her to become popular, tries to become popular though various means. Naturally she either screws them up or is unwilling to learn from her mistakes to try again.
According to Word of God, this was the inevitable fate for Yagami Light from Death Note: If the police found out that he was Kira, they would catch him and lock him up and Ryuk, realizing that Light could no longer provide him with any more entertainment, would've written his name in the titular Artifact of Doom, killing him. If, however, the police had not found out that Light was Kira and he had killed all who were threats him and erased all clues pointing in the direction of him being Kira, then Ryuk would've realized that Victory Is Boring and, since Light could no longer provide him with any more entertainment, he would've written Light's name in the Death Note, killing him.
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 Universe 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 — with his ironically named "Infallible Plans". Goal: take over the street and/or a plush bunny from Monica. And it brings another example of this trope, by his Genre Savvy friend Cascão/Smudge - Goal: not joining the scheme... and then the beatings after they fail (usually because Smudge screws up)
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.
Incredible 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.
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.
Another example from Batman's rogue gallery: No matter how many times poor Harvey Dent tries to reform, undergoing surgeries to restore his damaged face... Soon he snaps back to his Two-Face persona, scarring half of his own face again. This fate follows him even in some stories out of regular continuity.
The Spectre is a Fallen Angel named Aztar who repented shortly after Lucifer's Rebellion. Recognizing that his heart was in the right place but his mind wasn't, God promised that Aztar would be let back into heaven once he had punished every mortal sinner who escaped justice at mortal hands. Given human numbers, speed of reproduction, and rate of Karma Houdini, Aztar is still at it.
At the end of the comic, Charlie Brown may have succeeded. Lucy was called inside when Charlie Brown was about to kick the football, so she asked Rerun to hold it. In the strip itself, 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.
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.
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!
Charlie Brown and baseball-playing, kite-flying, writing with an ink pen, talking to the Little Red Haired Girl, etc. To elaborate, on one occasion he won a game, but had to revoke it because Rerun bet a nickel on it. On two occasions, he legitimately won games... only to later find out a girl on the team let him win.
Linus and seeing the Great Pumpkin,
Lucy and getting Schroeder's attention (same story with Sally and Linus)
Snoopy shooting down the Red Baron or getting one of his novels published.
In the short Perfect Day, all they're trying to do is go on a picnic, but one hilarious mishap after another ensures that their car never makes it more than a half-a-block from the house before winding up at the bottom of a giant puddle.
For that matter, very few of the comedy team's films end with them achieving success, usually because Stan does something utterly boneheaded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The Legacy, a 1978 horror film. The two main characters cannot leave the mansion, no matter what they try.
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 satellite, 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. Or if he is seemingly destroyed, the final shot of the film reveals that he may have survived after all.
Averted in, ironically, the very first film of the franchise, in which Godzilla was decisively killed at the end. The Godzilla who appeared in Godzilla Raids Again was explicitly called a "second Godzilla," a separate member of the same species. Later Continuity Reboot sequels often claim that the original Godzilla regenerated after all.
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.
The Halloween series. Michael Myers is an indestructible psychopath who's apparently destined to wipe out his family's bloodline. No matter how much terror he wreaks or people he kills, he always gets blown away or shot down before he can accomplish this, and the only time he ever succeeded was in Halloween: Resurrection. Ditto for poor old Doc Loomis, who's never able to put Myers down permanently.
No character in the Final Destination movies has 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 that his girlfriend was destined to die on.
While some characters in the Saw series do escape the traps, that's only the minority that are important enough to make it to the end of the film. The rest are sweet out of luck. Not only will they fail to escape whatever trap they are in, but they will experience the maximum amount of pain possible in trying to do so.
Done in a comedic way in Pain & Gain. The protagonists' various attempts to kill Kershaw by car crashing, explosion, running him over via a car and crushing his head with a car wheel all ended in failure. Not to mention the subsequent attempts to reach Kershaw in the hospital and hotel.
The main premise of one of the best known pieces of medieval European literature, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Foolishly accepting the challenge of a Mysterious Stranger, the young Sir Gawain has to pay up and travel to the Green Knight to have his head chopped off. He either fails to make the journey, and is a failure as a warrior, chickens out and loses his honor, or makes it in time and gets killed. Even though he panics at the last moment and tries to escape and also failed some of the tests of his honor on the journey, the green knight still appreciates that he showed up at all and performed at most of the tasks very well and spares his life to allow him to return home.
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.
There's also the fact that Laser-Guided Karma is in effect. Many of Voldemort's past crimes and choices are implied to have influenced events to cause his ultimate downfall. His drinking of unicorn's blood in the first book. The curse he placed on the Defense Against Dark Arts teacher position. His creation of seven Horcruxes also seem to have corrupted his body and possibly his mind, making him even more insane than he was as a kid. His killing of Myrtle and framing of Hagrid the first time he opened the Chamber of Secrets are the same circumstances that allowed Harry to find out and destroy the Basilisk and Voldemort's diary, which hinted Dumbledore at Voldemort's Horcruxes. His refusal to spare Lily not only set the prophecy in motion, but also made Snape turn against him completely. Voldemort is his own Spanner in the Works.
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.
The Baby-Sitters Club were allowed to succeed most of the time, but once the problems got big, like trying to keep an autistic savant from being sent Off to Boarding School or reform a racist family, the Aesop was always along the lines of You Can't Make A Difference When You're Thirteen Years Old. Little Sister was even worse about this, with Karen failing at nearly everything she tried to do because You Really Can't Make A Difference When You're Seven Years Old. The only time Karen actually succeeded was during a Whole Plot Reference to The Secret Garden, since you can't very well have your Mary Lennox surrogate not shake things up.
J. R. R. 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. A few names in particular from The Silmarillion:
Fëanor, 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 Lúthien manages to retrieve one of the Simarils from Morgoth. After the final battle, the two remaining sons of Fëanor 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, Fëanor is directly responsible for all occasions of elf-on-elf bloodshed, and the destruction of his sons.
Túrin arguably gets it worse. His sister died of sickness when he was young. His father was captured by Morgoth. His mother basically went insane. His other sister... that he didn't know he had... well, we'll get to her. He got sent away from home, and accidentally killed a noble (in self-defence, but he didn't think anyone would buy that, so he ran away before learning he had been pardoned). He lived as an outlaw for years, and eventually when he was recognized by yet another kingdom for his prowess in battle, he met a woman he fell in love with. Remember when we said "We'll get to her"? His sister had lost her memory, and was found by Túrin in that state; no one (including her) knew who she really was, so they got married. After a couple of years ... and having at least one child ... she recovered her memory and realized she was married to her brother, so she committed suicide. Túrin returned from battle to discover this, and then he committed suicide.
The grand champion may be Húrin, Túrin's father. After being captured by Morgoth, he was forced to watch what happened to his children and wife while powerless to do anything about it. He got out again just in time to find his insane wife the day before she died.
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 1984, the government says this to the rebels. Whether or not this is true is up to debate.
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.
Discworld: 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 selling sausages on the street.
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.
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.
With the Star Wars Expanded Universe, with anything set inbetween the movies or inbetween other established canon, you have anybody trying to kill a character that's alive in the later material, it's doomed to fail.
Young Wizards: The whole series and the point for the existence of wizards deal with this trope. The Lone Power invented entropy and while everyone acknowledges it will be the death of the universe, they also know that the point of wizards is to slow down entropy as much as possible.
Exists on both sides of the wizards vs Lone Power battles. The Lone Power who exists outside of time, has already been redeemed, but its shadows still crop up. The wizards know that beating him in linear time won't make a knowable difference while the Lone Power knows it will ultimately lose and be redeemed.
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 Badhas 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, "Screw This, I'm Outta Here!" 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.
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.
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 TearjerkerDowner Endings in the history of, well, history.
Blake's 7 - 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. Even now that he's back in the CIA, he's still got loose plot threads to tie up.
On Castle, any time Beckett comes close to finding her mother's killer, she fails. She first shoots the trigger man to save Castle before finding out who hired him, finds the next killer in the chain only for him to escape custody and kill Montgomery, is shot by a sniper, and after finding him is later thrown off a roof by that same sniper. With the beginning of season 5 it is finally averted when she finally finds the The Man Behind the Man but she is still unable to prove it. When she thinks she might finally have a chance it is yanked away when it turns out that the mastermind is innocent of the current crime and she saves his life instead.
Averted by the end of season five with the conclusion of that story line. Used in small scale with the season five finale episode dealing with getting the wedding. Beckett spends the entire episode tracking down and getting a husband she didn't know she had to sign annulment paperwork, which was complicated by his being kidnapped right in front of her. Interspersed through this are a series of dramas including the wedding venue burning down, a water pipe bursting in her apartment that ruined her dress, trying to relocate and coordinate the shuttling of all the guests within a few days, and Castle getting run off the road and his car set on fire while on the way to the wedding from submitting the annulment paperwork.
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. At least 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 fourth and last season, 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.
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.
In an in-universe semi-example, Klink thought this was true of Hogan and his eponymous heroes. Of course, they could have escaped any time; they just didn't want to because they were being so effective where they were.
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 it's 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.)
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.
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. It just that for exactly the same reason it can't happen until the final minutes of the show, so so long as the series goes on...
Also goes with Barney and Robin now that it's revealed they're getting married: Any other relationship one or the other is in is 100% guaranteed to fail.
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.
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.
Phil of the Future - The time machine being fixed so the Diffys 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.
Prison Break's first season was Exactly What It Says on the Tin, but also had an overarching conspiracy for the characters to get to the bottom of. The actual prison break was obviously unachievable until near the end of the season, but the conspiracy dogged the characters for another three seasons.
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 and he can't remember.
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.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World - Goal: find a way out of the Plateau. But the series would end if the explorers ever did. So, predictably, any lead they discovered to a way out never panned out as they hoped.
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.
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 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 willbe a catch.
In Teen Wolf, if a werewolf kills the Alpha that bit him he can either be cured or take a Klingon Promotion. Knowing this Derek kills Alpha Peter Hale while Scott begs him to stop.
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 and the manipulation of leftover Shadow technology 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.
[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.
The decision was mostly based on the realization that they were promoting a Family-Unfriendly Aesop - "adults will never believe you".
No matter where Mr. Johnson goes, he'll always get Grover to provide service for him. And the service is always terrible, even on rare occasions where his server is actually NOT Grover.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: With very rare exceptions, just about anything any of the main cast tries doing is going to end up failing miserably. The prominent of these is Charlie's crush on the unnamed Waitress; no matter what he does she's never going to fall for him.
Land of the Giants. Their goal was to get out of the titular place. However, something inevitably went wrong every time there was a chance of doing that. Fitzhugh was no help.
The literally classical example is Sisyphus, a Greek king condemned to roll a boulder to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back down, for eternity.
Another example would be Tantalusnote The source of the word tantalize, who is surrounded by fruit and water that always recede away when he reaches for them.
In The Bible, Ephesians 1:4 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,  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 Táin Bó Cúailnge, is a prime example: he was invincible as long as he abstained from consuming dog meat. But before a major battle he found himself passing 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. (And the tale cites his enemy Morrigan knew this.)
Played with in Stern Electronics' Meteor; you can't actually destroy or deflect the incoming projectile, but advancing all three missiles to it enables the Special (free game), which is the next best thing.
Making John Cena say the 2 magic words in an "I Quit" match.
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.
In the official Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 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 whittle 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 with their Insane Troll Logic. Being a race of Blood Knights, they believe there are only three outcomes to a fight: they win, they die fighting, or they retreat (which isn't failure because they can just come back for another go).
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.
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.
There have been a few times it looked like peace would break out at last in BattleTech. Of course, the game is called BattleTech, so something will inevitably plunge the Inner Sphere into war again. The two largest Successor States form an alliance that looks like it will finally conquer the other States once and for all? Throw in a Clan invasion! New Star League formed to combat Clan invasion? FedCom Civil War! Civil war over? Blakists launch a Jihad! Republic of the Sphere rises from the ashes and peace ensues? HPG blackout! It really never ends.
In chess, it is not uncommon to end up in a situation where you would be at a great advantage... if only it weren't your turn. Instead, making any move at all (as you are forced to) would cause the enemy to gain an advantage or cause you to lose yours. This specific scenario is called zugzwang, German for "compulsion to move".
There is a lot of Lampshade Hanging in Pippin on Pippin's persistent failure to find something completely fulfilling to do with his life.
Pretty much every classic arcade game. Or any Endless Game, including Endless Running Games. 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.
In Diablo II 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 after 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 after 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 now assaulting the Worldstone Keep to merge Hell with Earth and destroy humanity.
Act 5: Halfway 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. You then get to Baal and - surprise, surprise - he doesn't seem to have 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! Tyrael 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, once again by mere 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. And let's not forget Diablo is using the body of the Warrior from the first game.
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.
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 Tactics: Advance plot is about you trying to destroy the world, your friends, your crippled 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.
In-universe in Final Fantasy X: summoners don't come back from their pilgrimages alive... and they aren't supposed to. Yuna does manage it, in the end, but not because she wasn't prepared to die — she just wasn't prepared to let someone else become Sin and start the cycle over again.
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...
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.
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 an American being amongst the terrorists. 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.
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. There are some survivors, but you will not succeed in defending Reach though you'll pass the torch to Master Chief for him to save humanity in your place.
Little Busters!: Rin's bad end is mandatory before you can reach her better end. And then there's Saya's route...
No One Lives Forever's Cate Archer suffers some failures early on no matter what the player does, including the assassination of a man the player spent a whole level protecting and the death of her mentor, or so she thinks. It turns out her missions are being sabotaged from within.
StarCraft II 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.
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.
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.
Actually a Pyrrhic Victory is possible; you can't save both of you, but if you give her a heart instead of a head she'll choose to kill herself so you can escape.
In Save The Date, virtually every option you choose leads to Felicia dying and the game restarting. The way you progress in the game is through a system of saving and reloading, and using acquired knowledge to prolong your playthrough.
Sheep, Dog 'n' Wolf: On level 4, you get a magic flute. This flute allows you to hypnotize Sam the Sheepdog, lure him under a falling rock, and steal a sheep before he can react. On level 5, you also get a magic flute. However, when you try to use it on Sam again, you discover that Sam learned from the previous incident and got himself some earplugs. Cue you getting punched all the way back to the starting location. After that, Sam sets up some mines, and starts walking around as opposed to standing in a fixed spot. Even if you already know about this, you still have to do it to be able to advance through the level.
Dragon Age II: No matter what choices Hawke makes or how hard they try, the situation in Kirkwall continues to get worse and worse.
The Dink Network had a mod-building contest once where the submitted mods had to end with Dink failing whatever the main goal was supposed to be. One or two of the better ones, such as The Basilisk Smile, even had multiple ways to fail.
Activision's Oink! for the Atari 2600 is a reversed Breaking Out game based on the Three Little Pigs, where your goal is to see how long you can keep the Big Bad Wolf from eventually breaking through the wall and coming after your pigs.
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.
In Subnormality, there's a game show called "Not Worth It", which features quiz questions so absolutely depressing to know the answer to that even when you win, you lose.
Megatokyo - Goal (for Piro and Largo): Find a way to afford plane tickets back to the U.S., abandoning most of the plot. Yeah, that's gonna happen. They only really attempt this once—Largo gets the money through blackmail, but they waste it all on video games and anime merchandise (which is how they got stuck in Japan in the first place). They eventually get jobs, all the money from which is funneled into Largo's booze and computer parts; several chapters in, they've mostly forgotten about trying to go home.
Buildingverseruns on this, to the extent that there is a literal fail-field hanging around apartment 42.
An in-universe example in Homestuck. In every successful session of Sburb, the White King is destined to lose his one-on-one battle with the Black King and have his staff taken from him (the White King may or may not die as part of this; it presumably depends on the session). Once the Black King has the staff he uses it to start the Reckoning, starting the final battle in which the players and their allies must defeat him and destroy the staff before everything is destroyed. The Black King being killed by Jack Noirbefore this happens is when the Kids session goes completely Off the Rails.
The Whateley Universe also falls under this with a few character arcs, generally intersecting with the First 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!
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.
Worm has Contessa, a parahuman with the superpower of precognition, specifically allowing her to see the precise path to victory in any given situation. Unfortunately, the world also has the Endbringers, a trio of monstrous creatures that regularly destroy cities and are slowly driving humanity to extinction. Contessa's organization, Cauldron, has primarily been seen organizing evacuations.
Zig-zagged: Endbringers are immune to Contessa's power - and they were never the true threat anyway. But Contessa's power and the plans derived from it did turn out to be useless against the real enemy - Scion.
Mrs. Puff: Not even in your dreams, Mr. SquarePants!
Squidward unfortunately has yet to successfully move away and/or receive recognition for his artistic and musical talents, let alone earn any portion of happiness as long as he remains affiliated with Spongebob and Patrick.
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. note 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.
Without this, Dungeons & 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.
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 Proto Man 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 Bros. 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.
There have also been occasions where Sylvester DID eat Tweety, but he was then forced to spit him out.
And delightfully inverted and subverted in "Tiny Toons: How I Spent My Summer Vacation." Beep beep! SPLAT!
Elmer Fudd did manage to kill Bugs in "What's Opera, Doc?" using his "Maaagiiicc Helllmeettt's" weather control powers. But as he was carrying off Bugs's body Bugs looked back at the audience and said "What did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?"
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.
The Super Mario Bros. 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. 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.
TaleSpin 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 in 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 Super Friends - 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 jawbreakers/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.
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.
Ironically enough, in that scenario, it wouldn't have made any difference if she HAD seen them, because she would just had her memory erased with everyone else at the end.
In the episode "Backyard Hodge-Podge," Linda is able to well and truly see what the boys have made. Candace doesn't. Linda decides she is hallucinating from lack of sleep, as she has hallucinated twice already, and goes to bed.
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. Another time they let her escape because Carmen's wanna-be replacement Sara Bellum was even worse. note And Zack felt they owed Carmen a favor since it was only with all three of them working together they escaped Bellum's trap/prison.
This is not an issue in-universe though, as all ponies eventually get cutie marks.
Similarly, it doesn't look much like Rainbow Dash is ever going to get past "loose acquaintance" with her quest to join the Wonderbolts. Maybe they're just embarrassed by her hero worship.
Averted in the episode, "Wonderbolts Academy." Although it teases you that Dash is going to ultimately abandon her dream as a matter of conscience, she is persuaded to stay with her ambition bearing fruit for the right reasons.
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 infatuation with him is a pivitol theme in the show and in several episodes her secret is almost revealed... 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.
In-universe example in Young Justice: in "Depths" Black Manta admits to Kaldur that he would have continued setting up missions with a high chance of failure on Kaldur's part until he did fail, since he wanted to see if Kaldur would take credit for something he didn't actually accomplish. As Black Manta said, "true character is revealed not by success, but by failure."
Wunschpunsch: The spells of the week Bubonic and Tyrannia cast never last long enough to become permanent.