At the end of Season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy's apparent choices, if she and The Scoobies cannot stop Glory from starting the ritual that would end the world and kill all human life, are to kill Dawn and save the world, which Giles tries and fails to convince her is the best action, or to save Dawn temporarily but let the whole world be destroyed, which is what her deontological instincts tell her is still preferable. The ritual is not prevented, and Buffy sacrifices her own life, her blood being similar enough to Dawn's, to save the world without killing an innocent
In Supernatural, season five has Dean and Sam refusing to play along with Heaven's will that Dean become Michael's host and Sam Lucifer's host so the angelic brothers can finish the final battle and fight each other to the death. Saying yes would thus raze the world either way, but result in paradise if Michael wins (as the angels believe he will). Lucifer wants Sam to say 'yes' because he believes he'll win, at which point he'll kick the Apocalypse into full gear and kill everyone. If the brothers both say 'no', Lucifer will use his present inadequate host to continue the Apocalypse at the current pace.
In a literal example by Michael, Dean is told to say 'yes' or 'no' to Michael (Well, he's told to say yes or die, but he'll die if he says yes...) When he says 'yes' but takes it back so he doesn't disappoint Sam, Michael then uses Adam, Sam and Dean's half-brother, as a vessel instead (it had to be someone from that particular bloodline).
In Revenge after Takeda murders Tyler in order to protect Emily's secret, he tells her that either her fiance Daniel or childhood love Jack must take the blame and that she can't save both. She does, however, by setting up Grayson thug Lee Moran instead.
The titular character from BBC's Sherlock tried to do this in answer to Jim Moriarty's Evil Plan in The Reichenbach Fall. It didn't work.
Another example occurs in A Study in Pink. At the climax, Sherlock is forced into playing a Russian-Roulette-style game with the villain, involving two pills, one harmless and one lethal. Sherlock instead chooses to be shot, having noticed that the villain's gun is in fact a novelty cigarette lighter.
In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Patterns of Force", Kirk and Spock are in a situation where a Nazi planet, created by a stupid Federation historian, is about to launch a genocidal invasion on a peaceful planet. One of their allies pleads with them to have the Enterprise to destroy the fleet as a lesser evil than letting the slaughter begin. Kirk balks at this bloody option, wanting to help the Nazi planet get back to normal, as well as protect its potential victims. In the end, Kirk makes the drugged Fuehrer cancel the invasion instead.
Another Star Trek: The Original Series episode, "Operation: Annihilate!" confronts Kirk with a choice between allowing body-snatching parasites to spread further or killing the existing victims (over a million people, including Spock and his own nephew). Kirk specifically tells Spock and McCoy, "I want that third alternative!" They find it, but it's a near thing.
Another one was Kirk's Kobayashi Maru. Option one was respond to rescue call and be destroyed, option two was to abandon the Kobayashi Maru, potentially preventing war but leaving the crew and passengers to die. Kirk decided to Take aThird Option and cheat.
Not really a third option within the test, in the strictest sense...
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Emissary," Capt. Picard is told that a sleeper ship of Klingons is about to wake up with standard orders to attack the Federation. Ambassador K'Ehleyr gives only two options: Let them attack with great loss of life, or kill them before they start. However, Picard orders her and Worf to come up with better options, and after considerable difficulty, they do come up with a better solution — Worf and K'Ehleyr dress up as a captain and his first officer and berate the rather surprised Klingons for not realizing that the war would already be over by that point, implying (but not directly stating) that the Klingons conquered the Federation.
In another episode, Riker describes another Starfleet captain doing this at the Academy. There was a navigation test with three possible solutions. The captain in question (then a cadet) rejected them and offered his own. The test now has four solutions.
In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Author, Author", Neelix tries to invoke this when giving advice to the Doctor about the conflict of the episode, mentioning a Talaxian saying that went "When the road before you splits in two, take the third path." However, Scifi Debris points out the Fridge Logic of this:
In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Way of the Warrior", Sisko explicitly states they need a third option. The two available are to betray the Klingons and warn the Cardassians about an invasion, or do nothing, meaning things likely won't stop there. The option Sisko finds is to get measured for a new suit by the resident Cardassian tailor during a briefing, thus "accidentally" allowing him to warn the Cardassians while maintaining officially neutral.
In "Profit & Loss", three Cardassian fugitives hide from their government on Deep Space Nine while they plan how to escape Cardassian law completely. Garak is ordered by the Central Command to deal with this since he lives on the station and initially has the option of either capturing them or executing them. This option is reduced to executing them by the mission's overseer, Gul Toran, who winds up creating the choice between them being executed by Garak or himself (he prefers himself as he can take the credit). Garak solves the entire sorry mess with an option that is neither sending them back as living prisoners nor executing them: he kills Toran and helps the fugitives escape the station and Cardassian law entirely.
In "Sons of Mogh", Worf has to deal with the matter of his brother, Kurn. Because he turned against the Empire to side with the Federation, their house has been dismantled and Kurn disgraced beyond redemption. Under Klingon tradition, Worf would normally ritually sacrifice him to restore his honor, but that's murder under Federation law, so he's not allowed to perform it. Since the status quo is unacceptable, neither is carrying out the ritual, Worf has to find an alternative. The solution is to have Dr. Bashir alter Kurn's appearance and block his memories, allowing him to be adopted by a friendly house and be freed of Worf's dishonor without dying.
It made sense when he found out the man was a bird lover. And he got everything he needed at Radio Shack. Except for the hat.
If not revealed is it not heavily implied said man has been made a living scarecrow?
In an episode of MacGyver, Mac chases a group of gang members through an abandoned building and suddenly comes across an open door and a staircase, not knowing through where the gang went. He then uses his penknife to open a nearby locked door... only to fall into a snare trap with a bomb (which turns out to be fake). It was all for the best though, as the gang's apparent military training coupled with the fact that they knew Mac would go through the locked door allows him to, with help, deduce the gang's ringleader's identity: (his police chief friend, who is also a former Marine).
The sketch show Almost Live!, parodies this with the sketch "You Make the Call" (which was recycled for the show Haywire). Someone would have two choices, such as whether to run a red light and risk either a ticket or being late for work again. The third option was to just take a bazooka to the traffic light.
Used directly or indirectly in several episodes of Stargate SG-1, such as "Urgo" (SG-1 can live with the annoying Urgo for the rest of their lives, or have him removed from their minds, effectively "killing" him) and "Zero Hour" (Turn Camulus over to Ba'al or SG-1 will be killed). Lampshaded in the episode "Fail Safe", in which the presented third option is so outrageous that Col. O'Neill requests a fourth option.
In the episode "Moebius", SG-1's ship is discovered by the Jaffa in ancient Egypt. They can attempt to attack the Jaffa but then alter history, or they could just give up and spend their lives trapped in the past (with the added headache of having to live under Ra's rule). It's Daniel Jackson who comes up with a brilliant third option of burying the thing they came for so that they wouldn't have to go back in time to begin with. There's a reason he was the Smart Guy.
There's also "1969", where O'Neill tries to invoke this trope:
Carter: I can't think of an "or" at the moment, sir.
O'Neill: Major; where there's a will there's an "or".
In The Vampire Diaries, Katherine is faced an extremely difficult decision drained of The Cure that made her human and is rapidly dying of old age. She gave Stefan advice on taking care of your personal problems or running from it. For her, she has to either find a way to save her life or endure her own aging until the end. Instead, Katherine attempted to commit suicide.
Stefan: What are you doing?
Katherine: I told you. You can either face your problems or you run. I chose Option 3.
In Only Fools and Horses, market trader Derek Trotter is caught with a stolen microwave, and threatened with a charge of trafficking in stolen goods if he doesn't reveal the thief. If he won't talk, he and his family will suffer serious legal consequences. However, revealing the thief in exchange for immunity would make him a grass. When Derek agrees to the second option, his family is shocked... until, with full immunity in hand, he writes the name of the thief: 'Derek Trotter'
In the conclusion of the main story arc of Babylon 5, Captain Sheridan is asked to choose between Vorlons and the Shadows. He tells both to "get the hell out of his galaxy" instead.
When Delenn is facing flak from other Minbari for her choice to marry Sheridan on racial purity grounds, Delenn goes on a vision quest which eventually causes her to realize that she is descended from Valen aka Commander Sinclair, a human turned Minbari. She threatened the guy involved that either they will accept her choice, or she will blab how many Minbari are not as pure as they thought they were, something that would throw Minbari society into chaos. Just before Delenn storms out, he offers a third option: invoking an old Minbari tradition hailing from the bad old days when they still killed each other: that someone from the each of the clans would marry each other after the fighting stopped, as a symbol to help rebuild.
Delenn did this twice more in one episode. First, given the choice of the Religious caste surrendering or lots of people dying, she pulls out an ancient Minbari test of dedication and publicly shames the Warrior caste leader into taking part. She then takes a Third Option for the entire Minbari caste crisis by putting the Worker caste in charge.
Delenn likes these. She gives the Command Staff a third option when they must deal with a psychic Bester. They're choices are killing him or imprisoning if he violates Psi Cop rules about unauthorized scans. Delenn offers them some Mimbari telepaths to block Bester until he is drugged and power inhibited.
Paul McDermott of Good News Week, on the controversy over whether the New Millennium would start in 2000 or 2001:
"Thankfully, there's always the Australian solution: We start drinking on the 31st of December 1999, and we finish on the 1st of January 2001!"
In the episode "Happy Birthday, Mr. Monk", Monk is given a choice: Hide in a Porta-John or a dumpster. His answer? "I choose death!"
Subverted in Doctor Who, The Beast Below. While two of the Doctor's options are horrendous (Kill everyone onboard or let the Space Whale suffer for eternity), his third option is equally horrible (Lobotomise the whale). Lucky for us, Amy's Moment Of Awesome comes when she notices that the whale is actually doing this voluntarily. She presses the "Abdicate" button stopping the whales torture and leaving it free to escape...and the ship actually goes FASTER. Effectively taking a fourth option. Five bucks, the Doctor is probably feeling very humiliated.
Technically speaking, it's one of the original two options, but with unexpected consequences, since it seemed to have not occurred to anyone else that the Space Whale might have wanted to help the humans and that torturing it to gain it's compliance was completely unnecessary. But yes, humiliation galore, no doubt.
Possibly humiliated, but most humiliation avoided by the utterly heartwarming fact that Amy knew the space whale was doing it voluntarily because it was so much like the Doctor.
Amy: "It came because it couldn't stand to watch your children cry. What if you were really old, and really kind and alone? Your whole race dead, no future. What couldn't you do then? If you were that old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind.... you couldn't just stand there and watch children cry."
In the Episode "Amy's Choice", the "Dream Lord" forces the Doctor, his companion, and his companion's boyfriend to pick which of two worlds was reality. They were both dreams.
The choice Amy makes is itself a Third Option. Given the choice between a life with Rory and a life with the Doctor, she chooses the Doctor's world because it has Rory in it. His death effectively made the choice a lot easier for her and basically clarifies that she'll probably choose Rory in the real world in the end anyway.
Before that, in "The End of Time," The Doctor must choose between killing the Master (and supposedly severing the link Gallifrey has to Earth) or killing Rassilon to end the threat. After seeing a certain Time Lady reveal her face, The Doctor took a third option: Shooting the Whitepoint Diamond and the machine that served as the actual link Gallifrey had to Earth, sparing the Master to perform his Moment Of Awesome.
The Doctor: Get out of the way.
In The Day of the Doctor, the Doctor(s) pull this off when figuring out a way to peacefully deal with the Zygon invasion of Earth and then spectacularly when they figure out a way to end the Time War, get rid of the Daleks, and still save billions of innocents on Gallifrey.
Meanwhile, he calls back to "The End of Time" and to Rassilon's declaration that either Gallifrey falls or Gallifrey rises. Just before the climax, the Doctor declares a third option: Gallifrey Stands.
Torchwood: Children of Earth has a very dark example towards the end. By the start of Day 5, the options seem to be handing over millions of children to the 456 or fighting what is, from all available evidence, a losing battle to save them. Eventually Jack finds his third option - destroying the 456 by exploiting the signal they used to control the children. However, his plan will result in the death of whichever child is at the centre of the resonance, and the only one available is Jack's grandson.
In Kamen Rider Blade, Kenzaki is left with a Sadistic Choice at the finale. He can ether choose to seal the Black Joker, thus sealing away the innocent Hajime persona he and the others have befriended and who isn't responsible for his actions or allow the Black Joker to complete the destruction of humanity. So, what does he do? he fights the Black Joker long enough that Blade's King Form transforms him into the Azure Joker Undead. This makes the Black Joker no longer the winner of the Battle Fight and allows Hajime to return to his human life...though it also means they can never be near one another or they'll be forced to fight. Still, much better than the other options.
In an episode of Leverage, Moreau wants Eliot to kill a general to prove he's still the same Eliot, before he'll give the team the address of the auction they need to take down. If they don't take down the option, a nasty bomb gets sold to terrorists, and Moreau gets away. Eliot agrees - you see the assassination take place. Cut to the hospital, they've picked up the body - Eliot swapped the general with a corpse and "killed" the corpse, then Sophie posed as the grieving wife and ID'd the "general's" body. Course, the address led them to a trap... but still.
Parker also pulls off this in the Long Way Down Job. When she and Eliot are trying to recover the body of the victim who was left to die on a mountain, they fail also losing the evidence for their case. However they do manage to recover his cell phone that sends a message once it is brought down, both incriminating the suspect and giving a message to the victim's wife.
Minor example from Las Vegas: Sam is told that a whale with extremely sweaty palms must leave the casino because he's grossing people out, but doesn't want to hurt his feelings by expelling him from the last place he hasn't already been kicked out of. She solves the quandary by setting up a high-stakes game in the hotel swimming pool, with a floating table and waterproof cards.
iCarly: In one episode Carly and Sam get into an argument and force Freddie to decide who is correct. Freddie decides on an internet poll. After Freddie reveals who won out of the two girls, he reveals the third option which was both girls were being stupid and should make up. It won more than 200 times as many votes than the other two options.
In one episode of House, the titular doctor announces he's choosing a team leader from his four minions. Three of them promptly begin competing and are soon stuck in what amounts to a game show for House's amusement. Taub stays out of it an offers to split the pay raise with House; he is promptly made team leader.
One episode with a focus on backstory shows how House got his leg in the shape it is: an aneurism in his thigh caused the muscles in his leg to become necrotic. An amputation would save his life, but House stubbornly refused to have his leg removed, even though it could kill him. His boss, Lisa Cuddy, and his girlfriend at the time and medical proxy, Stacey Warner, took a third option: an operation that would only remove the necrotic tissue and restore blood flow to his thigh. It succeeded, but because so much muscle tissue had been damaged, he needs to use a cane to walk and lives with such debilitating pain that it would lead to his Vicodin addiction.
Defied in an episode of The Daily Show where, while debating Fox News's intent on a recent story, Wyatt Cenac argued that Fox was evil and John Oliver argued that they were stupid. When Jon suggested the existence of a third option...
Oliver:These are the only two possible explanations, because if they're not as stupid as I believe them to be, they are really f*cking evil.
Cenac:And if they're not as evil as I think they are, they are STUPID.
Averted in episode of The West Wing. After Matt Santos is elected President, he has to choose between letting a political opponent be elected Speaker of the House or try to influence the election for the other candidate, who happens to be an old friend of his (which looks like blatant cronyism). They come up with a third option, convince his friend to withdraw and throw his support behind a dark horse candidate, who would then owe Santos a big pile of favors. Ultimately, Santos decides that such quasi-unethical political maneuvering is not how he wants to start his presidency, and refuses to interfere at all.
Faced with public outcry against a brutal dictator coming to New York for medical treatment, Frank has the police protect him before and during his surgery, then as soon as he's able to be moved he puts him on a plane back home, where a popular uprising has just deposed his government.
Faced with a white supremacist radio host making a live broadcast from a New York theater, Frank ensures the show can technically go on, but puts the man's police protection inside the theater and staffs it entirely with non-white officers led by a VERY large black sergeant.
Faced with finding a way to protect a Turkish violinist in danger of an honor killing if she returns home (the State Department's representative had wanted to grant asylum but the higher-ups vetoed it), Frank works his contacts and gets the New York Philharmonic to hire her, and the representative is only too glad to get her a work visa.
When an off duty police officer, who has had a few drinks, stops a robbery at first he is an hero - then he is in trouble for pulling his gun after drinking. Frank is advised to stay out of it. Instead he calls a press conference and announces the man will be slightly punished, but he gets to keep his job.
In one late episode of Quantum Leap, Sam's currently stuck in the guise of a lowlife married to two different wives and several kids. In order to get him to turn his life around he and Al need to break up with one of them, but they don't know which one to do so in order to create a better timeline. Instead, Sam gets both of them to break up with him, allowing both women to fix their own lives as his host was making them both miserable. In turn, this event is what allows the host to turn his own life around.
In The Borgias, if Florence doesn't let the French enter their city, the French will probably destroy it. However, if they "surrender," they will be excommunicated. So what does Machiavelli do? Let the French come in "as friends," with their lances angled backwards to indicate they are not conquering the city. (The lances pointing straight up kept them from coming in at all, hence angling them backwards as a "symbol of Your Majesty's infinite resourcefulness," a neat turn of phrase as it was in fact Machiavelli's idea and not the king's.)
He always finds the third option. In another episode, some followers of Savonarola come to Machiavelli's door demanding vanities to be burnt in a bonfire. He doesn't want to give them books, which is what they first ask for, but they'll break his windows if they don't get anything. So he decides to give them a stuffed owl so they'll just go away and not get anything important.
On one episode of Blossom, we find out that Joey recently cheated on a test because failing would have meant getting kicked off a sports team. Unfortunately, he does too well and gets promoted to a more advanced class. His options are to either try the course, fail, get sent back to his original class, and get kicked off the team; or admit he cheated, get sent back to his original class, and get kicked off the team. While discussing his problem with Anthony, they discover that the next test has a grade that has to be achieved to stay in the class which is slightly higher than passing. So, Joey decides to do well enough on the test to pass, but badly enough to get sent back to his original class. This proves to be harder than he thought.
On one episode of Diff'rent Strokes, Arnold takes karate. Later, he has a "fight" against Willis to demonstrate his skill, but Willis lets him think he beat him fair and square. Then, he watches in shock as Arnold calls up "The Gooch" and challenges him to a fight. He's left debating whether to let Arnold fight "The Gooch" and possibly get seriously hurt or tell him he let Arnold win their fight and hurt his feelings. He ends up calling "The Gooch" and telling him that Arnold is taking karate. "The Gooch" ends up abandoning the fight.