A character decides to do something mischievous or otherwise verboten under the assumption that they have the house for themselves. Rule of Drama ensures that the spouse or parent, who is believed to be away, will show up at the doorstep when it is least appropriate.
Perhaps they forgot something and returned to pick it up or they came back earlier than expected to surprise the character. Whatever the reason, expect a Bedroom Adultery Scene, Not What It Looks Like situation or a Wild Teen Party to ensue in front of their eyes.
Compare Rear Window Investigation which features the early return as a suspense element of the trope while the actual encounter is being averted.
- This creepy rodent control commercial of a family arriving home early from vacation to find giant rats having taken over the living room.
- Played with in a commercial for the Talk Boy, where the user tricks his sister and her boyfriend, when they are cuddling, into thinking the parents are home early, saying in a slowed down tone "hi, kids, we're home early."
- A non-sexual example occurs in Meet the Robinsons when, just after the whole Time Travel adventure has succeeded in setting right what once went wrong, Cornelius Robinson, Lewis' future self, arrives home just in time to see the time machines missing and Lewis standing with the rest of the family.
Franny: Oh boy.
Grandpa Bud: Well, he's home early.
- In Andhadhun, Mr. Sinha comes home to surprise his wife Simi on their anniversary after having told her he was going to Bengaluru, and finds out she's having an affair with Manohar.
- In Body Double the protagonist comes home early to find his girlfriend having sex with another guy. They don't stop when he catches them.
- In Brief Encounter, Alec tries to use a friend's apartment in order to be alone with Laura. However, the friend returns home early because he felt a cold coming. In her rush on the way out to the back, Laura forgets her scarf which tips Alec's friend off about her presence and causes a fallout between the two friends.
- Chalet Girl: Doubles as a Birthday Suit Surprise Party: The Madsens happen to arrive at their chalet early than expected and catch their chalet girls throwing a birthday party for Kim at the hot tub. They also happen to arrive just as the drunk Kim surfaced from the tub to go dancing in the snow while naked. Cue Naked Freak-Out from Kim who quickly employs Hand-or-Object Underwear.
- Dear John: John the sea captain got back early from a voyage and found his wife in bed with his business partner. This makes him reluctant to commit to his whirlwind romance with Anita.
- This is mentioned as part of Chris' backstory in Hunted. One day he came home unexpectedly only to find his wife dressed up in clothes he has never seen on her before. Turns out she was having an affair with her boss. The film opens with Chris murdering said boss out of revenge which sends him on a Stern Chase.
- In Intolerable Cruelty, a film producer returns to his plush LA home in his smart convertible and finds the van of the local pool man in his driveway. The producer doesn't own a swimming pool. He enters the house and heads for the bedroom, only to find a freshly vacated marital bed. A comedic fight ensues as the lovers enter the scene. After the fight people dash away in their cars. This scene is obviously a Shout-Out to Mulholland Dr..
- The opening scene in Last Christmas has Kate spending the night with a man who lets her use his shower while he leaves the apartment. While taking a shower, the man's girlfriend suddenly shows up to shout surprise while removing her clothes, only to find Kate in there.
- In Love Actually, Jamie comes home early only to find out that his brother was having a sexual relationship with his wife.
- In Lucky Number Slevin, Slevin comes home early, only to catch his surprised girlfriend red-handed with some guy in a Bedroom Adultery Scene. She tries to explain that it was an accident. Subverted later when it turns out the story was made up by Slevin.
- In Minority Report, one of the red ball precrimes is a man realizing he forgot his glasses on his way to work and returning for it, only to find his wife en flagrante with another man, and killing them both.
- In Mulholland Dr., the director is fired from his directing job so he comes home early to find his wife in bed with the poolman. After a scuffle, the director is forced out of his house.
- The opening scene of Old School has Mitch (Luke Wilson) coming home early from a business trip to surprise his wife, only to find her hosting an orgy, and that she does so regularly.
- Happens in Parasite (2019) when the Kims throw a party together at the Parks' place, assuming that the owners won't be back from their camping trip until the next day or so (despite the strong storm). Then Ms. Park phones in saying they will be back in 8 minutes. Cue an Oh, Crap! reaction.
- Working Girl: Tess comes home from work and walks in on her boyfriend with a girl from the neighborhood. His only words are "No class tonight?" (She's in night school and he's apparently been taking advantage of her absences to have his affair)
- In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth agrees to tour Darcy's estate with her aunt and uncle only after confirming that he's away this week. Naturally, Darcy has to return a day early, much to her mortification. However, he's quite happy to find her because it gives him a chance to show his improved manners from the last time they met.
- Happens a few times in That '70s Show.
- Once in a very early episode in which Eric goes to Donna's house in the middle of the night while her parents are away to find that they've come home early.
- Again when Donna and Eric take advantage of having the house to themselves, when all of the other characters come home almost immediately, much earlier than anticipated.
- Also when Eric has "borrowed" his dad's car and relaxes, glad that he has so much time to clean up - but he learns that he only has forty minutes.
- Beckett and Castle once found themselves in charge of the precinct while Gates was away at a conference on terrorism. They catch a case where they have to remodel the station like it was in The '70s. (It Makes Sense in Context.) While they're doing this, Gates returns early after the conference was cancelled because of a bomb scare.
- In Cheers episode "Let Sleeping Drakes Lie", Norm gets hired by Rebecca's boss to paint his bedroom while he was away in Europe. He decides to bring Rebecca into the room and show her around. That's when the boss returns from his trip early and Rebecca has to hide in the closet. The rest of the episode involves Norm's attempts to get her out.
- The Inciting Incident in Crashing (US) is Pete coming home early and walking in on his wife Jess who just had sex with some guy.
- Devious Maids: In "Setting the Table", Spicy Latina maid Carmen is quick to take advantage of the fact her boss Alejandro will be out of the house for a while to enjoy its luxuries herself, including going Skinny Dipping in his pool, uncaring about doing so in front of her coworker Sam who is too taken by the sight to properly protest. Later, while Carmen is playing in their piano in only a Modesty Towel, the housekeeper Odessa comes back sooner than expected and her and Sam start to Freak Out. When Odessa walks in, she finds Sam wiping down the piano with the towel, while Carmen is hiding inside the piano completely naked.
- In Different Strokes, the family comes home early from a ski trip due to bad weather. They arrive in the morning, and Mr. Drummond (who stayed home) has an overnight female guest. This puts him in the awkward position of explaining her presence to Arnold.
- The title characters of Drake & Josh turn the house into an inn while their parents are away, and it becomes a monumental affair. The parents call the boys to tell them that they're coming home early. They clean it up in time, but get busted anyway.
- Even Stevens: While the parents had to leave the house for a bit, Louis uses the opportunity to use the house as a hotel as a fund-raiser for a ski trip. Louis (and eventually Ren, as soon as she finds out and ends up allowing it to happen due to a boy at the house) eventually ended up having to get the guests to leave early due to the parents coming home early (When the parents called to check up on Louis, one of the guests answered and, mistaking "Louis" for her husband rather than the guy actually running the hotel, responded that Louis broke his back [Beans had injured the other Louis earlier due to using boots to massage his back], and the woman mistook her for a woman that Louis may have actually been seeing while still married to her.). They would have gotten away with it, had one of the guests also not also happen to be one of San Francisco's news anchors and more importantly reported on the "hotel" on the news the next morning with the parents watching.
- In Fear the Walking Dead, the neighbor tried to get home to his wife early when things started getting weird but couldn't get a flight. He instead got a rental car and drove into Los Angeles without a hitch because everyone was at that point trying to get out. His unfortunate surprise was nearly getting bitten by his newly zombified wife — and then saved by the military blowing her head off before she could.
- Hardcastle and McCormick: While Judge Hardcastle is out of town, his live-in parolee/sidekick Mark McCormick hosts a poker game that gets severely out of hand. When Mark has to leave to pick the Judge up from the airport (he got back unexpectedly early), they come back to find that nearly everything in the house has been stolen. Even the furniture. Can't Get Away with Nuthin' with a vengeance.
- In I'll Fly Away, a teenage couple is basking in the afterglow when they hear the sound of a door opening and jump up, yelling, "What are they doing home?!", having clearly assumed that they would have the house to themselves for hours.
- The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: Phil and Vivian go out of town and specifically warn Will not to do anything stupid while they're gone. Carlton then rents out the house so that the band Bell Biv Devoe can shoot their music video about a wild party. The house ends up being trashed (as if it was a real party), and Phil and Vivian decide to come back early. They end up spending all of the money from the rental on fixing up the house.
- In The Leftovers episode "Don't Be Ridiculous", Nora returns home early from her journey only to bump into Kevin as he is about to suffocate himself via suicide bag. He then confesses to her that he only wanted to see how it felt.
- Sex and the City:
- After her current boyfriend leaves her at his place to go to a soccer game, Carrie proceeds to snoop and search through everything, determined to find proof that he's not the nice guy he's seemed to be. He walks in on her, having nixed the game and decided to spend the day with her and is so hurt/angry/disgusted at her lack of respect for his privacy that he tells her to leave.
- In another episode, she remains at Big's apartment after one of their trysts, only to be caught by his wife Natasha when she returns home from the Hamptons.
- Smallville: In "Jitters", Clark's parents go to Metropolis for an evening, so he invites a few people over. This becomes a full Wild Teen Party complete with a trashed house. The next morning Clark uses his Super Speed to clean up, figuring on his parents being none the wiser when they get home - but when he gets done he turns around to see them in the door, applauding his finish.
- In the pilot of 2 Broke Girls, Caroline tells Max that her (Max's) boyfriend is cheating on her. Max goes to her apartment to find her boyfriend in bed with another woman. "Babe, babe, I can explain. You weren't supposed to be home."
- Used as the punchline to a rather values-dissonant episode of Steptoe and Son. Harold strikes up a friendship with a man he doesn't realise is gay, which was criminalised in the UK at the time. When Harold is visiting, the friend tries to seduce him. Harold makes his excuses and, as he leaves, finds a policeman at the door. He gives a hasty excuse and runs away. The episode ends with the friend telling the policeman: "Hello Edgar. You're home early."
- Inverted in Slim Dusty's "The Pub With No Beer" — it's the person who arrives home early who gets caught out:
And old Billy the blacksmith, the first time in his life
Why, he's gone home cold sober to his darling wife
He walks in the kitchen, she says "You're early, Bill dear
But then he breaks down and tells her: The pub's got no beer.
- The Garth Brooks song "Papa Loved Mama" tells the story of a long haul truck driver and his wife, who "needed more to hold than just the telephone." When he comes back early to find his wife missing, he goes into a rage and kills her and her lover by smashing his truck at full speed right into the motel.
- George Jones' "Radio Lover" is about a late-night DJ whose wife has her lover over while he's on air. Then one night he pre-records his show so he can be with her for their anniversary and catches them.
- In Jon Secada's song "Too Late, Too Soon", the protagonist takes an early flight to get back from a business trip. . . only to find his wife in bed with another man. Interestingly, the title refers to the fact that he was both too late and too soon to save his marriage.
- In the operetta La Belle Helene, there's a short song devoted to explaining that a husband who comes home early and without warning has only himself to blame if he sees things he shouldn't (such as his wife and her lover in bed). In this case, the husband is Menelaus, who was sent off to Crete to get him out of the way by Paris, and returns to find him hitting on his wife Helen.
- In Street Scene, Mr. Maurrant unexpectedly comes back home when he was supposed to be off to Stamford. Sam, his daughter's boyfriend, shortly earlier witnessed Mrs. Maurrant inviting Sankey, the milk collector into her apartment, closing the windows (despite the Heat Wave) and pulling the shades down. Mr. Maurrant notices the drawn shades, advances toward the house, and hurls Sam violently aside when he tries to block the steps. When Mrs. Jones leans out the window to see what's happening, Sam hysterically tells her to inform Mrs. Maurrant about her husband's return. But it's too late: a moment later screams of terror are heard coming from the Maurrant apartment, followed by gunshots.
- The Sims 2 has this scenario set up in one of the premade households. The husband is having an affair with the maid, if the player follows the onscreen suggestions, they, and a rigged chance card will lead to the wife being fired or demoted and coming home early to catch him in bed with the maid. Of course, it's easy enough to avoid the entire thing by not having the man get in bed with the maid or by ignoring the chance card.
- In a League of Super Redundant Heroes strip titled "Assumptions", a husband comes home early to find his wife in the bedroom wearing a kinky outfit and being tied up by a strange man also in a kinky outfit; despite her protests that it's Not What It Looks Like, he walks out on her. The final panel reveals that it really wasn't what it looked like: she's a supervillain, and her husband walked in on her being captured by her superhero archnemesis.
- Hilariously subverted in the decidedly NSFW webcomic Linburger. The female lead has just had an extremely rough day at work and is looking forward to getting home to her boyfriend, but when she walks into their place he is in flagrante delicto on the couch with her best friend. Cue a close-up of the bag the heroine was carrying hitting the floor... As she nonchalantly greets the two of them and complains about her shoulder hurting. Turns out they're part of a subculture where polyamory is the norm.
- Parodied in the XKCD strip "Scheduling," in which this scenario goes in a wildly different direction.
- The Amazing World of Gumball: In "The Lady", Darwin and Gumball first encounter "Samantha" (Richard's female alter ego) when they're sent home from school early on account of the staff being incapacitated.
- Braceface: In "Home Alone", Sharon's brothers take advantage of the fact their babysitter had to leave them due to a family emergency to throw a Wild Teen Party. Sharon tries to be the responsible one doing the chores and whatnot. The one time she does try to loosen up and relax is when her mom, not surprisingly, comes back early from her vacation. Though her brothers get her off the hook by taking responsibility for the party, the most punishment Sharon gets is not getting the desired curfew extension she wanted.
- Codename: Kids Next Door: "Operation: P.A.R.T.Y.", When Father goes away for the day, The DCFDTL invite Cree and the teenagers to their mansion to plan a new strategy against the Kids Next Door, but instead, the teenagers turn it into a Wild Teen Party, leaving the DCFDTL to call Sector V for help. The party comes to an abrupt end when the teens realize Father's on his way home early than they expected.
- Subverted in The Simpsons episode "Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind". Homer comes home early and catches Marge with Duff Man on the couch. However, the situation is Not What It Looks Like. What Homer takes as a Bedroom Adultery Scene turns out to be the planning of a surprise birthday party for him.
- This happens a couple of times in Trollhunters, but most notably when Jim's mother says she probably has to take a weekend shift at the hospital, so Jim, Draal, and Strickler booby-trap the house in preparation to bring the fight with Angor Rot there. However, the shift becomes unnecessary so she comes back without warning, and Hilarity Ensues as she almost gets hit by an ax, sprays Draal with mace and knocks him unconscious under a bookcase, and chugs an entire pitcher of water before finally learning Jim's secret.