The Consequences of Television

So, in class, we were talking about The Colbys, particularly the finale, where suddenly the producers bring aliens into the mix. However, The Colbys was spun off from Dynasty, and the character that was abducted by aliens later comes back to Dynasty, and is given a different back story, stating that her problems are the result of more mundane mental problems. Another show that faced these sorts of consequences was Dallas, where an entire season was retconned out of existence to bring back Patrick Duffy’s character, who had died earlier. However, the spin-off, Knots Landing, continued on as though his character was dead.

The mother of all consequences is the finale of St. Elsewhere’s, which reveals that the entirety of the show had been the fantasty of an autistic child, Tommy Westphall. What the producers probably did not take into account when they made this decision was that, through cross-overs and references, this would affect many, many episodes. In fact, fans have constructed an elaborate theory, mapping out the full extent of what constitutes the so-called Tommy Westphall Universe. Virtually every show you can imagine can ultimately be tied back to St. Elsewhere’s.

This link leads to a fairly detailed rundown of the Tommy Westphall Universe. The site contains a map of shows connected to St. Elsewhere’s, and there is a download for a PDF of a key to exactly how everything is tied together.

Some of the connections are fairly reasonable. As can be seen in the map, the other major show in this theory is Homicide: Life on the Street. At some point, a character from St. Elsewhere’s was investigated by detectives from Homicide. Homicide spawned the character John Munch, who has gone on to appear in a very large number of series. Munch went on to be a regular on Law and Order: SVU, which puts the entirety of the Law and Order franchise in the Universe. Munch has gone on to make cameos in The Wire, Arrested Development, and the X-Files. The X-Files crossed over with the Simpsons, which crossed-over with King of the Hill; the character of Hank Hill first appeared in Beavis and Butthead, which had a spin-off in the form of Daria. It’s all in the Universe.

Obviously, it gets pretty silly when you take it too far. It’s not too hard to imagine Homicide, The Wire, and the Law and Order franchise all existing in the same universe, but it gets to be a stretch once you try to accept that the X-Files fits in as well, and is particularly difficult once you try to bring in cartoons.

It gets particularly difficult once you get into fantasy and sci-fi shows. It starts out reasonably enough. Characters from St. Elsewhere’s once visited the bar from Cheers. Cheers led to the spin-off Frasier. A character from The John Larroquette Show once called in to Frasier’s radio show. here’s where stuff gets silly: The John Larroquette Show features references to Yoyodyne, the company from the movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 9th Dimension! Much of the equipment in later Star Trek series are made by Yoyodyne. In Angel, the evil law firm Wolfram and Hart represents Yoyodyne, which brings both Angel and Buffy into the Universe. Wolfram and Hart also represents Weyland Yutani, the company from the Alien movie series, which also brings in the Predator films. Weyland Yutani also makes equipment in Firefly. A Firefly-class ship is seen in the background of the miniseries pilot of Battlestar Galactica. And in an episode of Red Dwarf, the characters visit a ship graveyard featuring a ship made by Weyland Yutani, as well as the Tardis from Doctor Who.

As you can see, this whole theory quickly falls apart once you take every little in-joke and easter egg as significant. Just making a joke about Yoyodyne doesn’t make something all a dream. The only things that really have a significant connection to St. Elsewhere’s are the shows that directly crossed-over with it, and even then, the makes of Cheers or Homicide had no idea that doing a cross-over would plunge their shows into fantasy. Some shows are making very direct connections. Homicide, The Wire, Law and Order, they’re all pretty directly tied. Friends and Mad About You made it very explicit that they were set in the same fictional New York. Ties between shows are very common, and little in-jokes run rampant. But seeing a Firefly-class ship in the background of a scene in Battlestar Galactica does not put them in the same universe, let alone in the mind of a small child.

The Tommy Westphall Universe is a kind of novel idea, and it appeals in the same sort of way that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon does. In the end of the day, though, it really does come down to a lot of people with too much time on their hand.

  1. Sarah’s avatar

    Hi Nick,

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  2. Jason Mittell’s avatar

    I love the Tommy Westphall Hypothesis! Also check out Six Objections to the Westphall Hypothesis, a philosophical dismantling of the idea. But the whole TW fan culture suggests the way that seriality and canonicity is so appealing to some people…


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