“The last five minutes of St. Elsewhere is the only television show, ever. Everything else is a daydream.”
So explains the late, great, comic and animation creator Dwayne McDuffie, introducing one of the great television conspiracies of all time. But who is Tommy Westphall, and why does he turn almost all of television into a single, overarching conspiracy theory?
We all enjoy our crossovers. It’s one of the reasons that so many of us enjoy comic book “team-ups”, and one of the many reasons we’re all looking forward to the Avengers movie this May. Certainly TV has its crossovers, which can be great for a laugh when Cosmo Kramer shows up in a cameo during Mad About You’s first season.
But take it too far – as far as comic fans, or any adherent of “continuity” or “canon” always want to – and, well, that way lies madness. McDuffie explained the potential consequences – and his chilling conclusion about St. Elsewhere’s ultimate primacy – in a classic article based on some preexisting work. But here’s how it impacts the “world of television”: If every show that crosses over with one another is in the same overall continuity, then almost all of television exists in the mind of a single daydreaming child.
In the last scene of final episode of St. Elsewhere, Tommy, the young son of Dr. Westphall, is shown looking intently at a snowglobe with a miniature hospital in it. His father enters – the same actor who played the doctor – but now he’s a construction worker, and remarks that Tommy seems fixated on that snowglobe – as if he lives in his own world. So all of the show – until those last five minutes – was taking place in Tommy’s head. Fair enough.
But wait! Alfre Woodard and Ed Begley, Jr. played Doctors Roxanne Turner and Victor Ehrlich on St. Elsewhere — and then played those characters again in Homicide: Life on the Street. If these are the same characters, in the same universe, then St. Elsewhere and Homicide are both figments of little Tommy’s imagination. And Detective John Munch, from Homicide: Life on the Street, has been a regular on Law and Order: SVU, and made cameos in shows as diverse as the X-Files, The Simpsons, and The Wire.
The list goes on of shows affected. Just thinking about crossover with The Simpsons opens a whole can of worms. An episode of St. Elsewehere where the Cheers bar appears ties Cheers into the same continuity – then Frasier, as well. The list goes on – forward and backward through the years, to Newhart, Murphy Brown, I Love Lucy and Everybody Loves Raymond. X-Files spun off Millennium and The Lone Gunmen (who would probably approve of this theory).
Where does that leave us? Well, connecting the dots, we’d all be extremely hard-pressed to find a TV show that doesn’t at least somehow connect to St. Elsewhere, “the Kevin Bacon of TV shows”.
So what do you think? Is your favourite TV show its own story, with its own continuity? Or is it all part of an increasingly elaborate fantasy on the part of a brilliant young daydreamer?