There’s an interesting hypothesis out there on the Internet regarding the “Tommy Westphall Universe.” It states that based on one possible interpretation of the ending of the television show St. Elsewhere the entire series took place within the mind of a character named Tommy Westphall. As television networks are obsessed with having crossovers amongst all of their shows (especially NBC) the hypothesis goes on to say that by extension every show that has crossed over with St. Elsewhere also takes place in this boy’s mind. This goes on to include with every show that those shows crossed over with and so on. Ultimately, the hypothesis leads to the idea that a good percentage of American television is really just a fantasy in the mind of an autistic boy with a snow globe.
I don’t intend on debating with the hypothesis with this blog post. I am a continuity nerd to some degree and I do have some points that I want to address in a little bit. My primary concern today is with the reaction that the “Tommy Westphall Universe” has received. It’s hard to tell what’s a strong opinion and what’s for fun sometimes but the fact that there have been whole essays written to try to disprove the theory still says something about the way people react. At first I was right there with them. My instinct was that if this is true we have been cheated in some way. It feels like all of these television shows that I grew up with were a lie.
But was it? Does any of it really matter? Of course it doesn’t. Fiction within fiction is still fiction. Whether or not I’m watching a television show that is supposed to represent a universe or some kid’s daydream that is also supposed to represent that universe I’m still watching a representation of that universe. Not only that but sometimes the result of finding out that we were “lied” to can be done in a way that can pay off positively. Take the end of the show Newhart, for example. At the very end we find out that the entire series was the daydream of Bob Newhart’s character from The Bob Newhart Show. It was a big joke that got a laugh, even if you liked Newhart. Another example is the ending of the show Roseanne in which the title character reveals that the entire last season was a lie. As I write this I still haven’t made it to the last episode but considering how downhill the quality of the show was going by that point I can only imagine that it was a relief.
If a piece of fiction is well made then we are able to develop emotional connections with the characters. If there is a fiction within that fiction then those characters will have the emotional connection with the fictional characters within their universe. Our feelings are based on what our beloved primary characters feel. If we don’t have those characters and their feelings to fall back on—as in the cases in which our favorite characters turn out to be the secondary characters all along—thats where the feeling of getting cheated comes in to play. That’s when I have to remind myself that I’m experiencing a fiction no matter what.
As I said above I’m going to take a moment to dork-out a bit at the end of this post with something related. I originally jotted down some notes for this blog post about a week ago but only saved them as a draft. I had another topic that I wanted to address that day so I put off developing them into a blog post later. In the meantime I got a DVD from Netflix which was from the second season of one of my favorite American sitcoms, Caroline in the City. I decided to hop online to see if there was any sort of fan sites or message boards out there. Considering the show left on a cliffhanger I guess in the back of my mind I as hoping that some sort of reunion show would materialize to tie up the loose ends.
The show’s fan base does have a small web presence. It was a popular sitcom that was produced during the time period when more and more people were getting the Internet at home. Its own official website is still online although some of the links are broken. As I was surfing around I found an essay that has been repeated in some places titled “Did You Ever Wonder…?” that I found intriguing. It’s main premise is that the last two seasons of the show may have been a hallucination of the main character due to an unintentional drug trip she took near the end of the second season. I think the points that the author raised were really due to the decline in writing quality during the last two seasons, but it’s an interesting read anyway.
How does this relate to the blog post topic? Through a crossover with Frasier in the first season (when the story was “real”) Caroline in the City falls under the “Tommy Westphall Universe.” If we’re to take both hypotheses on board then the third and fourth seasons of the show was a hallucination of a character who was a fantasy of the autistic child in St. Elsewhere, thereby becoming a fiction within a fiction within a fiction. If that’s true then it’s no wonder that the ratings dropped in those two seasons.
Okay, I know the blog post is running long and at this point it’s going to start to meander but I couldn’t let this go. What I’m about to say isn’t going to be long enough for a full post on its own but it’s not about the “fiction within fiction” premise. But once I brought up Caroline in the City I realized that this is probably going to be my only chance to get this out there. I know that in the world of television series there are such things as “holdover episodes,” which are episodes that are during in one season but aren’t aired until the next. The beginning of the fourth season of the show looks as if it was recorded during the third in order to resolve the cliffhanger (explaining Lea Thompson’s hair having a sudden growth spurt between two episodes). The show was cancelled before the fourth season’s cliffhanger was resolved. Is it possible that any sort of production was done on the follow-up episode? Was there even at least a script? I realize that I probably should put this on a message board dedicated to the show (and I probably will) but I figured what the hell, I’ll put the idea out here as well.
There, I got that out of my system.