The Westphall Theory of a Unified TV Universe, Explained

iStock
iStock

When NBC’s hour-long hospital drama St. Elsewhere signed off after six seasons on May 25, 1988, more than a few viewers were saddened. Not necessarily because the series—which had earned 13 Emmy Awards during its run—was ending, but because producers opted for a highly unconventional finale. In the closing moments of the episode, a boy named Tommy Westphall (Chad Allen), the son of medical director Dr. Donald Westphall, was seen peering into a snow globe. Inside the globe was a tiny mock-up of St. Eligius, the medical center that was featured in the series. Behind him stood his father, who was sporting a construction worker’s wardrobe.

The implication was that Tommy—a character on the autism spectrum—had imagined the entire show, a fiction-within-the-fiction conceit that had angered viewers during the infamous “dream season” arc on Dallas five years earlier. (On that series, Bobby Ewing was brought back to life after his "death" turned out to be just a bad dream.)

“I expect a very mixed reaction,” Bruce Paltrow, one of the show's executive producers, told the Chicago Tribune in 1988. “I think some people will think it's extraordinary and existential and quintessential St. Elsewhere. I think other people will find it puzzling, odd, maybe unfulfilling in some way.”

More than puzzling, some people found it to be an actual puzzle. If the universe of St. Elsewhere was a figment of Tommy Westphall’s elaborate imagination, then wouldn’t other television characters who appeared in the show’s continuity exist only within Tommy's mind, as well? The doctors had visited the bar on Cheers in one St. Elsewhere episode; Cheers spawned Frasier, a character who appeared on Wings; John Munch, the detective from Homicide, had mingled with the St. Eligius crew, and he has appeared on shows ranging from The X-Files to The Wire, effectively making him the Patient Zero of what's become known as The Tommy Westphall Universe theory.

As of this writing, 441 shows can be tied to St. Elsewhere with varying degrees of separation, ranging from I Love Lucy to The Flash. If the theory holds, then a large chunk of television is the direct result of one child’s formidable imagination.

Chad Allen in 'St. Elsewhere'

St Elsewhere Full Episodes, YouTube

Erasing the fiction of an entire medium is not what Tom Fontana had planned. One of the producers on St. Elsewhere, he was openly hostile toward any idea of a reunion special down the line and insisted that the series finale should be definitive.

Fontana’s favored conclusion was a literal apocalypse, where the staff of St. Eligius would be standing by in the year 2013 while a toxic gas cloud passed over, the result of a corporate war between foreign factions. When NBC refused to finance their ambitious plan, the idea for the snow globe was hatched. (Quizzed by IndieWire in 2012 as to who exactly came up with the idea, neither Fontana nor co-writers Channing Gibson or John Tinker could remember.)

Fontana did, however, recall that half of the viewer mail retrieved after the finale was positive, while the other half made loose reference to a desire to “burn [the studio lot] to the ground."

Fontana went on to create Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s groundbreaking prison drama Oz. Those two impressive achievements would have likely relegated the bizarre ending of St. Elsewhere to a trivial mention in Fontana’s biography, if not for the curiosity of a playwright named Keith Gow.

Gow, a resident of Melbourne, Australia, spent time in pubs and online wondering what Tommy’s scene meant for every show connected to St. Elsewhere's characters. "The discussion began on alt.tv.homicide, a newsgroup that discussed Homicide: Life on the Street," Gow tells Mental Floss. "[Fontana] was fond of putting in references to previous shows he worked on, including bringing characters from St. Elsewhere into Homicide."

Along with U.S.-based fan Ash Crowe, Gow began to develop a chart linking the series to other shows on television. Over time, it began to look something like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game.

Here’s how St. Elsewhere links to Doctor Who [PDF], hypothetically rendering the TARDIS a figment of Tommy’s imagination:

Donald Westphall and two other doctors visited Sam Malone’s bar from Cheers;

Cheers introduced Frasier Crane, of Frasier;

John Hemingway of The John Larroquette Show once called into Frasier’s talk show;

The John Larroquette Show once mentioned Yoyodyne, a manufacturing client of law firm Wolfram and Hart;

Wolfram and Hart had another client, Weyland-Yutani, that made a weapons display screen for Firefly;

A Weyland-Yutani ship is seen in the BBC series Red Dwarf, which also depicted The Doctor’s TARDIS.

The Westphall grid
A sampling of the Westphall grid.
Courtesy of Keith Gow

These strings go on across multiple decades of television, with I Love Lucy being the earliest example. Often, characters crossing over on the same network can ignite a connection, with shared brands or locations providing the connective tissue for others. The fictional Morley cigarettes are particularly pervasive, as is Hudson University, an institution of higher learning mentioned on The Cosby Show, Law & Order, and Murder, She Wrote.

"I prefer character connections, myself," Gow says. "That really solidifies things. And most of the connections on the grid are characters, even though something like Morley cigarettes (a fictional brand) has a lot of individual connections, they just add to the connective tissue in certain ways. The fictional brand or company thing is also Fontana's fault. The corporation that bought St. Elsewhere in its final season owned the prison hospital in his series Oz."

Over time and with the help of reader contributions, The Tommy Westphall Universe grew to include shows as diverse as ALF, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Knight Rider, Melrose Place, Seinfeld, and dozens of others, much of it helped along by the character of Munch appearing in more than 10 series, and those series making reference to other characters and brands.

As Gow and Crowe assembled their chart, comics writer Dwayne McDuffie (Static Shock) wrote a blog entry for Slush.com in 2002 that made a similar observation. "St. Elsewhere also shared characters with The White Shadow and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” McDuffie wrote. “Garry Shandling crossed over with The Andy Griffith Show (no, really!). So Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Mayberry R.F.D., and Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show are gone. Make Room For Daddy takes out I Love Lucy.”

All of it, McDuffie said, proved his own Grand Unification Theory that everyone and everything seen on TV—except for the few minutes viewers spent with Tommy Westphall in May 1988—is just a daydream.

St. Eligius in a snow globe

St Elsewhere Full Episodes, YouTube

As one of the co-authors of the scene that ignited the entire premise, Fontana said he was “stunned” to discover the aftershocks and that the theory “basically means that Tommy Westphall is the mind of God.”

Fontana was being facetious (we think), but not everyone was as enthused with the premise. Observers of the theory take issue with the idea out of what they deem is a misunderstanding of an author’s intent. While the doctors of St. Elsewhere visited the Cheers bar, the creators of Cheers offered no consent to have their series thought of as imaginary. There’s also nothing standing in the way of the belief that perhaps the Tommy Westphall end sequence was itself a dream, negating the snow globe conceit. And what about the real people who have appeared on the included shows, like Alex Trebek on Cheers? If Cheers is not “real,” then is Trebek?

But the notion isn't necessarily dependent on Tommy imagining anything: The connections still exist, whether they're considered a dream within fiction or just an interconnected television universe. "The theory doesn't really depend on Tommy Westphall, but he's a good hook," Gow says.

Gow and Crowe, who still periodically update the grid, assert that episodes with real people playing themselves—like Trebek did on Cheers—are exempt, as are cartoons and feature films. That would surely lead to spreadsheets the size of walls: Weyland-Yutani is the company behind the machinations of the Alien franchise.

The Most Expensive Properties in 11 Special Edition Monopoly Games

Amazon
Amazon

The board spaces on the original Monopoly game—which was released on February 6, 1935—were based on locations in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Through the game, the hoity-toitiest spots for property development in there, Boardwalk and Park Place, came to symbolize the uppermost reaches of real estate value.

Since Parker Brothers (and later, Hasbro) began licensing the game for alternate versions, there have been hundreds of Monopoly offshoots, and they all have to pick something to serve as their own Boardwalk and Park Place. If it’s a city, they will usually correspond to the fanciest intersection. If it’s a country, they’ll be the two most powerful cities. But Monopoly special editions cover a whole range of areas beyond simple geography. You want to know what’s considered valuable in a particular area of interest? Look to the Boardwalk and Park Place of its Monopoly edition. Here are the most valuable spaces from 11 special edition Monopoly boards.

1. THE .COM EDITION

Monopoly: The .Com Edition
Amazon

In 2000, just before the end of the dot-com boom, Hasbro published .com Monopoly. Boardwalk was Yahoo! (costing $400 million) and Park Place was Excite@home (costing $350 million). Anyone remember what that was? (Didn't think so.)

2. THE PHINEAS AND FERB EDITION

Monpoly: The Phineas and Ferb Edition
Amazon

Naturally, the most valuable properties are Phineas and Ferb’s backyard and The Tri-State Area.

Find the game on Amazon for $199.

3. ELVIS 25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION


Amazon

Of course Graceland is going to be Boardwalk, but what about the number two spot? Viva Las Vegas, baby.

Find the game on Amazon for $109.

4. NATIONAL PARKS EDITION


Amazon

How do you determine the value of a National Park? Yellowstone and Yosemite are the Boardwalk and Park Place of this version of the game. Sure, those are great parks, but there’s something unsettling about developing properties in some of the country's most famous stretches of unspoiled land, and raking in profits!

Find the game on Amazon for $130.

5. BASS FISHING EDITION


Amazon

If you know bass fishing, you know it’s gotta be Lake Fork and Lake Champlain.

Find the game on Amazon for $90.

6. SEINFELD EDITION

Monopoly 'Seinfeld' edition
Amazon

A show about nothing still needs to take place somewhere. Jerry’s Apartment and Monk’s Restaurant are the center of this world.

Find the game on Amazon for $100.

7. MY LITTLE PONY EDITION


Amazon

Friendship is magic, but it won’t pay the rent. Stake your claim early on Canterlot and Crystal Empire.

Find the game on Amazon for $80.

8. SOUTH PARK EDITION


Amazon

Cartmanland and Imaginationland, where else?

Find the game on Amazon for $350.

9. A CHRISTMAS STORY EDITION


Amazon

The properties in this version are important objects from the movie, like a frozen flagpole, a bar of soap, and a pink bunny suit. But in this world, BB Gun and Leg Lamp get top position.

Find the game on Amazon for $76.

10. KISS-OPOLY


Amazon

What is true value? A KISS Platinum Gold Box Set and a Japanese Vinyl Box Set.

Find the game on Amazon for $190.

11. MONOPOLY HERE & NOW: THE WORLD EDITION


Amazon

If you’re going to make a World Edition of Monopoly, you’ve got to be diplomatic about how you decide what the two most valuable places in the world should be. Hasbro decided to let the world decide for itself, holding an international vote in 2008 to determine which cities would be included on the board. That’s how it came about that Montreal, Canada, and Riga, Latvia—the two cities with the most votes—became the Boardwalk and Park Place of the world.

Find the game on Amazon for $85.

The 8 Most Anticipated Horror Movies of 2019

Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
Michele K. Short, Universal Pictures

Between Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and Halloween, 2018 was a killer year for horror moviesand 2019 is shaping up to be just as impressive. While remakes seem to be dominating the schedule in the coming months, there are plenty of sequels, adaptations, and even a few promising original titles coming out as well. Here are some of the scary movies we're most looking forward to seeing this year.

1. Us

In 2017, Jordan Peele revolutionized the horror genre with Get Out. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker plans to do the same again with Us, which features a predominantly black cast—a rarity for a horror movie. "I dedicated a lot of myself to creating a new horror mythology and a new monster," Peele said of the film. "I think that monsters and stories about monsters are our best ways of getting at deeper truths and facing our fears as a society ... It’s also important to note that this movie, unlike Get Out, is not about race. It is instead about something I feel has become an undeniable truth. That is the simple fact that we are our own worst enemies." Us, which stars Elisabeth Moss and Lupita Nyong'o, arrives in theaters on March 22, 2019.

2. IT: Chapter 2

Stephen King fans were thrilled with 2017's IT, the second adaptation of the horror master's beloved 1986 novel. Andy Muschietti is sitting in the director's chair again for the second chapter, which will follow the Losers Club as they return to Derry, Maine in their adult years. While Bill Skarsgård will reprise his role as Pennywise, impressive new additions to the cast include Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, and James McAvoy. The film debuts on September 6, 2019.

3. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

If you’ve been a horror fiend since childhood, you’ll no doubt remember Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series. The books included memorable illustrations by Stephen Gammell, some of which no doubt haunted many children’s nightmares. The film adaptation will be released on August 9, 2019.

4. Zombieland 2

Venom director Ruben Fleischer's feature debut, 2009's Zombieland, was an instant hit with both horror and comedy fans. And they've been waiting 10 years for a sequel. Finally, we’ll be getting a second film this year with Fleischer directing and Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and even Bill Murray all confirmed to return. Zombieland 2 is set to hit theaters on October 11, 2019.

5. Happy Death Day 2U

The hilariously bad-but-fun Happy Death Day (2017) surprised audiences with how flat-out entertaining it was, so much so that fans were thrilled to hear there were plans for a sequel. Much like the original movie, the second film will follow protagonist Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) as she’s killed every single day. But this time, the killer is coming for her friends, too. Happy Death Day 2U premieres on February 14, 2019.

6. Pet Sematary

Though Mary Lambert's original Pet Sematary (1989) was not met with much critical acclaim, fans of the Stephen King novel were pleased with the adaptation, and are excited to see the story come to life again. The remake, which is directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and stars John Lithgow and Jason Clarke, debuts on April 5, 2019.

7. Child’s Play

When rumors began swirling that there was going to be another Chucky movie, and that it would be a remake of the original Child’s Play at that, people—including the original series creator Don Mancini—didn't initially seem too excited.

But as more details—including a cast list that includes Aubrey Plaza and Brian Tyree Henry—were made public, interest in the project seemed to grow. Child’s Play hits theaters June 21, 2019.

8. The Prodigy

Creepy kids will never fail to make terrifying horror movie villains. In The Prodigy, Taylor Schilling’s character discovers something supernatural might be happening to her son when he starts acting as if he’s possessed. (Spoiler alert: He probably is). The film will be released on February 8, 2019.

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