“Stay with me now, this is complicated but kind of fun.”
–Animation and Comic writer Dwayne McDuffie
The world of television is, almost by definition, a very imaginative place. Over the last 60 years or so, in everything from I Love Lucy to Fringe, various shows have created worlds and characters designed to excite, intrigue, and amaze us. What most people don’t recognize about all of this wonderful entertainment we’ve had through the years is that, in some ways, it’s really all connected, and not just through our common viewing experience.
Television has come up with numerous ways in which to reference itself, to relate to its own past (or present), and to feature characters in places where you might not otherwise think to see them. While the more skeptical among us might see this as a scarcity of originality, those of us who love TV also love the chance to see our beloved characters in new and unusual ways.
There’s a curious phenomenon called the “crossover” episode, and in this case, I’m not talking about Fringe and its multiple worlds. I’m talking about where a character from one series “crosses over” into an episode of another. At times, it’s just been a brief cameo where shows sharing the same creative team thought it would be fun to have an actor show up in an unexpected place. Other times, there’s been a deliberate team-up for promotional purposes, such as when Thomas Magnum of Magnum, P.I. ended up on the same murder case as Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote. Fans of each show would tune into the other to see their favorite, and networks hoped audiences would not only be large, but people would become hooked after a taste of the “new” show.
Shows that skewed slightly older took advantage of the possibilities afforded by nostalgia as well, with Dick Van Dyke’s Diagnosis: Murder featuring a plotline bringing the lead character of the 1970 Mannix series into the late ’90’s. Murder‘s Dr. Mark Sloan (Van Dyke) is searching for the answers to a long-unsolved case originally investigated by Mannix, allowing Mike Connors to recreate his Mannix role. Fans loved tuning in to see an old friend in a new venue, and rekindling an old viewing relationship.
Paul Reiser’s character from Mad About You was a filmmaker, and one storyline had him working on a documentary about a fictional 50’s TV hit called The Alan Brady Show. Now, there never was such a television show in reality, but it was the background show for the writers’ room in the original Dick Van Dyke Show, which featured Carl Reiner as the Alan Brady character. Reiner reprised his performance on the Mad About You episode, winning an Emmy and linking two shows that were in production over thirty years apart, just as Van Dyke himself had featured Connors in linking Diagnosis: Murder and Mannix.
As a promotional device, the crossover has been used extensively. NBC was a master at this for a while, having sitcom casts appear in “theme nights” on different shows. Whether brief mentions or full-fledged guest spots, characters from Mad About You, Seinfeld, Caroline and the City, and Friends were seen to know and interact with each other. Kramer on Seinfeld had rented his apartment from Paul’s character on Mad About You; Phoebe Buffay on Friends and Ursula the waitress on Mad About You were revealed to be estranged twin sisters, appearing on both shows. Of course, it helps when Lisa Kudrow played both parts!
Even brief cameo spots were nice little “easter eggs” for viewers (and you never knew what NBC characters were going to be calling into the radio self-help line on Fraiser). Lt. Hunter (James B. Sikking) from Hill Street Blues shows up silently in the squad room after a musical number in Cop Rock, and lawyers Victor Fuentes and Abby Perkins from L.A. Law (Jimmy Smits and Michelle Green) appear in the following episode. All three shows were Stephen Bochco productions, and apparently all existed in the same universe. Anyone could show up almost anywhere… and even when they didn’t show up, they got mentioned.
On Fox’s Strange Luck (paired on Fridays with The X-Files), Chance Harper’s long-lost brother mentions to him in passing that, if anything unusual should ever happen to him, to get in touch with a FBI agent named Mulder, linking the two shows in the minds of the viewers. There was supposed to be a crossover episode between, of all things, The X-Files and Picket Fences, with Mulder appearing on both shows investigating cattle mutilations, but that got shot down at the last minute for the simple fact that the two shows appeared on different networks, and some of the higher up brass didn’t think it was proper to be essentially promoting a different network’s show.
It’s not just actors that create connections. Whenever the various Law and Order series need a newspaper shown, they use The New York Ledger. But then, the short-lived series Deadline was about a reporter working in New York… at The New York Ledger. But this phenomenon doesn’t show up just in a newspaper. You’d figure after a major disaster like the crash of Oceanic 815 on Lost, the airline might cut back a little on its flights, but watch and see at least seven different shows (including the aforementioned Diagnosis: Murder) use Oceanic as their airline of choice. The real reason: it’s a name that’s legally cleared and easy for producers to use. But it’s more fun to believe that the airline exists in all those shows, although I probably wouldn’t fly on it!
Other “creative” connections became a way of launching potential new series ideas as crossovers, and they became quite a well-used (and cost-effective) method for many years. “Backdoor” pilot episodes were done on various series, presenting possible guest stars and premises on already established shows. This was done in order to gauge audience reaction to potential new series… or just make sure viewers were aware of shows that were about to premiere. The first television appearance of the Mork character from Mork and Mindy was… in Ritchie Cunningham’s dream sequence on Happy Days (Mork shows up in a later Happy Days episode for “real”, and not just as a dream). More direct spin-offs were done by taking regular supporting characters from one show and giving them their own chance to shine (or fail), such as Gloria from All in the Family, Flo from Alice, and The Tortellis from Cheers (Frasier worked, The Tortellis didn’t… this method is not a guarantee of success by any means).
A variation of the spin-off is the direct sequel, such as the extensive Star Trek franchise. From the original Star Trek to Star Trek: The Next Generation, ST: Deep Space Nine, and ST: Voyager (all three taking place roughly 70 to 80 years in the future of the original series), these newer versions could all build on mythology created in the original (or stumble on it when those “facts” were ignored or forgotten by producers, and fans cried “foul”). Star Trek: Enterprise did this in reverse, becoming a prequel series that, especially in its final season, provided background on some of the concepts shown in the original series that had aired thirty years earlier.
Like the Star Trek franchise, other shows have built upon basic ideas and expanded their style and universe into multiple shows. The long-running Law and Order franchise from producer Dick Wolf has begat L&O: Criminal Intent, L&O: Special Victims Unit, and other similarly designed shows. (There’s even a British version now airing on BBCAmerica here in the states.) Characters from one Law and Order have appeared on the others occasionally, and a few characters have made the jump from regulars on one show to become regulars on another, an example of a character spinoff rather than a spinoff to create a series.
The actor/character who has become king of the crossover is Detective John Munch, played by Richard Belzer. Starting as a regular in Homicide: Life on the Street, Belzer showed up on no less than TEN different shows as the same character. Munch (and Belzer) were featured on many of the Law and Order shows (becoming a regular on Special Victims Unit after the demise of Homicide), plus the character turned up on shows as varied as The X-Files, The Wire, and is mentioned in the BBC production Luther. He even appeared in comedies, both on the Fox series Arrested Development and NBC’s 30 Rock. Detective Munch’s character has turned up across five different networks, plus other mentions and parodies elsewhere (including as a Muppet, of all things). Counting up episodes, Belzer has appeared over 300 times in the character, and still counting. (And the surprising thing is, the character has never been the lead in his own series… but then maybe this kind of longevity is better for an actor’s career!)
Homicide: Life on the Street was also on the receiving end of this type of crossover behavior. A character from NBC’s medical show St. Elsewhere appeared on Homicide (Dr. Roxanne Turner, played by Alfre Woodard), although it was long after St. Elsewhere had ended production. St. Elsewhere characters also had a habit of either showing up in other programs, such as Cheers (also set in Boston), or simply mentioning acquaintances from the past (one character rather seriously claims Dr. B.J. Hunnicut from M*A*S*H is an old Korean war buddy). Other famous TV doctors are mentioned in passing on the hospital PA system, although they aren’t really commented on by the characters themselves.
The extensive crossover instances of Homicide: Life on the Street and St. Elsewhere with other shows brings up a rather interesting and unique idea. After some research (by someone with much more time than I have to spend on such things), 282 different shows (and counting) have been “linked” together by the various methods shown in this article. Character appearances, cameos, offhand mentions of common knowledge and such have all combined to create, like the old Kevin Bacon “six degrees of separation” game, a way to go from one series to another through common character threads.
Fans of old TV love this sort of thing, as it becomes a game to see what show can link with something totally different (which links Batman with Hogan’s Heroes, even though they’re set years apart, through an in-character cameo appearance by Werner Klemperer as Colonel Klink in a Batman wall-climbing sequence). Since All in the Family had no less than 7 different shows as spin-offs (some successful and some not), these links can be both direct and obscure. But thanks to the ending of one particular show, there’s yet another really strange feature to this inter-connected world of television.
And it’s all due to a boy named Tommy Westphall.
Tommy was a minor character on St. Elsewhere, played by Chad Allen. The autistic son of the lead character Dr. Westphall (Ed Flanders), Tommy was featured in few episodes, yet played a significant role in the final installment of the series. In that episode, the camera shows snow falling gently on the main location of the show, St. Elegius hospital, then the scene turns to a small apartment. Westphall comes home, although his dress and manner suggest he’s been working at a job more similar to construction or manual labor than being a doctor. Tommy is playing with something on the floor, and Westphall comments to his father (Tommy’s grandfather) about the difficulty in raising an autistic child, and how he wishes he could just understand what goes on inside his child’s mind. Finally gathering the family for dinner, Westphall takes the toy out of Tommy’s hands and herds him toward the table.
The toy, as the camera closes in upon it, turns out to be a snowglobe, shaken just before Westphall takes it and places it upon the television set in the apartment. Inside the snowglobe is St. Elegius hospital, in a shot that mimics the previous winter scene of the venerable hospital, setting for the entire series. Many fans interpreted this to mean that the entire series was simply the manufactured dreamings of Tommy’s autistic mind….
But, if we take that as a given, then we also have to assume that each of the appearances of the St. Elsewhere characters on other shows were also merely thoughts in Tommy’s mind… which means Cheers and Homicide: Life on the Street both were creations of his concepts and ideas. Which means that those 10 different shows in which Detective Munch appears were also part of Tommy’s dreamings… as were the “theme night” crossovers from Cheers, the cameos on Frasier, and so many, many other shows that became inter-connected along the way… from, as intimated in the beginning of this article, I Love Lucy to Fringe.
Fifty years of television, all connected, and perhaps all in the mind of a single child. An interesting way to look at this amazing world of television, if nothing else. You can visit the Multiverse of Tommy Westphall (which includes both a graphical and text interpretation of all the connections made by 282 different shows). And if you’re just interested in crossover-type appearances that aren’t necessarily in Tommy’s mind, there’s Poobala’s site full of spinoffs and all types of cross-pollination. For any student of television, it’s a wonderful journey through history… which is what this website, and the articles I write, are all about.
“Someone did the math once… and something like 90 percent of all television took place in Tommy Westphall’s mind. God love him.”
—St. Elsewhere writer Tom Fontana
Of course, there are some holes in this theory. But that’s fine. As an exploration of television, it’s at least a fun diversion and an interesting mental exercise to see the wonderful and strange ways so many shows from so many different eras and settings can connect. But when you suddenly realize in your explorations that the original Star Trek and Happy Days, supposedly centuries apart, have only the one series Mork and Mindy connecting them (thanks to a brief cameo by William Shatner as Captain Kirk), you see how much television references itself. When you can discover for yourself the somewhat convoluted string that links BBC’s Torchwood and forty-five years of Doctor Who continuity with both the 20 years of the American based Law and Order and the short-lived existence of The Tortellis, “surprising” doesn’t begin to describe what our viewing experiences have brought us. The shared experience of everyone watching the same shows is reflected by those who make those very shows, and their desires to connect and relive all the things they love (now and in the past). And all of us at home get to enjoy that process with them.
282 degrees of separation, but only one mind. And it’s not Tommy Westphall’s… it is the collective mind of all us viewers at home, and the comfort and recognition of our shared experiences. It may be the Tommyverse, but we all get to explore it, one episode at a time.
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.