With a single move at the end of October, the streaming service Hulu brought back to life as many as 411 long-gone shows — everything from “I Love Lucy” to “Adam 12” to “The Munsters.”
Well sort of.
Before you get all excited and pay for a subscription so that you can find your favorite episodes of “W*A*L*T*E*R” or “Petticoat Junction,” be advised that what Hulu actually did was make available the entire run of a series that went off the air 30 years ago but which lives on as the central hub of what has been dubbed “The Grand Unification Theory of Television.”
The show is the cult classic hospital drama “St. Elsewhere” — which ran for 137 episodes on NBC from 1982 to 1988, and is best remembered for three things:
N It introduced to a national audience a young actor named Denzel Washington;
N It was meta before “being meta” was cool — including in-jokes, pop culture references and self-referential elements that opened the door for decades of later series;
N And, with its mind-blowing and critically controversial finale, it introduced The Tommy Westphal Universe to legions of trivia hunters who have spent hours of otherwise usable hours tracking down the interconnectivity of those 411 television series.
Or so I’m told.
Tommy Westphall was a secondary character in “St. Elsewhere” — the young autistic son of one of the hospital’s leading doctors. In the final moments of the 137th of the show’s 137 episodes, however, viewers learn that
SPOILER ALERT although after being off the air for 30 years, the statute of limitations really should have expired on spoiling anything (which means you can be anxiety-free about telling people that Bruce Willis is dead through most of “The Sixth Sense” in 2029)
Anyway, in those final moments of “St. Elsewhere,” we learn that the entire series has been just a fantasy Tommy developed internally based on his fixation with a replica of a hospital set inside a snow globe.
These days, of course, we’re used to anticlimactic twists and surprises in the television series we follow; but when “St. Elsewhere” closed its doors, it set off a pre-Twitter firestorm of reaction where cultural scholars wrote actual papers (and actually ... ON PAPER) not only about whether the switcheroo finale had artistic merit but also what it meant to all those meta references that popped up in the show.
Dwayne McDuffie, author of the thesis “Six Degrees of ‘St. Elsewhere’,” goes so far as to posit that because other TV series are mentioned within episodes, they also never existed beyond being a figment of Tommy Westphall’s imagination.
“The last five minutes of ‘St. Elsewhere’ is the only television show ever,” McDuffie wrote. “Everything else is a daydream.”
Perhaps it’s best to illustrate this theory with an example, after which we shall see that a TV classic, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — which ended its run 16 years before “St. Elsewhere” premiered — actually never existed.
Step 1: During an episode of the Boston-based “St. Elsewhere,” three characters visit the bar and interact with the cast of “Cheers.”
Step 2: With “Cheers” now eliminated, that (of course) wipes from existence its sequel “Frasier.” (“Wings” is also collateral damage, since Kelsey Grammer’s Fraiser Crane visited that series as well.)
Step 3: Going from Boston to Seattle, we learn that “Fraiser” character Daphne Moon is a fan of the titular comic strip in the sitcom “Caroline in the City.”
Step 4: Caroline (the artist, not her comic strip alter-ego), boards a New York City bus whose other passengers include Chandler and Joey from “Friends.”
Step 5: With “Caroline in the City” and “Friends” now entrenched in The Tommyverse, it’s time to knock off “Mad About You” — since two characters from that series visit the Central Perk coffeehouse from “Friends.”
Step 6: And that becomes a lynchpin eliminating a pair of seminal comedies. “Seinfeld,” because Jerry actually lives in the former apartment of “Mad About You” character Paul Buchman and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” because filmmaker Paul wants to make a documentary about “Van Dyke” character Alan Brady.
Please don’t ask me to try to go through that again — or to explain how to get from “The Walking Dead” to “My Mother the Car” although I will say it involves a sidetrack through “Mannix.”
Where The Tommy Westphall Universe really gets confusing (beat two three OK) is with a patient in the psych ward at the hospital in “St. Elsewhere.”
No, not the man who thought he was Mary Richards from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” who chased Betty White down a corridor calling her Sue Ann; but another patient — a perennially depressed and sarcastic patient named Mr. Carlin.
Yes the same Mr. Carlin who we’d last seen as a client of Chicago psychologist Bob Hartley in “The Bob Newhart Show.”
Because, as we all know, Bob Hartley reappears SPOILER ALERT (only 28 years ago, so better safe than sorry) in the series finale of “Newhart,” waking up next to Suzanne Pleshette from a dream that means the entire 184-epsiode run of “Newhart” never existed.
That would mean that the world within Tommy Westphall’s snow globe includes a series that itself only existed within the dream-state of a character who only existed in Tommy’s imagination.
You want my advice? If you want to see a show truly ahead of its time, check out “St. Elsewhere”
but only the first 136 episodes. Avoid the finale and save yourself a headache.
Hudson University alumni can contact Mail Tribune columnist Robert Galvin at email@example.com.