The “shared universe” idea has gained widespread popularity in the entertainment industry — that if more films and television series shared continuity, more viewers would watch more content. This idea has brought audiences some well-thought-out, well-executed universes (the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an obvious example), but has also led to flops like the Transformers Extended Universe and even some attempts at connected universes where none should exist. Universal Pictures, for example, has attempted a ‘Dark’ cinematic universe based upon 16-percent-on-Rotten-Tomatoes-disaster The Mummy.
Some television fans, though, claim to have discovered the largest connected universe in any medium ever — one which, they say, encompasses ninety percent of all modern television. This theory is based upon a single scene in the finale of the long-running 1980s NBC medical series St. Elsewhere, which, by zooming in on a snow globe, strongly suggests that the entire show took place in the mind of a teenager named Tommy Westphall.
St. Elsewhere was known for its frequent crossovers with Cheers and Homicide: Life on the Street, both NBC shows. Proponents of the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis, as it has grown to be called, say that since characters from St. Elsewhere have appeared on other shows, and since these characters were shown to be a figment of Tommy’s imagination, the other shows they appeared on should also be imagined. This brings several TV shows into the growing Westphall Universe, as Homicide is part of NBC’s Law & Order continuity.
But Westphall theorists extend the reach of their universe much further, claiming that ninety percent of television is imagined by Westphall, and that shows from The Drew Carey Show to Friends, Firefly, Heroes, and Mr. Robot are part of the same continuity. Some of these claims are more than a little tenuous; The Office (US), is part of the theory, for example, because its characters once reserved a conference room in a casino from the show Las Vegas, which shared a plane once with the show Crossing Jordan, which once featured a priest from a church with a similar name and location to the hospital in St. Elsewhere.
Whether these theories are true is ultimately left to the viewer, and to you, the reader, to decide. Some find it far-fetched that the minor connections that hold the Westphall universe together actually matter, since most are clearly intended as Easter eggs. The lesson is that shared continuity only works if done correctly — when it impacts the meaning of all involved universes and adds to them creatively. Conspiracy theories like the Westphall universe fail this test. As cool as it might be to believe that Hawaii Five-O and every show on the Disney Channel share continuity, what impact does it really have on either world? In the end, the Westphall Theory is best left as a curiosity.