Sunday, July 28, 2013

A New Addition to the Tommy Westphall Universe

Orange Is the New Black is the latest series to establish a common thread holding together another galaxy in the Tommy Westphall Universe.

For those of you who aren't TV geeks, you may not be familiar with the cultural phenomenon known as the Tommy Westphall Universe. Of course, if you've found this site, you probably know what I'm talking about. But if not, the TWU is a massive cluster of television shows that exist in the same fictional "universe" through crossovers, where a character, characters, or mythology from one show shows up in another show.

Let's Potato Chips -- she'd give them a buy, too.
St. Elsewhere's writers loved acknowledging the mythology of other shows, and in many cases, they wrote their characters into other shows and wrote other shows into the world of St. Eligius. When you account for the shows that those other shows crossed over with, a web of a few hundred shows emerges, all presumably existing in the same fictional space. And because the world that was home to St. Eligius turned out to be a figment of Tommy Westphall's (or whatever his real name was) imagination, so too are all the shows connected by these crossovers.

Jenji Kohan's new women-in-prison series (which I have yet to check out, but probably will eventually because I enjoyed Weeds), Orange Is the New Black, has recently entered the TWU, as has observed. The use of Let's Potato Chips, a brand that originated as a running joke on Community, is a pretty firm crossover point, I'd say. Let's Chips also turned up in one of the new episodes of Arrested Development. Arrested Development crossed over with Tom Fontana's Homicide: Life on the Street when Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) showed up in an episode, and Homicide crossoved over with St. Elsewhere when Drs. Roxanne Turner (Alfre Woodard) and Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) made cameo appearances (Woodard was nominated for an Emmy for hers, as she often is.) So Orange is only four degrees of separation from the source.

I'll state my position on the TWU again -- I enjoy the TWU as a fun bit of trivia, and God knows I love trivia, but as an exercise in logic, it fails at the source. In the season four episode, "Close Encounters", psych patients John Doe #6 (Oliver Clark) and Mr. Carlin (Jack Riley) are watching television. The White Shadow comes on, to which Doe remarks, "whoever came up with that one was a real smoothie." The White Shadow, an MTM production that ran on CBS from 1978 to 1981, was created by St. Elsewhere executive producer Bruce Paltrow. (Jack Riley's Elliott Carlin was Dr. Bob Hartley's most frequent patient on The Bob Newhart Show.)

It has also been established that after his time at Carver High on The White Shadow, basketball star Warren Coolidge (Byron Stewart) received a scholarship to play college ball at his coach's alma mater, B.U., but he blew out his knee, washed out of school, and found gainful employment as an orderly at St. Eligius.

So Warren is simultaneously a fictional character in a television show that they watch in the TWU and a person who works in the hospital at ground zero of this autistic kid`s TV-heavy imagination. The issue comes into play when Warren runs into Dean, who is played by Tim Van Patten, and therefore looks exactly like his old Carver High teammate, Mario "Salami" Pettrino, who was also played by Van Patten.

If the TWU were to "work" according to its own logic, The White Shadow would not be a TV show in their world. So I can't take it too seriously. They did a similar thing on Raising Hope recently, where My Name Is Earl is seen as a television show in the world of Raising Hope, but characters like Crabman and Patty the Daytime Hooker from My Name Is Earl crossed over onto Raising Hope in later episodes.

Nonetheless, I love the logic of TV crossovers. Off the top of my head, St. Elsewhere crossed itself over with The White Shadow, M*A*S*H, Cheers, and The Bob Newhart Show during its lifetime, and later, shows including Chicago Hope, Homicide and Oz put themselves into St. Elsewhere's world. Those links form the bulk of the crossovers that make up the TWU.

Here's a link to the Tommy Westphall Universe page. I plan on doing my own critical analysis of the chart in the future. In the meantime, I'm pleased to welcome Orange Is the New Black to the TWU.


  1. I ran across your post right after I posted the graphic I just finished on TWU. Please, come take a look and see what the TWU did to my free time...

    And of course I don't have the link you just talked about. Might have to do an update some point in the future.

  2. A friend and I realize that if NCIS is there, then Hawaii Five-0 (and, therefore, through the Ed Asner episodes, the original Hawaii Five-O) need to be included. I’m certain I recall Magnum, PI referring to Det McGarrett in an early season, too.

    1. This version of the list has the Five-Os and Magnum P.I. already:


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