On the Tommy Westphall Hypothesis
February 23, 2007
The other day, in my post about Season 6 of the Wire, I off-handedly mentioned the “Tommy Westphall Hypothesis,” which, to put it simply, suggests that the events of hundreds of Television shows are actually occurring in the mind of a minor character on St. Elsewhere. I suggested that the Wire should reveal its events to be unfolding in the mind of Tommy Westphall (if you’re just stumbling upon this now, and are outraged at the way I’m corrupting the sanctity of the Wire, please read the earlier article for context). Amazingly, we appear to have been visited by the creator of the hypothesis, “Crossoverman,” who has informed me that the Wire is already occurring in the mind of Mr. Tommy Westphall.
Sir, I’m afraid I must object.
There appear to be two types of evidence in support of the Tommy Westphall Hypothesis: 1) crossovers, and 2) references to other Television shows. I would categorize the first of these types as “strong evidence” and the second of these types as weak evidence. For example, Cheers is connected to St. Elsewhere because characters on St. Elsewhere visited the Cheers bar. The two could thus be reasonably expected to occupy the same Boston and therefore the same universe; strong evidence. Here’s an example of a slightly weaker proof: one of the doctors from St. Elsewhere is twice paged on Degrassi Junior High. While this is really a case of intertextuality (which I will talk about in a minute), the Dr. Westphall character has a roll to play within the Degrassi universe; people can legitimately expect that Dr. Westphall to arrive after being paged. Again, its a weaker proof than the one mentioned above, but still within the realm of possibility.
Support for this line of argument comes from Freud. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud argues that in our dreams we only see people we already know, or have seen in real life. While it is no doubt impossible to prove this empirically, there does seem to be general truth to this idea. This principal would also hold true for Tommy Westphall who, though capable of dreaming about people immediate to him (the St. Elsewhere staff), and those in his city (Cheers), and even people who lived in his city but moved (Fraiser), the likelihood of people in other shows, in different cities and times being known to him, even on a casual level, is severely low. The more distance you get from immediate crossovers to St. Elsewhere, the less likely the hypothesis holds.
The Wire is connected via the second type of link, reference to St. Elsewhere (actually, it’s connected to Homicide, but that’s connected to St. Elsewhere–see the problems with extending this theory so far?) The Wire is connected by virtue of a reference made to a person in Baltimore named Junior Bunk who put bad product on the street. This was also the name of a character on Homicide, however, as has been observed elsewhere, the two characters seem to be connected by nothing more than name, as they engage in very different activities, and it has been said that are each references to a real-life Junior Bunk.
It’s important to consider the idea of intertextuality. Coined by Julian Kristeva, intertextuality is the idea that our reading of a text is shaped in relation to other texts we have read, and other knowledge known to us. It has also been extended to include references and allusions made by one author to another text, especially where knowledge of that text is necessary or helpful in interpreting the first text (i’m lost). As we have seen, our impressions of the Wire will be different if we have seen Homicide.
An utter misreading of intertextuality results in one of the most egregious lines of reasoning in the Westphall Hypothesis. The John Larroquette Show is connected to St. Elsewhere by virtue of the fact that its protagonist, John Hemingway, once called in to Frasier Crane’s radio show. The creators of the John Larroquette Show were big fans of Pynchon and made a reference to Yoyodyne. Star Trek: The Next Generation similarly referenced Yoyodyne. Therefore, according to the hypothesis, all iterations of Star Trek occur in Tommy Westphall’s mind. However, as the creators of Star Trek were almost definitely making a reference to Pynchon, and not to the John Larroquette Show, the Star Trek segment of the hypothesis needs to be excised completely.
While I find parts of the hypothesis plausible, I’m inclined to throw out much of the rest. I still commend the work of Crossoverman who has established one of the finest guides to television intertextuality extant.