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.

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10 Responses to “On the Tommy Westphall Hypothesis”

  1. Crossoverman Says:

    I hate to argue with Freud… oh, no I wouldn’t. And certainly the suggestion goes beyond Tommy dreaming these people but inventing them. Leaving aside, that this isn’t exactly how children with autism think…

    The character of Junior Bunk did put bad product on the streets in Homicide under order from Luther Mahoney. He didn’t actually appear until later, though. The David Simon and Baltimore connections make the case stronger. (If a character called Junior Bunk was referenced on “Days of our Lives”, we wouldn’t automatically assume a connection…)

    Fictional companies providing links between shows arise from St Elsewhere producer Tom Fontana linking St Elgius with the prison in Oz by the fictional company that owned both – the Weigert Corporation.

    St Elsewhere writer Mark Tinker linked that show with Chicago Hope by a fictional award – the Cushing Left Anterior Descending Artery Award.

    This lead to the notion that fictional companies also connect these shows. Yoyodyne is interesting, in that Trek and Angel are both clearly referencing the movie “Buckaroo Banzai” – and John Larroquette the Pynchon. But that leaves us with fictional company/ies called Yoyodyne… which theoretically are the same.

    They just go from building bus stations in the 20th Century to Starships in the 24th. Not too much of a leap…

    Thanks for the kind words.

  2. johnmunch Says:

    You may find some entertaining notions while looking up Westphall’s Wanderers, a character list compiled by yours truly. It is solely based on character appearances between TV shows, sometimes including dream appearances. So the criteria are slightly different from those established on Keith’s site (going off on tangents as they are) but the connections are solid.

    The list can be viewed via
    http://home.vicnet.net.au/%7Ekwgow/westphall.doc

    Enjoy.

  3. Charles Says:

    I know for a fact that there was a real life person in Baltimore in the early 70’s nicknamed “Junior Bunk”, that made drugs in a bathtub and sold it on the streets. A lot of junkies who shot-up this concoction would get abscesses and some died!

  4. Roger GS Says:

    Clarke Peters played two different characters in Homicide and The Wire, while Richard Belzer played his same Homicide character in a cameo on The Wire. How does the Westphallverse explain that?

  5. Roger GS Says:

    Oops, Clark Johnson (Meldrick Lewis/Gus Haynes) not Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon).


  6. The concept of the show being about a boy’s dream does explain a few things, such as how characters from St. Elsewhere visited the bar in Cheers- Tommy saw an episode of Cheers, and then imagined that the St. Elsewhere characters appeared on Cheers.

    And characters in Tommy’s dream could very well be based on people that Tommy met or saw on TV.


  7. I always thought that the Tommy Westphall addition was just a cute way of bracketing or defining the cross-over phenomenon, whereas the phenomenon itself was just a cute, and utterly geeky, example of defining the ways that so many shows and movies are linked, whatever-textually.

    Certainly, that’s always the spirit that I enjoy these maps, theories and discussions in – the same way that I can get sucked into my dictionary of phrases and fables, or Wikipedia, by way of the “see also”s…

    So in that sense, the only distinction between references that matters is diegetic vs non-diegetic. That is, if a character is watching “I Love Lucy” reruns, then “I Love Lucy” exists in that character’s universe as a tv show, but the character “Lucy” doesn’t.

  8. Cameron Says:

    “[Clark Johnson] played two different characters in Homicide and The Wire, while Richard Belzer played his same Homicide character in a cameo on The Wire. How does the Westphallverse explain that?”

    Nicholas Lea had a bit part on “The X-Files” first season before taking on the major role of Alex Krycek in the second season. Many TV shows have the same actors play more than one character. How can they explain that?

    It isn’t completely unreasonable to think that there are two people living in Baltimore that are very similar in appearance.

  9. Jack Says:

    Cameron wrote: “It isn’t completely unreasonable to think that there are two people living in Baltimore that are very similar in appearance.”

    Particularly if we’re including “The X-Files” in the Westphall Hypothesis, given that it introduces shapeshifters, clones, illusionists, etc.


  10. […] for an alternate Kennedy scenario is here meaningless. It’s not as if there’s some Tommy Westphall Hypothesis for Kevin Costner […]


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