Was pointed out that May 25 represents the anniversary of one of the most infamous TV endings of all time.
ST. ELSEWHERE, for those that don’t remember, was a medical drama that ran on NBC from 1982 to 1988. It was sort of a companion to HILL STREET BLUES in its depiction of a painfully real, gritty city hospital where patients often died and tragedy was always around the corner — along with a fair amount of absurd humor.
The large and varied cast included everyone from Denzel Washington to Mark Harmon to Howie Mandel to Ed Begley Jr. to the great William Daniels as the arrogant Dr. Mark Craig, but of interest here is Dr. Donald Westphall, played by the late Ed Flanders.
Westphall had an autistic son, Tommy, played by Chad Allen. Throughout the series, the writers (including Tom Fontana, later of HOMICIDE and OZ), loved to insert all manner of puns and wordplay (“Donald, Duck!” “Jumping Jack, what was that flash!” [Dr. Craig at a psychiartrist] “You were telling me about the dream you had about the silver spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun?” Craig: “I was kneeling. I was young.”]. This extended to episodes with such sequences as a shot-for-shot recreation of ZZ Top’s “Legs” video and Howie Mandel’s Dr. Fiscus meeting God…who looked an awful lot like Fiscus.
None of this was enough to prepare viewers for the final episode.
The ep included a number of elaborate puns, including a one-armed fugitive in the hospital (a parody of THE FUGITIVE) and a patient-killing doctor named “Brandon Falsey” (a pun on series creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey, whose first-season episodes were filled with gloom and doom). But they saved the best for last, as seen below.
First, there’s a hilarious pun on the famous “it ain’t over until…” line. And then…the hospital gets turned upside-down. Literally.
Yes, they implied THE ENTIRE SERIES was the product of Tommy Westphall staring into a snow globe!
Horrifying viewers even further, the closing credits “killed off” the little kitten used in the tag of ST. ELSEWHERE and other shows from MTM Productions, including THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, HILL STREET BLUES, THE WHITE SHADOW and REMINGTON STEELE:
Viewers were, put bluntly, aghast.
In his excellent book TELEVISION’S SECOND GOLDEN AGE (which I’ll admit using for reference for this piece), author Robert J. Thompson quotes Tom Fontana as saying they almost went FURTHER, and showed more snow globes on top of the TV, including Hill Street Station, WJM from THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, and so on — implying that every MTM Productions’ show was part of Tommy’s dream.
That kid’s mind was a network executive’s gold mine.
Years later, the late great comic book and TV writer Dwayne McDuffie made a mind-blowing point: During its run, ST. ELSEWHERE had done a crossover episode with CHEERS, which had in turn produced FRASIER, who had crossed over onto WINGS. By the series’ logic, ALL those shows existed in Tommy’s head.
It got weirder: During the run of HOMICIDE, Alfre Woodard reprised her ST. ELSEWHERE character. That show featured Richard Belzer as Detective Munch…a role he reprised on LAW & ORDER: SVU, THE X-FILES, THE WIRE and even THE SIMPSONS!
Therefore, ALL those shows, and every show they crossed over into, could be said to take place in Tommy Westphall’s mind.
You can read the full essay here.
The ending was also parodied in a number of places. Here’s one of the best ones, from the end of the NEWSRADIO episode “Daydream” (I’ve got the clip timed to start at the end, though the whole ep is hilarious):
Sadly, only the first season of ST. ELSWHERE is on DVD — though it’s been rerun in various places since the ending.
But before THE SOPRANOS, NEWHEART, Etc., this was the first final episode of a series to really, truly mess with viewers’ heads. Well, maybe BLAKE’S 7, which killed off the cast, came pretty close.
It was still a great show that produced some truly innovative and tear-jerking moments, and I hope the whole thing is available again someday. For now, I’ll always think of it when I see a snow globe.