Photo: NBC, HBO

Tommy Westphall's Snowglobe Universe vs. Al & 'The Unfortunate Rake'

It's the biggest Mind-F@#% in TV history vs. Al Swearingen shows unexpected artistic talent!

143 votes

Tommy Westphall's Snowglobe Universe

153 votes

Al & 'The Unfortunate Rake'

The case for Tommy Westphall's Snowglobe Universe

A lot of people these days don't remember St. Elsewhere. Which is a shame, because it was one of the most groundbreaking shows in TV history. It ER-ed long before ER. It played with the dramatic form of hour-long nighttime TV dramas in ways that the rest of TV took years to catch up with. It had some real balls-to-the-wall twists and turns--crazy ass plots that left viewers gasping for breath. It launched the career (at least in a serious way) of future superstar Denzel Washington, but was also pivotal in the careers of Mark Harmon, Howie Mandel, Ed Begley Jr., Stephen Furst, Bruce Greenwood, William Daniels, and many many more.

And that ending. That "what the f@#% did I just see?" ending. In years since, other shows have tried stuff like this (Newhart comes to mind), but St. Elsewhere was first. It took the entire show and posited at the very last moment that every last thing we'd seen for the previous 6 years happened only in the mind of the autistic son of Dr. Donald Westphall--except in "real life" the good Doctor wasn't even a Doctor! The Hospital wasn't even a Hospital! The triumphs, tragedies, love affairs, births, deaths, violence, and mayhem weren't really REAL triumphs, tragedies, love affairs, births, deaths, violence, and mayhem!

It's such an enduring creation that ending, so startling original, that a huge Internet Meme--the so-called "Tommy Westphall's Universe" meme--was built around it. For years people used this ending, as well as the habit of characters "crossing over" between various TV shows, as a way (an excuse?) to try and connect up pretty much every show on TV to each other. The enthusiasm for this kind of TV navel gazing waned eventually, but it had a hell of a ride. Google it. Or go look at the topic about it here on

Some people felt cheated by the ending. But many others (myself included) felt inspired. Awed. Wickedly amused by it's audaciousness. It may SEEM trite these days looking back--because so many other shows have since tried to perfect the art of the Mind-F@#% and made it into a cliche--but... you always fondly remember your first.

Because the show in a way lives so much in the past (it's very much a product of it's time and was overshadowed by ER completely, eventually) I don't know if this ending will resonate with KODTTM readers... but let's give it a shot... — Kromm

The case for Al & 'The Unfortunate Rake'

Deadwood's Al Swearingen was many things - a pimp, a murderer, a civic leader, a dirty-mouthed philosopher. But in the show's final season, he revealed an unexpected dimension. Demurring from an appearance at Deadwood's first - and possibly last - Talent Night, while nursing wounded pride and a missing finger, while closing up the Gem he began to sing the old ballad, "The Unfortunate Rake". Starting quietly, he built to a towering crescendo that surely would have won him first prize. — TudorQueen

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