Revisiting McDuffie's "Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere"

Thu, February 24th, 2011 at 10:58am PST

Comic Books
CBR News Team, Editor
11

Dwayne McDuffie at the Los Angeles premiere of "All Star Superman"
Photo courtesy of Kevin Parry Photography

While it's true that in life we don't always get the benefit of having the people we care for and respect on hand when we need them, once they're gone, their ideas live forever. This week has seen a tremendous outpouring of support and tribute for comics and animation writer Dwayne McDuffie who passed away Monday. A common theme in the discussion has been appreciating those around us while we still have time. However, while McDuffie can't be replaced in our hearts and minds, his writing can be remembered for a long time to come.

In 2002, McDuffie wrote a regular column for the now defunct comics site SLUSH FACTORY. Brian Jacks, Editor of the site, reached out and asked if CBR would like to reprint this classic column by Dwayne in his memory, and we're more than happy to do so. Read on below for "Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere" -- one of the writer's most notable and famous pieces of commentary on the state of comics and entertainment writing in general.

I know this is going to read like a plug but it's not, actually it's an excuse for writing about TV. I'll try to explain. Last weekend I had the unique thrill of watching pop-culture icons Batman and the Joker make a guest-appearance on STATIC SHOCK, the Kids WB animated series I co-created. It looks like the episode went over well with the audience, too. I've read many good reviews. I've received well-wishes from dozens of fans. I've got some great e-mails from little kids who discovered the show only because Batman was on it. All in all, an unexpected triumph.

Except...

Except there are some comic book fans who are confused by what the crossover does to the continuity of the DC and Milestone universes (answer: nothing, actually) or to the continuity of DC Comics' animated shows (answer: nothing that matters, really). There's just a few of those guys out there, mind you but they're strident. Anyone who has read my old columns knows my radical stance on comic book continuity (part 2 is here. Click the links if you care). The short version is this, I think comic book continuity should be treated as TV continuity traditionally has, that is to say, every show has its own, individual continuity - even when that show shares characters from other shows. The old sit-coms Seinfeld and Mad About You share characters but both shows conveniently ignore that fact whenever they feel like it. This allows them to have all the fun of crossovers, without the silly baggage of both shows having to keep it all straight (and, wonder of wonders, you can watch and enjoy either show without ever watching the other one).

This is the right answer for comics too, because complex interlocking storylines across dozens of series will inherently prove to be absurd. Let me demonstrate.

For the purposes of our demonstration, we postulate that any TV show that shares characters with another series is in the same universe as that series. With the help of the guys at the Milestone E-group and their discovery of a wondrous TV crossover website that lists an astonishingly large list of spinoffs and crossovers, I will first reveal to you a stunning tapestry of interconnected TV shows, then prove that none of those shows' episodes actually occurred. I'll do the last with two magic words: St. Elsewhere.

For those of you don't know, St. Elsewhere was a slick, well written and acted drama series about the doctors, administrators and patients of the fictional Boston hospital, St. Eligius (nicknamed St. Elsewhere by the staff). After a long, award-winning run, in the very last moments of the show's final episode, it was revealed that all of the events of the show were merely the prolonged daydream of an autistic child. None of it "really" happened. Whether you like this final twist (for what it's worth, I didn't), it's a legitimate ending to a self-contained show. But if St. Elsewhere played by the rules of comics, either they wouldn't have been allowed to do it, or they would have precipitated a crisis in TV Land far bloodier than DC Comics' Crisis On Infinite Earths. Why? Because crossover-wise, St. Elsewhere is the Kevin Bacon of TV shows.

Stay with me now, this is complicated but kind of fun.

Characters from St. Elsewhere have appeared on Homicide, which means that show is part of the autistic child's daydream and likewise doesn't exist. It gets worse. The omnipresent Detective John Munch from Homicide has appeared on X-Files, Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU. Law & Order characters have appeared on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. X-Files characters have appeared on The Lone Gunmen and Millennium. Characters from Chicago Hope have appeared on Homicide. Characters from Picket Fences have appeared on Chicago Hope. All those shows are gone (if you count cartoons, which makes this game much too easy, the X-Files characters have appeared on the Simpsons. The Critic has also appeared on The Simpsons. Dead).

Characters from Picket Fences have appeared on Ally McBeal. Ally McBeal has appeared on The Practice. Characters from The Practice have appeared on Boston Public. Autistic daydreams, every one.

But that's not all. St Elsewhere characters have appeared on Cheers, so Fraiser doesn't exist. Neither do Wings, Caroline In The City or The Tortellis but who cares? Well, maybe you do, because Caroline In The City once crossed over with Friends, which crossed over with Mad About You, which crossed over with Seinfeld and The Dick Van Dyke show. None of them happened in our new, shared continuity.

St. Elsewhere also shared characters with The White Shadow and It's Gary Shandling's Show. Garry Shandling crossed over with The Andy Griffith show (no, really!). So Gomer Pyle, Mayberry RFD, and Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show are gone. Make Room For Daddy takes out I love Lucy.

And there's more, St. Elsewhere also shares continuity with M*A*S*H, so Aftermash and Trapper John MD are out of there.

Now here's a good one, St. Elsewhere shared a patient with The Bob Newhart Show, so the Bob Newhart Show is part of the grand daydream. The Bob Newhart Show crossed over with Murphy Brown, which in turn links to, among many others, Julia, The Nanny, Everybody Loves Raymond and I Dream of Jeannie!. Meanwhile, the series Newhart was revealed to be a nightmare had by Bob Newhart's character on the Bob Newhart Show. Newhart crossed over with Coach, which connects it to Grace Under Fire, Ellen and Drew Carey. Drew Carey takes out Home Improvement and NYPD Blue.

All of these shows (and many more that I left out or missed) are daydreams of St. Elsewhere's autistic kid.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Links to the Happy Days, All In The Family and Diagnosis Murder universes would take out another 20 or 30 shows. If we can get to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, who knows how many would fall? My favorite possibility? A link to Knight Rider, of all things, would remove every single Star Trek series. I wouldn't mind some research help from my vast and loony readership on these and any other shows you guys can think of, E-mail me. No cartoons though, that way lies madness. The Scooby Doo movies alone encompass a good chunk of the space/time continuum.

All of these would help me prove my Grand Unification Theory, which posits: "The last five minutes of St. Elsewhere is the only television show, ever. Everything else is a daydream."

So what does this prove, other than the fact that I've got too much free time? Well, my point and I do have one (I can steal this catch phrase because, as I've already proven, Ellen never existed), is that while guest-shots and crossovers can be fun, obsessive, cross-series continuity is silly.

It's silly in comics too. Relax and enjoy the show.

Dwayne McDuffie is the co-creator of STATIC SHOCK. His first script for this season, "Power Play," airs on the Kids WB this Saturday, February 2 at 8:30 AM, EST. Dwayne went to high school with former all-time Jeopardy earnings champion, Chuck Forrest. Since Cliff Claven, the mailman from Cheers also appeared on Jeopardy, that means that Dwayne doesn't exist. If you're reading this, neither do you.

(c) 2002 Dwayne McDuffie, The Slush Factory.  Reprinted with Permission.

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