1. Morley Cigarettes
Establishing that television shows share a reality is typically done in an overt, crossover-stunt sort of way: The Simpsons welcome The Critic! The St. Elsewhere gang goes to Cheers! Phoebe from Friends has a sister on Mad About You!, etc. But sometimes it’s a far subtler suggestion that completely unrelated shows may take place within the same storytelling universe, whether it’s via winking allusion, a minor character from one turning up in another without any fanfare, or—in the case of Morley Cigarettes—a fictional product that only exists inside their shared fictional world. Most will probably recognize the Marlboro-spoofing Morley as the brand favored by The X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man, but its history actually stretches all the way back to its appearance in a 1961 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. From there, Morley has been spotted in the hands of characters across five decades of television, including 24’s Jack Bauer, Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Spike, Beverly Hills 90210’s Brenda, and Friends’ Chandler, and it’s turned up on shows as diverse as Mission: Impossible, Malcolm In The Middle, Californication, That ’70s Show, and The Walking Dead. No one would ever expect these TV universes to have anything in common, but they do all share one thing: They all exist on the only plane of reality where one can smoke Morley Cigarettes.
2. Dr. Lawrence Jacoby
That Fringe would share a spiritual bond with the similarly mythology-heavy, supernaturally themed Twin Peaks is no surprise. But in the third-season episode “The Firefly,” Fringe went beyond winking shout-outs via Joan Chen cameos or the Twin Peaks-inspired “Northwest Passage” episode, establishing a direct link between its brilliant yet bizarre Walter Bishop and Peaks’ equally iconoclastic doctor. After donning some familiar-looking red-and-blue glasses, Walter explains that they were given to him by his “old friend,” Dr. Jacoby, from Washington State—a reference to Dr. Lawrence Jacoby, Laura Palmer’s former psychiatrist, who was often seen wearing a similar pair. Of course, this brings up the question of how the parallel universes in Fringe might interact with the transdimensional realities of the Black and White Lodges, or whether the FBI’s Fringe Division has ever looked into any of the strange findings of Agent Dale Cooper.
3. Montecito Hotel and Casino
Though most famously the setting of the NBC drama Las Vegas, the Montecito Hotel and Casino is the palatial luxury getaway at the nexus of the NBC TV universe. Aside from creating an obvious connection to Crossing Jordan, whose Jerry O’Connell engaged in a multi-episode romance with Las Vegas’ Vanessa Marcil, the Montecito has been the vacation destination for characters from NBC shows (Heroes, Medium, the daytime soap Passions, the Knight Rider reboot) and NBC-affiliated cable networks (Monk, Stargate Atlantis) whenever they came to play in Sin City—or in the case of The Office’s winking off-screen cameo on Vegas, attend a Dunder-Mifflin convention. (That The Office and Heroes share a reality is especially perplexing, seeing as Dwight Schrute has referenced watching the latter.) And thanks to Las Vegas’ frequent cameos from celebrities playing themselves—everyone from Ed McMahon to Jean-Claude Van Damme—many of them can be said to inhabit the same universe as the likes of Passions as well.
4. Oceanic Airlines
Though most readily associated with Lost, there have been fictional airlines named “Oceanic” since the ’90s. “Oceanic” sounds like it should be the name of an actual airline, yet it magically isn’t, allowing for TV series and films to use it for various dire fictional situations that no actual airline would want to product-place. The first major appearance of the airline comes in 1996’s action-thriller Executive Decision, where it’s the name of the airline overrun by terrorists. After that, the airline appeared in The X-Files and all other manner of TV series, usually as stock footage from Executive Decision. Yet it jumped to prominence thanks to Lost’s doomed Oceanic Flight 815. Soon, Oceanic began popping up all over TV, in series where it mostly made sense—such as FlashForward, which desperately wanted to be the next Lost—and those where it made considerably less sense, like the gentle comedy Up All Night, where it pops up in an airport. Oceanic has become so pervasive that it’s now like a nudge from the people who make TV that, hey, they watch TV, too.
5. Jim Bonnick
While filling in the various holes of his “Swiss-cheesed” memory, Quantum Leap’s Dr. Samuel Beckett remembers that his sister is married to a Naval officer in Hawaii named Jim Bonnick—a seemingly insignificant fact, but one that makes clear Quantum Leap’s then-futuristic world of 1995 takes place in the same timeline as creator Donald P. Bellisario’s other hit, Magnum, P.I. Bonnick—the mustachioed, conman lookalike of Lieutenant “Mac” MacReynolds—is a minor character in Magnum’s world, but a link between the two shows’ seemingly disparate universes (and by extension, the worlds of Hawaii Five-0, Murder, She Wrote, and Simon & Simon, all of which garnered either mentions on or crossovers with Magnum, and all of which take place in the same existence where a man travels through time leaping into other people’s bodies). That link was intended to be even more explicit, as Bellisario long had plans for a crossover where Scott Bakula’s character would leap into Tom Selleck’s body—though this would have been troublesome, considering one Quantum episode has a character watching Magnum P.I. on TV. Perhaps these mind-bending quandaries are why characters on Magnum were always looking quizzically at the audience, ever aware that the reality of their very identity is in question?
6. Firefly-class ship
The Serenity, the Firefly-class starship at the center of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, was so named for its distinctive shape and for the way it, er, lit up its rear when it blasted off for parts unknown. Given the show’s cult popularity, it’s surprising that the ship hasn’t turned up in the Where’s Waldo sections of more sci-fi projects, stuck in a corner somewhere for those with excellent freeze-frame buttons on their Blu-ray players to find. But it does turn up in Battlestar Galactica, in the miniseries that effectively functions as the show’s pilot. As it turns out, the two series shared a visual-effects house, Zoic, which snuck a Firefly-class ship into the background of the miniseries, presumably as an in-joke. Yet if this is meant to be an actual Firefly-class ship, it introduces a handful of timeline problems, since Firefly takes place in Earth’s future, and BSG does… not, to put it without spoiling.
7. Heisler Gold Ale
As with many of these links, one way to explain Heisler Gold Ale’s television ubiquity is through its real-life origin: The fictional brand of beer is one of several manufactured by Independent Studio Services, one of the motion-picture industry’s leading suppliers of fake riot gear, mock magazine covers, and cereal that’s not part of a complete breakfast. But as with Morley Cigarettes, Heisler provides the inexplicable TV link between diverse programs like Star Trek: Enterprise, Dollhouse, and Glee—and a brew that could open the gateway to Max Greenfield’s loveable douchebag Schmidt from New Girl drinking with Greenfield’s Veronica Mars character, Deputy Leo D’Amato. Heisler unites underage drinkers (toasting Silas’ 18th birthday on Weeds; purloined from a wedding party on Bunheads), law-enforcement agencies (it’s favored by White Collar’s FBI Special Agent Peter Burke and K-Ville’s New Orleans cops), and the characters of highly rated CBS sitcoms (turning up on Two And A Half Men and How I Met Your Mother). It offers hope that the time-traveling robots of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (where Heisler Gold is enjoyed by Garret Dillahunt’s George Laszlo) could prevent the later seasons of Heroes from happening—or at least get super robo-wasted with Matt Parkman. Heisler is more than just a sign that a show had trouble landing a product-placement deal; it’s TV’s greatest facilitator of a cross-genre beer summit.
First appearing in Thomas Pynchon’s novels V. and The Crying Of Lot 49, the aerospace contractor Yoyodyne has turned up in numerous shows and films that paid homage to the author, most famously in 1984’s The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension. On the small screen, it’s the unexpected link between the worlds of Star Trek, where it manufactures various parts of the Federation’s ships, and the Buffy The Vampire Slayer spin-off Angel, whose evil law firm Wolfram And Hart represents the equally ominous aerospace giant (right alongside Alien’s Weyland-Yutani). But while it’s not unthinkable to find a common thread between universes where demons and aliens can coexist—despite the paradox of Buffy characters regularly referencing Star Trek—Yoyodyne also somehow ropes in The John Larroquette Show, where the company expands its mass-transportation empire by manufacturing the buses Larroquette’s Pynchon-obsessed character is charged with overseeing. In all cases, it’s intended as a deliberate homage, but imagining that the same corporation lurks behind both monster and alien attacks and John Larroquette’s job dissatisfaction certainly casts all three shows in an interesting light.
9. Guido Panzini
Long before Pat Harrington Jr. became One Day At A Time’s sleazy Schneider, he found TV fame playing off Italian stereotypes as an immigrant golf pro named “Guido Panzini”—a character so convincing, Harrington fooled major tournaments and the U.S. Immigration Service alike into thinking Panzini was real. As seen in his numerous TV appearances over the years, Panzini’s own identity was remarkably slippery. In the real world, viewers first became aware of Panzini through his appearances on The Steve Allen Show and The Jack Paar Show. But chronologically speaking, Panzini’s first known sighting came during the World War II of McHale’s Navy, where he cons the crew into believing he’s a doctor and count/architect, then scams them out of building a golf course. Panzini also turned up as a dog expert on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.—though there he appeared to be legit, just like his arrival on One Day At A Time in the early ’80s, where he was hailed as a famed Sicilian designer (and noted for his striking resemblance to Schneider). How can one man live so many different lives, the Panzini paradox asks—and perhaps more importantly, why isn’t Bonnie Franklin more concerned about being vaporized by THRUSH?
10. MacCutcheon Whisky
Invented as a prohibitively expensive drink enjoyed by Lost’s villainous Charles Widmore when he needed to express to future son-in-law Desmond just how little he thought of him, MacCutcheon Whisky popped up a handful of other times throughout the series. It was only natural, then, for the drink to appear in a third-season episode of Fringe, which shares Lost’s executive producer J.J. Abrams and has winked in the show’s general direction before. (In that case, it was an animated William Bell enjoying the drink.) Once the drink appeared on Once Upon A Time, however—in an episode that also starred Charles Widmore portrayer Alan Dale, no less—the whole gag started to feel a little strained.
The fictional beverage Slusho! pops up in the background of both Alias’ first season and the second season of Heroes, providing a visible link between two shows about unusually gifted people and vast conspiracies lurking just beneath the surface of everyday life. Despite some fan theories, Slusho! had no explicit influence on either storyline. But its big-screen appearances in Cloverfield and the Star Trek reboot suggest that not only does J.J. Abrams (along with Abrams’ friends on the Heroes staff) have a fondness for it, but that there exists a single universe where ancient prophets, modern-day superheroes, chameleonic super-spies, city-destroying monsters, and future space explorers all coexist. Adding another layer of mystery, it does not explain why that universe has two guys who look like Greg Grunberg.
12. Warren Coolidge
Warren “Cool” Coolidge (Byron Stewart) played center for The White Shadow’s L.A.-based Carver High School basketball team, and at one time his prospects seemed so great, he toyed with the idea of dropping out to join the Harlem Globetrotters. Unfortunately, he bungled the tryout, and apparently that was the end of his professional aspirations. A year after The White Shadow ended, Coolidge turned up, again played by Stewart, as a minor character on St. Elsewhere, this time as a lowly orderly. (Coolidge would occasionally wear his Carver High shirt, making the White Shadow connection even more explicit.) Over time it was revealed that his sports career was cut short by injury, his downward trajectory eventually leading him to cleaning bedpans at the Boston-based hospital St. Eligius. The off-screen explanation for Coolidge’s presence was simple: The two shows shared a number of behind-the-scenes staffers, including producers Bruce Paltrow and Mark Tinker. But on screen, Coolidge’s appearance mostly served to fulfill the way The White Shadow painted a realistic path for its players, and tied together the series’ shared sense of struggling against hopelessness.
13. Lariat Rental Cars
In its second season, Veronica Mars often paid debts to its spiritual siblings, and its currently airing competition. The most notable example of this was a scene set at a rental car agency that guest starred a woman who’d just won a challenge on the show’s lead-in, America’s Next Top Model, and Joss Whedon, creator of obvious predecessor Buffy The Vampire Slayer and a frequent booster of Veronica in interviews. But more unexpectedly, the scene also contains a nod to The X-Files in the name of the rental-car agency. Lariat Rental Cars was the agency most often used by Agents Mulder and Scully on their travels around the country, in search of aliens and other creatures of the night. X-Files was on its way out of the pop-culture consciousness by the time the episode aired in 2005, but it’s not hard to imagine creator Rob Thomas tipping his cap to the highly influential ’90s drama.
14. Drive Shaft
A world in which Alias’ Sydney Bristow looks into the ties between Arvin Sloane and Lost’s mysterious Alvar Hanso sounds like pure fan fiction, yet the two J.J. Abrams shows share a link. In addition to a quick off-screen reference to Oceanic Airlines, Alias also featured a fourth-season musical cameo from Drive Shaft—the one-hit wonder band of Lost’s Charlie Pace—whose “You All Everybody” soundtracks a birthday party scene. The repeated use of Drive Shaft didn’t just help Abrams and Co. avoid paying royalties for an actual rock song; it also created a shared reality in which Drive Shaft sings for Desmond down in the Hatch and Marshall Flinkman down in SD-6, with all the even-more-confusing-than-it-was-already shared mythology that implies.
15. Dr. Neil Roberts
The O.C.’s Dr. Neil Roberts, father to Summer, eventually leaves that show’s setting of Newport Beach for Seattle, signing on to work as a plastic surgeon at a hospital he says is known for being “wonderfully quirky.” As viewers find out in the episode “The French Connection,” said hospital is Seattle Grace, the setting for Grey’s Anatomy. Of course, Roberts never actually turns up on Grey’s—which makes sense, considering his defection was put in the script by O.C. creator Josh Schwartz as an in-joke about the then-faltering teen drama’s direct Thursday-night competition. But the fact that he’s been consumed by the world of Grey’s is all but confirmed when Roberts, asked by future son-in-law Seth if he’s liking Seattle, replies, “Seriously?”—one of Grey’s most ubiquitous phrases.
16. Credit Dauphine Bank
Credit Dauphine served as the front for SD-6, Alias’ super-secret spy organization, where both Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow and Victor Garber’s Jack Bristow worked within the sub-levels of its Los Angeles branch. After Alias ended, with [spoiler ahead] Garber’s character detonating an explosion that sealed him inside an underground tomb, Garber took a job on Eli Stone—a far more whimsical show where he again played a father figure, this time to the titular star attorney. While the two series couldn’t be more different, their worlds (and different incarnations of Garber) crashed into each other in Eli Stone’s second-season première, when Garber’s character investigated some illicit business at Credit Dauphine, only to have a crane smash into the building and bury him once again. That Alias and Eli Stone inhabit the same universe—one where Victor Garber is always destined to end up trapped under rubble—was an in-joke that probably amused any former Alias watching Eli Stone at that point (not that too many people were watching Eli Stone at all by then).
17. Nicholas and Diana Salinger
Nicholas and Diana Salinger were the parents whose deaths at the hands of a drunk driver orphaned the title characters of Party Of Five. And while that show seemed to exist in a world where the only real monsters were alcoholism and domestic abuse, it was revealed to have an unlikely connection to the far more fantastical universe of The X-Files. During the sixth-season episode “Milagro,” Mulder and Scully pass through a graveyard that happens to contain the Salingers’ tombstone—the same one featured on Party Of Five. True, perhaps this could be explained by the fact that Fox’s thrifty prop department had a “waste not, want not” attitude. But then again, maybe it’s a hint that the truth about the Salingers’ deaths is still out there.
18. Ted Buckland
Scrubs and Cougar Town creator Bill Lawrence loves inside jokes and meta references. (Witness his inclusion of Danny Pudi as a background extra, all for the sake of a Community gag.) But with the introduction of Sam Lloyd’s Scrubs character—hapless, sweaty lawyer Ted Buckland—into the world of Cougar Town, Lawrence took “meta” to a whole new level. In an early episode of Cougar Town’s second season, Scrubs can be seen playing on the TV in the living room of Courtney Cox’s Jules Cobb, revealing Scrubs to be fictional in her world. And yet somehow Ted crosses over into their reality, wandering into the Cougar Town gang’s Hawaiian vacation after moving there to sing. The connection between the two universes became even more self-aware in the third season, when Ted arrived in Florida: Not only did he bring the same a cappella group he led while he was at Sacred Heart, Ted’s mind was blown when he encountered fellow Scrubs veterans Christa Miller, Ken Jenkins, Sarah Chalke, and Zach Braff—now all strangers who only looked like the friends he used to know, all of whom apparently have some equally goofy doppelgangers on the other side of the TV country.
19. Happy Time Temp Agency/Muffin Buffalo/Lil’ Ivey’s
While it’s easy to draw tonal connections among Bryan Fuller’s three cultishly beloved, little-watched, aggressively whimsical shows—Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies—they are not technically spin-offs of one another. (Though Fuller has said he originally conceived Pushing Daisies as a Dead Like Me spin-off, but he left DLM before he could plant the seeds for Daisies.) But in its second season, Pushing Daisies sprinkled in a couple of Easter eggs for sharp-eyed acolytes of the Fuller-verse that indicated that while Ned the pie-maker was raising the dead on Daisies, Georgia Mason (Ellen Muth) was off somewhere shuttling the recently departed into the afterlife on Dead Like Me and Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas) was in Wonder Falls interpreting messages from animal objects and ignoring the fact that her brother (also Pace) looks a lot like that guy who runs The Pie Hole a few towns over. In the second-season première of Daisies, Ned goes undercover at a honey-based-beauty-product company via a position he got through the Happy Time Temp Agency, site of Georgia’s soul-crushing day job on Dead Like Me. (He doesn’t mention Dolores, but it’s easy to assume she and her-big-brown-eyes hooked him up there.) Later on in Daisies’ second season, a resident of Wonder Falls finds her way to Couer d’Couers, as Marianne Marie Beattle, played both times by Beth Grant, competes against Olive in a bake-off under a business name that shares the title of the Wonderfalls episode in which she appears: “Muffin Buffalo.” And just before it signed off for good, Pushing Daisies made one more tiny nod to Wonderfalls in one of the last scenes of its last episode, with a quick glimpse of a bag of macaroni featuring the Lil’ Ivey’s bunny logo that Jaye conversed with in the episode “Cocktail Bunny.”
20. John Munch
Richard Belzer’s sarcastic, conspiracy-loving Sergeant John Munch is the unlikely common thread among some of television’s most beloved series. The crossovers began with Munch—who began his TV career working as a detective on the David Simon-based Homicide: Life On The Street—making appearances on Law & Order, where not only is it revealed that the casts work the same universal beat, but Munch also discovers that he and Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe even shared a woman. After Homicide ended its run, Munch transitioned fully into Law & Order: SVU—though not seamlessly: Munch’s birthplace changed from Baltimore to New York and regulars from Homicide appeared as other, unrelated characters in SVU. The Munchiverse was stretched further when he popped up in Simon’s The Wire—a connection that raises questions like, “If Homicide’s Baltimore police were assisting Law & Order cops, were the Law And Order units also dealing with New York’s connections to the Baltimore drug trade of Marlo Stanfield et al.?” And while these appearances were all grounded in gritty reality, Munch also left his thumbprint in the X-Files world, appearing in a flashback episode (“Unusual Suspects) that takes place in Baltimore, suggesting that strange, alien-related happenings were happening just behind the curtain of Avon Barksdale’s empire. Those links became even weirder—and their own inside joke—when Munch turned up undercover on Arrested Development trying to bring down the Bluth family, and was mentioned on the UK show Luther, which stars The Wire’s Idris Elba as a detective who bears a remarkable resemblance to Stringer Bell.
21. Tommy Westphall
The absolute nexus of all TV worlds, as proposed in the endlessly debated, overwhelming Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis, is the autistic boy who, in St. Elsewhere’s series finale, is revealed to have imagined the entire run of the show. Accepting that St. Elsewhere’s universe only exists within Westphall’s mind—and further accepting that many of the above minor links really do establish that other TV shows share fictional universes—then it can be said that around 280 series, everything from The Jeffersons and Seinfeld to The Andy Griffith Show and NYPD Blue, are solely the products of Westphall’s elaborate imagination. Comics writer Dwayne McDuffie was among the first to float the theory, publishing an article titled “Six Degrees Of St. Elsewhere” that uses the medical drama’s crossovers into Homicide to extrapolate connections to Law & Order and The X-Files, etc., then spins dizzyingly out from there, concluding with McDuffie’s “Grand Unification Theory” for TV: “The last five minutes of St. Elsewhere is the only television show, ever. Everything else is a daydream.” That interpretation has, naturally, been met with some resistance, prompting TV fanatics and philosophy professors alike to argue against the fallacies of assuming that implicit “links” such as these suggest shared realities. But those who choose to believe know that just about every famous TV series—past, present, and future—has one thing in common: They’re all just the fantasy of a boy staring into a snow globe.