2020 was such a topsy-turvy year, it got us wondering: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up to discover the last 12 months were all just a bad dream?
As wonderful as that would be, it’s obviously not possible. Unlike in real life, though, it’s totally plausible on TV. In fact, all just a dream” is a common plot twist on television programs and has been used dozens of times to depict beloved characters in very unlikely circumstances.
Yep, we’ve all seen episodes of our favorite long-running television series that don’t seem quite right on the surface. Maybe a well-established character acts strangely or events that seem too radical for the series’ established storytelling style occur.
Then, right before the episode ends, one of the characters wakes up and realizes everything that took place over the course of the episode—or in some cases an entire series—didn’t actually happen.
Let’s take a look back at some of the most memorable moments on TV when major events turned out to be all just a dream.”
I Dream of Jeannie
The premise of the classic television sitcom I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970) centered on the astronaut Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman), who discovered a bottle containing a beautiful genie (Barbara Eden). Jeannie serves all his needs, though she often causes headaches for Tony, who tries to keep her powers secret.
One of the main running jokes of the series is how a military psychiatrist, Dr. Bellows (Hayden Rourke), believes Tony is hiding something but is never able to prove it. The plots of many episodes of the series focused on Tony having to explain to Dr. Bellows the miraculous circumstances that frequently happen in his life.
When the writers scripted the 1970 episode “Hurricane Jeannie,” they wrote it as a potential series finale. In the episode, Dr. Bellows finally discovers Jeannie’s power when he inadvertently oversees her performing magic.
While the series did end after that season, the producers felt the big reveal wouldn’t be the right way to end things. To salvage the footage, they shot the sequence in which Tony awakes to discover it was a dream and that Dr. Bellows still doesn’t know his secret. This episode became one of the earliest just a dream” plot twists on television.
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Perhaps the most famous example of the just a dream” revelation on TV was from the popular prime-time soap opera Dallas (1978-1991, 2012-2014) about feuding Texas families.
Dallas killed off one of the show’s most popular characters, Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy), in the last episode of the eighth season because Duffy wanted to pursue other acting opportunities. Much of the show’s creative team had also been overhauled for the following season. However, Duffy’s departure and several unpopular storyline changes led to declining ratings during the ninth season.
To fix the ratings decline, Dallas rehired Duffy and some of the previous creative team. But that posed a major challenge: how to address Bobby’s on-screen death.
The writers simply had Bobby’s wife, Pam (Victoria Principal), wake up in the premiere of Season 10 to discover Bobby taking a shower. The series dismissed all of the events of Season 9 as part of Pam’s dream, and Season 10 picked up where Season 8 left off—except, of course, for Bobby’s death.
Newhart (and Breaking Bad)
Another memorable use of the just a dream” twist came with the finale of the sitcom Newhart (1982-1990). Comedian Bob Newhart already had a successful sitcom with The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978) before Newhart, and the finale of Newhart used a wild concept to tie the two series together.
On Newhart, Newhart starred as Dick Loudon, a small-town Vermont innkeeper who regularly interacts with the eccentric locals. The series finale episode features many completely off-the-wall occurrences, including the entire town being bought up by a Japanese millionaire who flattens the town and turns it into a golf course.
Exasperated by all the changes, Dick is about to leave the inn when a golf ball strikes him in the head and he passes out.
But the episode didn’t end there. The finale ends with Bob Hartley—Newhart’s character on The Bob Newhart Show—waking up, turning to his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette) from that earlier series, and remarking You won’t believe the dream I just had!”
Bob then proceeds to describe the Newhart series, meaning that Bob Hartley had dreamed Newhart. Critics consider the shocking Newhart finale one of the most memorable finales in television history.
In 2013, an “alternate ending” to the critically acclaimed drama Breaking Bad parodied Newhart’s finale. In the parody, Malcolm in the Middle patriarch Hal wakes up after having a dream about being a New Mexican drug kingpin named Walter White next to his wife from that earlier series, Lois (Jane Kaczmarek), in a similar fashion to the Newhart finale. Of course, the joke is that Bryan Cranston starred in both series.
Married… with Children
Though the just a dream” plot device is most often used to cover for outlandish or unpopular events in a series, the sitcom Married… with Children (1987-1997) used it to cover for real-life tragic circumstances.
The sixth season of the show began with neighbors Peg Bundy (Katey Sagal) and Marcy D’Arcy (Amanda Bearse) both announcing they were expecting. Producers created the storyline because Sagal was pregnant.
While many of the season’s episodes revolved around the pregnancies, sadly Sagal had a miscarriage. After Sagal took several episodes off, producers resolved the storyline by having Peg’s husband Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) wake up to discover that both pregnancies—and all of the episodes involving them—were a nightmare.
Producers did this so the still-grieving Sagal wouldn’t need to perform with babies on set. Sagal became pregnant twice more during the duration of Married… with Children, and producers decided to not make either a storyline on the show out of respect for Sagal and what she had gone through earlier in the series.
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The eighth season of the sitcom Roseanne (1988-1997, 2018) changed the series in a very dramatic way. The middle-class Illinois Conner family saw a new addition when family matriarch Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) gave birth to her fourth child, and husband Dan (John Goodman) suffered a heart attack at the wedding of their oldest daughter but soon recovered.
However, Season 9 upended the series in an even more dramatic way when Roseanne won over $100 million in the lottery. The once grounded-in-reality series presented outlandish plots during the ninth season with unexpected guest stars and fantasy sequences. It was too much change for much of the show’s audience, and ratings declined significantly.
Still, it was a surprise when the ninth season finale—and the last episode of the original series—revealed that the final season was a novel Roseanne was writing about her family. In reality, Dan died from his heart attack, the family never won the lottery, and other significant storyline changes.
But wait! Twenty years later, Roseanne returned for a tenth season with John Goodman reprising his role as Dan. The revival opened with a scene of Roseanne waking Dan up from a deep sleep saying, “I thought you were dead!” with Dan replying, Why does everyone always think I’m dead?”
The most bizarre variation of this storyline development occurred in the final episode of St. Elsewhere (1982-1988), a medical drama that included actor Ed Flanders as Dr. Donald Westphall, one of the major characters for much of the series’ run.
The final episode of St. Elsewhere revealed the events of the entire series took place within the imagination of Westphall’s autistic son Tommy (Chad Allen) and that in real life,” Westphall wasn’t a doctor but a construction worker who has had challenges communicating with his son.
This twist on the “just a dream” story development has possibly had far-reaching consequences when it comes to television history. Because St. Elsewhere had crossover episodes featuring characters from other popular television series like Homicide: Life on the Street and Cheers, some have argued a wild theory that an enormous amount of television programs took place all within Tommy Westphall’s imagination!
When it comes to sleep, which movies get it right—and which ones get it completely wrong? Here, we put together a list of the most well-known silver screen sleeping stories and break down what’s true and what’s false.