As a public, our ever-growing love of crossovers seems to have hit its apex recently. The controversial world-melding device seems to be everywhere lately, with television jumping into the deep end with the idea too.
On Sunday we not only got a legitimate Simpsons and Futurama crossover episode, and in a few weeks the CW’s newcomer of the season, The Flash will be crossing over with Arrow, bridging those worlds together, too. With more of these hyperbolic pieces of television on the docket, it’s worth exploring television’s relationship with crossover episodes and if they’ve changed at all since their inception in the ‘50s.
The Beginning – Production Company and Creator are King
Perhaps the most popular sort of crossovers are the ones used to promote shows in general and build some sort of connected universe at the same time. The first TV show to feature a crossover, I Love Lucy, employed this variety, indulging in it quite often actually, with shows like The Adventures of Superman, Private Secretary, and Make Room for Daddy. This might have been more out of necessity with the substantially smaller amount of programming their was at the time, but it was an efficient way to feature shows, almost like a celebrity guest star of the week.
The sort of structure that would be used here was the mundane, extremely by-the-book sort of approach that was seen with affairs like “Flintstones meet The Jetsons” where you’d just be getting a straight-up crossover. Characters meet. Shows are compared and contrasted. That’s about it. These sort of crossovers were particularly prone to go down when the shows themselves would have a common denominator, such as the same creator (as in the crossover events of Buffy/Angel, Three’s Company/Mork and Mindy, X-Files/Millennium, the US and UK versions of The Office, and even the quasi Bob’s Burgers and Archer crossover, linked together through Jon Benjamin).
While these events are definitely indulgences, they tend to just come at a surface level examination. As television has matured though, so has the depth of crossovers. What followed and accompanied the previous kind of crossovers was a new approach that was not just promoting the TV shows, but rather advertising the network as a whole and acting as a grab to get people watching the channel. Crossovers began to be seen in more creative, reflexive ways rather than the blunt approach that was previously seen.
The ‘90s and 2000s – Networks Work
When the ABC soap One Life to Live was canceled, many popular characters from that program crossed over to General Hospital, due to the unifying profession of the shows, with these characters even continuing on former plot lines from their now deceased former home.
NBC seems to take the most delight in this sort of crossover approach, constructing stunts like having Ursula Buffay (Phoebe’s sister on Friends) appear as a waitress on both Friends and Mad About You – which has a lot to do with these shows both taking place in New York and airing on NBC on Thursday. Helen Buchman even visited Central Perk on a rare occasion. This universe extended to deeper lengths in a Mad About You episode where Paul tries to sell his old apartment, as the audience learns that the current tenant is Cosmo Kramer, from none other than Seinfeld, crossing over these worlds even further.
Characters from Cheers appeared on Wings several times, and of course on Frasier too, long after Cheers has ended. Even now, under everyone’s noses, Parenthood has been crossing over on About A Boy with little to no fanfare from the network. All of this trying its hardest to fit under the moniker of “Must See TV.”
Elsewhere we saw Urkel from Family Matters showing up on Full House, and then Michelle Tanner from Full House making an appearance on Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, as ABC tried to emulate what NBC was doing with synergy, just with a less than stellar line-up. Even CBS took part in this strategy to even less effective effect, by doing some extremely on-the-nose things like featuring characters from Cosby, King of Queens, and Everybody Love Raymond being in Becker’s office as patients, on Becker. Remember that piece of television history?
There can also be a more narrative drive in this sort of crossover, where procedural shows would do complicated crossovers where the first part would begin in one series, and be concluded in the other. With storylines and characters spanning between the series. Buffy and Angel would even play around with this device, by doing things like having a phone call be placed from one show, and then seeing the phantom call get answered in the other series. This sort of long-form storytelling has been done by the likes of Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law and Order, CSI and Without a Trace, a three-way between Magnum PI, Simon and Simon, and Murder She Wrote, and even all three CSIs converging on one mega crossover night for the network one time.
Even though it was still in the ‘90s, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air produced a very reflexive, deep commentary of sorts, when they decided to turn their last episode into a pseudo-crossover. The series finale used the crossover device for thematic significance, as the show connected universes between Diff’rent Strokes and The Jeffersons, with characters from both being prospective buyers of the Bel-Air mansion (with the Jeffersons finally being the ones who bite the bullet). While a move like this could have been disastrous and disrespectful for the main series that should be getting serviced here, it was seen as classy even, and a nice nod to the affluence of the Banks family and their place in history amongst these other iconic African-American television families.
One of the most peculiar instances of this sort of thing is the character of Detective Munch, portrayed by Richard Belzer, who started as a character in Homicide. As previously mentioned, Homicide has crossed over with other crime-fighting series, which got his character out in other universes in the first place. Over the years though, he’s almost become the poster boy for crossover, after having appeared in over dozens of different TV shows, all as Munch. Even series that you wouldn’t expect to see him in, like Arrested Development or The X-Files has good ol’ Munch rearing his belligerent head. Munch almost acts as the nexus of TV crossovers, linking all the worlds in one way or another, as every appearance of him brings more and more universes together.
Munch is the television God particle. In Munch we Trust.
This sort of network and creative crossover perhaps culminated in networks even programming “theme nights” that would be a crossover event through the entire block of shows with some unifying trait. This could be as blatant as a character from the first show travelling through each of the network’s programs, or something much more subtle like a tangential or thematic connection with the rest of the shows on that night.
For instance, NBC did “Blackout Thursday” where all of the shows on Thursday (excluding Seinfeld, because Seinfeld was so popular it could do whatever it wanted) were affected by a power outage. The outage was caused during Mad About You, dealt with in Friends, and then fixed in Madman of the People (remember that show? Looks like this crossover couldn’t save that one…). Or when ABC has Sabrina from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, along with her cat, Salem, chasing a time ball through Boy Meets World and the rest of the night’s programming, causing each show to be displaced in different decades of time. While a rather ambitious, and even covert kind of crossover, it never seemed to yield huge rewards.
Now and Beyond – Marking the Calendar for Event Crossovers
The last step in the progression of crossovers is what we’re currently seeing on the air. The idea of crossovers being treated as tremendous spectacles. That they’re events that demand to be live-tweeted, have forums built for them, and reaction videos put up on YouTube. These aren’t so much to promote the shows any more, but rather to be turned into an event that’s talked about. This isn’t exactly surprising considering that these also tend to be the most reflexive and satirical of the crossovers, as well as the ways in which we consume them are, as we keep moving further in that direction.
This results in us getting the most self-aware crossovers yet, like the recent Simpsons/Family Guy number, which was almost a dissection on the nature of crossovers themselves, as characters from American Dad and Bob’s Burgers also appeared, making it a big FOX extravaganza in the end.
Even something like the Simpsons/Critic crossover that happened in the ‘90s, years before this sort of more biting approach to the device was popular, is still very much in the same vein. The Simpsons/Futurama crossover “Simpsorama” seemed to be very probing and in this style as well.
As this continues to happen we seem to be a society that just craves connections and wants to see our pop culture colliding, and now, more than ever, we want to dissect it too. So many sites ran a “live chat” and “live tweet” for “The Simpsons Guy” crossover episode because these are our mega-events now.
Even with all of the bizarre crossovers we have gotten, and there have truly been some crazy ones, like Bones and Family Guy, The Flintstones and Bewitched, The Simpsons and 24, and the current Spider-Man cartoon with something called Jessie. Outside the medium of television, the Archie gang even crossed over with The Punisher when he chaperoned a dance. But there are still tons that have fallen to the wayside of production hell or dots not being able to connect, like The X-Files/Picket Fences crossover, The X-Files/Twin Peaks crossover, and the ridiculous Arrested Development/Scrubs crossover that nearly came to pass.
To see us moving more headstrong towards crossovers only makes sense considering the most successful films of all time now are superhero pictures, each one topping the one before it, with all of these films being connected and having the impetus of mashing together into a super-film by the end of things. What is Marvel’s film slate if not one big, colossal crossover, which will only keep getting bigger? Even decades before this we were getting things like Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein and The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, indulging in this want before we even knew that we had it.
It’s recently been announced that Captain America 3 will have Iron Man as the de facto villain, and people can’t get enough of it. This crossover mentality has become so indoctrinated in the thinking of these blockbusters and the public in general, that of course we’d be trying to inject it more into our TV as of late. But what comes along with that increased symbiosis is the critical eye and the ability to see past the glamor. We’ll see if we ever hit a saturation point with the idea—if The Good Wife ever shows up on Better Call Saul—but until then, get ready to see boundaries between shows become even more fluid as we head towards that inevitable super-show.