In the '80s, dream sequences in TV shows were as fashionable as huge shoulder pads, Phil Collins. and Bolivian marching powder. Whole episodes, seasons and even entire runs were seemingly the product of a protagonist's overactive imagination, leaving audiences with a serious case of "Whaaaa?..." and denying them any hope of a satisfying conclusion.
Incredibly, this narrative device is still used by TV writers looking to lazily light up fan forums with an "Oh my God, I can't believe they did that" moment.
Sure, there are some great dream sequences out there: The Sopranos regularly used them to highlight Tony's fragile state of mind, Star Trek Next Generation asked what it was to be human through Data's dreams, and then there was the whole backwards-talking brilliance of Twin Peaks. But as we’ll see in 10 TV Shows Ruined by Dream Sequences, they are often more nightmare than dream for the unsuspecting viewer.
10 Mr. Robot
Everything leading up to the third episode of Mr. Robot was pretty perfect. Hacker Elliot and subtly named anarchist collective fsociety were on their way to take down faceless corporation E Corp’s Steel Mountain fortress. The tension had been tightly wound in the previous episode, and the viewer was expecting a big payoff. So, what do the producers do? Throw in an episode’s worth of a psychotic dream sequence triggered by Elliot’s morphine withdrawal.
Sure, the episode has some striking moments, as befits the show’s top-notch production values. Particularly, Elliot visiting a drug den which is then viscerally raided by an armed gang. But by the time Elliot snaps out of it, he’s in a shabby motel room, with the previous 50 minutes being revealed as a fevered dream. Credit’s roll and the viewer is left with a serious case of WTF.
9 True Detective
It’d be a stretch to say a dream sequence ruined the second season of True Detective. After all, the punishing critical reception it received tended to focus on its plot (ponderous), mood (overly grim) and the pretentious dialogue (shout out to Vince Vaughn’s “it's like, uh, blue balls in your heart” line).
But Ray Velcoro’s (Colin Farrell) premonition that begun the season’s third episode "Maybe Tomorrow" certainly didn’t help. Unconscious after being shot by riot shells, Velcoro dreams that he’s back in a dive bar he frequents. Conway Twitty is on stage, crooning Bette Midler’s ballad ‘The Rose" Twin Peaks style, and Velcoro’s dad appears, dressed in full police uniform, cryptically mumbling “I see you, running through the trees. You’re small, the trees are like giants.” The scene jars with what came before, and leaves the viewer wondering whether everything, including the kitchen sink, had been thrown at the script.
In a way it summed up True Detective’s second season: more characters, more convoluted plotting, more foreboding, and little of what made the first series great. In a startling display of honesty, even the minds behind the series acknowledged the scripts weren’t as good as the critically adored first season. Given the critical drubbing, perhaps writer Nic Pizzolatto wishes the whole of season two was all a dream? Here's hoping year three proves to be a return to form.
When the only way to communicate with a comatose terrorist is by taking some magic mushrooms, then who better than Fox Mulder himself to 'shroom it up? No sooner has Mulder ingested the psychedelic fungus in recent episode "Babylon" that he’s high-fiving doctors, line dancing to Billy Ray Cyrus' classic "Achy Breaky Heart" and enjoying some light S&M. Was it real or imagined? Well the inclusion of the supposedly deceased Lone Gunmen (pictured in full rhinestone cowboy getup, no less) and Mulder talking with the terrorist on the River Styx (you know, the one from Greek mythology where the dead are carried over to the underworld) suggests that a large part of it is a very bad trip.
Reaction to the X-Files reboot has been mixed, to say the least. But whatever the rationale behind Mulder hitting the shrooms, the whole thing has more than a whiff of your dad trying to get down with the kids.
Viewers were surprised when season nine of Roseanne started with the titular character winning $108 million in the Illinois State Lottery. But they were even more surprised by the series of increasingly bizarre episodes that followed, all far removed from the show's origins as a blue-collar comedy. In these episodes, Roseanne sang in Evita, modelled for Playboy, and even battled terrorists on a train, meeting Steven Seagal himself in the process.
By the end of the 22 episode run, the whole season turned out to be all a dream, a product of Rosanne withdrawing into writing as a coping mechanism for husband Dan’s death at the end of the previous season. This was a cruel body blow for loyal viewers who had stuck with Roseanne Barr’s sitcom through high-and-low ratings, and believed Dan had survived his heart attack from the previous season.
One popular explanation is that Barr was screwed over by NBC, who nixed her idea to remake British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Taking revenge, Barr incorporated the more extravagant elements from the BBC sitcom into the final season of Roseanne, even going so far as to feature its leads, Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley.
6 Buffy the Vampire Slayer
In a twist on A Nightmare on Elm Street, the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer concluded with "Restless," an episode where Buffy and the rest of the Scooby Gang are being hunted down by the First Slayer in their dreams. The episode is divided into four distinct parts, opening with Willow dreaming she’s still the same old nerd she was back in season one, followed by Xander having an Apocalypse Now wig-out, and Giles being scalped by the First Slayer. Buffy’s dream ends with her defeating the First Slayer by simply ignoring her. That’s not before talking to her mother, who now lives in the walls of the family home.
Diehard Buffy fans will defend this episode, saying it is packed with character insight, that it provides a heavy dose of foreshadowing for the season that followed. It has its moments, for sure. Especially the reappearance of weaselly Principal Snyder as Colonel Kurtz. But there’s an argument to be made that creator Joss Whedon’s self-described "grace note" was filler for a season that had already wrapped up its main plot and sign-posted a subsequent drop in quality.
5 Life on Mars (UK)
In Life in Mars, modern-day cop Sam Tyler is transported back in time to 1973 Manchester following a car crash and finds himself part of decidedly unreformed ‘70s copper DCI Gene Hunt's squad. How unreformed? Well, judging by this line, he’s not one for road safety: “Take that seat belt off! You're a police officer, not a bloody vicar.”
Was it all a coma-induced dream? Had he really travelled back in time? In the end, it turns out to be a bit of both, as Tyler emerges from his coma to the grey world of 2006 policing, with the series up until that point being nothing more than a dream. Yet Tyler discovers he actually likes the world of flares, Ford Cortinas, and a complete absence of political correctness. Taking the only logical decision he can, he jumps off the nearest tall building to re-emerge back in the ‘70s. Well safe to say the ending was a tad ambiguous, with no meaningful resolution offered until the conclusion of spin-off show Ashes to Ashes.
But as our next entry will prove, there was an even worse way to end Life on Mars.
4 Life on Mars (US)
ABC’s 2008 remake of Life on Mars ending was even more gonzo than the British original. It also seemingly managed the paradoxical feat of being incredibly literal. While the remake kept the original’s premise of cop Sam Tyler being mysteriously sent back to 1973, the show’s writers went for a different, yet still out-there dream ending once they learnt the show was to be cancelled.
Turns out, the whole series was a computer simulation happening in Sam’s head as he travelled to Mars in the year 2035. What’s the crew’s mission once they get there? To see if there’s life on Mars! There’s even a clunky David Bowie reference thrown in with tough-as-nails cop Gene Hunt revealed to be Sam’s father, aka Major Tom. While it might have lasted one season, writing the whole thing off as one long holodeck fantasy was a bitter pill for fans to swallow.
How did critics react? Well Slate’s Seth Stevenson described it as "without doubt, the stupidest thing I have ever seen happen on a scripted TV show." So, not good then.
3 St. Elsewhere
How do you end your 6 season-long Emmy award-nominated hospital drama, a show that launched the career of Denzel Washington and was the precursor to the majesty that is ER? Well, the approach that the writers of St. Elsewhere took was to reveal that the whole show sprung from the imagination of an autistic boy while he looked at a snow globe containing a miniature model of St. Eligius hospital. That’s right, the kid had imagined six whole seasons of drama, pitched as Hill Street Blues in a hospital. Practically makes the whole musical episode of Chicago Hope seem positively sober.
Some of the cast reacted favorably when they received the final episode’s shooting script, saying they were ‘surprised’ by the ending. Others, like Bonnie Bartlett, who played Ellen Craig, have been, shall we say, more honest in their assessment: “They really wanted to kill the show. And they figured out a way: Okay, we won’t have any reunions, nothing like that. And I was very upset. I thought it was terrible. A terrible ending!” Agreed.
In 1990, over 30 million viewers tuned in to discover that the entire run of sitcom Newhart had been nothing more than star Bob Newhart’s indigestion-fueled dream. This big reveal came in the show’s last two minutes, when Newhart wakes up to discover he’s on the set of his previous starring-vehicle, The Bob Newhart Show. Dick, his wife Joanne, Darryl and Darryl and the other much loved Newhart characters had never existed. To provide some context, imagine getting to the end of Breaking Bad and the whole thing turns out to be the fantasy of Hank from Malcolm in the Middle, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston’s other iconic character. You’d feel miffed, right?
The idea to go with it all being a dream that came from Newhart’s real-life wife, Ginny. In the time since it aired, Bob Newhart has explained the rationale: “To me, it was the ultimate wink-wink, nudge-nudge kind of thing,” says Newhart, who is now 80 years old. “The audience was in on the joke.”
Seems ‘80s and ‘90s TV audiences just couldn’t catch a break with Newhart, St. Elsewhere and Roseanne pulling the rugs out from under them at the bitter end. Surely there can’t be anymore it-was-all-a-dream endings. Surely!
When Patrick Duffy said to his wife that he he wanted to return to his iconic role as deceased Bobby Ewing in the ‘80s mega soap Dallas, she turned to him and said: “The only way you can go back to that show is if [season seven] turns out to be a dream.” Give the man an A+ for initiative, because that’s just what he got the producers to do, with the whole of season seven being nothing more than Pamela’s (Victoria Principal) dream.
With the exception of J.R. himself, Larry Hagman, none of the other cast members knew Duffy was coming back. That included Principal, who in the show pulls back the shower curtain to reveal Bobby. In reality she was filmed pulling back a shower curtain to reveal…well…nothing. Duffy was smuggled onto the set under the guise of going to film a soap commercial to film his part, with the two scenes being spliced together in editing. Incredibly, Principal only found out when she watched the episode at home.
Obviously wishing away an entire season as a dream has its consequences. Entire characters were simply ditched, including Mark Graison and Jerry Kenderson, while the character of Ben Stivers' name was changed to Wes Parmalee. Creepily, Bobby wasn’t the only one to return from the great oil field in the sky. Both Katherine Wentworth and Jamie Barnes were also resurrected. Bizarrely, Bobby stayed dead in Dallas spin-off, Knots Landing.
While the series ran for an incredible 14 seasons, finally coming to a close in 1991, the Bobby Ewing twist fatally undermined the integrity of the show. Even Dallas creator David Jacobs admitted that the idea cheated fans who had mourned the Ewing scion. Unfortunately, for many, the short-lived Dallas reboot was not a dream.
Did we miss any of your favorite show-ruining dream sequences? Let us know in the comments.