Sitcoms are famous for certain stunt episodes. For instance almost every sitcom has done an episode where two cast members, who usually hate each other, end up trapped alone somewhere. Like in a meat locker for example. Benson did a lot of these! Another is the dreaded clip show, where the cast basically sits around while old clips play. There is usually a plot tying the clips together, some better than others and some shows did these once too often.
Today I wanted to talk about another sitcom cliché, the dream episode. And I will just admit it; I am a big sucker for this one!
These episodes are just fun. There is usually some kind of strange special effects, there all kinds of cheesy gags and in-jokes, the cast get to wear make-up and even overact a bit. Some of my favorite episodes of all time are dream sequences because they are as much fun to watch as they are to probably make.
One of the earliest, and greatest, examples of this was the Dick Van Dyke episode "It May Look Like a Walnut" which was a hilarious Twilight Zone parody. I will just say if you have never seen it, check it out! It guest stars the great Danny Thomas and is just a hilarious show.
A dream sequence serves a couple of objectives. Sometimes a show does it just as an excuse to cut loose and have some fun for one episode. For example, Facts of Life had that famous episode spoofing horror movies. Another shows the girls still living together in their old age. Facts of Life could be a heavy show and these kinds of episodes give the cast a chance to just have a little fun. Another example would be the famous Scream parody they did on Boy Meets World. And I think anyone who saw The Hogan Family’s spoof on zombie movies remember that particular episode, I know I do. Head of the Class had a great episode where T.J. sells her soul to the devil. There are all kinds of gags and over the top acting, and in the end it turns out it’s a dream. They did a cute touch to let the audience know, usually in this show the transitions are given the day and time but during the course of the episode none of them are, until the final scene after T.J. has woken up. Have I mentioned I love this show? Arvid also had dreams involving the wild west and other TV shows in various episodes.
Another objective is to actually deal with an issue by actually showing the outcome of the problem of the week. For instance Perfect Strangers did an episode where Jennifer was moving, and Larry was torn what to do. Larry then had a dream where he was a lonely old man, which compelled him to act and tell Jennifer how he feels. Family Matters did this a few times. Carl was a sheriff in the old west in one, in another Laura is an old maid, and in still another we see Urkel build an atomic bomb that destroys Chicago! All these related to the problem in the episode and led to the solution.
Sometimes these episodes are used as a way to get away with something normally impossible in the structure of the show. For example when Mork meets Richie on Happy Days it turns out Richie had dreamed the encounter up. Of course he did, how did that make sense even for Happy Days? However when Mork and Mindy took off they added a scene where we find out it wasn't a dream after all! Perfect Strangers turned Balki into an alien in one episode, giving Bronson Pinchot a chance to break out of the usual Balki role for once. The Cosby Show did a tribute to Jim Henson in the confines of a dream sequence, and man what an episode that was! Family Ties put Alex in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 and Mr.Belvedere gave Marsha a psychotic evil twin which gave Ilene Graff a chance to prove she had a little more range than just playing the corny Marsha Owens. Bewitched had a clever twist when Samantha uses a dream to show Darrin exactly why it would be bad if the whole world knew she were a witch.
Another objective is to have us learn more about the character or characters. Getting a glimpse of a dream can do that very well. On The Brady Bunch Bobby had several dream sequences through the course of the series. Everything from winning at sports to playing with Joe Namath. But these were just quick bits. One episode of Who’s The Boss gave us some insight into Angela when she dreams that she is Tony’s Brooklyn born wife. She is barefoot and pregnant and they are a traditional married couple, rather than the way their relationship really is which, it turns out, is a better arrangement after all. Seinfeld began one episode showing Elaine in bed with Jerry, George, and Kramer. As they begin very symbolically smothering here, she is finally woken up by an alarm clock that her neighbor had left on. Even MASH couldn’t resist this, in one episode called “Dreams” we see the overtired doctors having dreams in the midst of a crisis, and each character gets a moment (the dreams were not played for laughs either, there was no laugh track in the episode which won two awards). This was also done by NewsRadio in a clever episode when excessive heat gives the characters odd daydreams.
The final objective of these is a way to get viewers’ attention. Let's be honest, a stunt like this can draw in viewers. These episodes are very often done during sweeps when a larger audience may be watching. One example of this is Newhart which ended its run by revealing that Newhart was, in fact, one long dream by the character from The Bob Newhart Show. These shows often have stunt casting, such as Dorothy's Jeopardy dream on The Golden Girls which had Alex Trebek and even Merv Griffin. The cast of Gilligan's Island was reunited in an Alf dream sequence, while the cast of The Brady Bunch was reunited on the short lived Day By Day. This series should be forgotten but that dream episode keeps the memory alive, anyone who saw that show remembers it. Murphy Brown got chewed out by members of the media and Senate in one dream sequence. And Mad About You had a Laugh In reunion in one dream sequence when Paul and Jamie dreamed they were in one of the famous party scenes.
Then sometimes a show hits several objectives. Newhart had an episode which was all about dreams, as we saw each character have different dreams which gave insight to the characters. In the first one, Dick is explaining to George how to make his dreams more interesting since the dream sequence seemed exactly like his real life. He points out that George could have weird lighting and do silly things, even have inanimate objects talk. This is obviously a little riff on the standard dream sequences. This is what is known today as lampshade hanging, calling attention to the trope actually being used. The other dreams showed Dick getting everything he ever wanted, until he accidentally wakes up. Stephanie is tormented by Joanna. Michael runs three networks while Larry hosts The Tonight Show. The episode had no redeeming value, it was just done for fun.
Some shows do not devote an entire episode to a dream sequence but will make it a small part of the story. Saved By The Bell also very often had a character having some dream sequence related to the story, but again they only lasted a few minutes (except the rock band episode which I am not even going to get into). And of course the first season of Blossom had several dream sequences involving celebrities including Phil Donahue, Alf, Little Richard, and Estelle Getty as her character from The Golden Girls. Frasier had an episode where the characters were in a log cabin and had several dreams through the course of the show which while silly also explored the anxiety felt by the characters. The final dream was Martin who becomes a Broadway dancer, literally singing his troubles away.
Today I want to talk about those episodes where the dream is the episode. Sometimes these episodes are fake outs, we don't until the end it’s a dream. Coach did that in one memorable episode where the fact it was a dream does not get revealed until the very end. The episode of The Golden Girls where celebrities are after Dorothy while Blanche deals with the return of her dead husband is not revealed to be a dream until the final few minutes, which actually makes the episode work.
And other times we know right from the start, for instance Cosby Show never made any secret about the fact it was a dream even flat out stating it in the Muppet dream sequence. Here are my five favorites.
#5.The Cosby Show, “The Day of the Locusts”
It has been over twenty years, and I still am not sure what to think about this episode. The premise is simple; Cliff dreams that he and the rest of the Huxtable men are pregnant. Since it’s a dream we can immediately dismiss the fact that the premise is idiotic. The episode has lots of overacting and silly scenes, and while it’s funny by the end all the characters are so far out of character that it starts to become a turn off. At least the other two dream sequences did a better of job of keeping the characters within character, the other episode being the one about Olivia having magic powers and wanting to rule. The episode was done just right, not so over the top but silly enough to be memorable0.
#4. Roseanne, “Dream Lover”
I haven’t talked about this one yet. When this episode was first announced, it was controversial because the plot involved Roseanne murdering her kids and husband. Ah, what a simpler time that was. People wouldn’t even blink an eye at that today. Of course the controversy was a waste because the episode is playfully over the top, the deaths being cartoonish and not even permanent. The plot is simply Roseanne wants ten minutes to relax in her bathtub, and it just gets weird from there including two separate music numbers!
#3.A Different World, “Tales From the Exam Zone”
This is cheating a bit because it is never made clear if this is a dream someone is having or what. They leave it kind of open. But the events of the episode seem like a dream sequence, and besides I love this episode. It’s a twilight zone spoof set at exam time when people are stressed and acting weird. All kind of strange and surreal things happen in this episode, everything from people freezing in place to a scene being reversed and played again only with a different outcome. This series could be very serious as it dealt with issues including race, but this is was a great change of pace. An episode which is just plain silly but done straight!
#2.Punky Brewster, “My Aged Valentine”
Yesterday I kind of gave a dig at the dream episodes this show did, because they got silly. The episode where Punky dreamed she and Brandon had switched places was just weird. However, the first one they did was a classic. The premise is Punky is afraid she is going to grow old and alone, so she fast forwards 80 years. The reason this is so remembered is because of the make-up. They didn’t just gray her hair and make her slouch; they really did a full make-up job on Solei Moon Fry! In fact she isn’t even recognizable under the glop she has on! This a cute episode and I admit, I have seen it many times. Here is a pic if you’re curious:
#1.Growing Pains, “The is Your Life”
This is kind of a tie because there are actually three great episodes that I just love. One has Maggie worried she will be an old maid when her baby is a teen, and we see in a great dream sequence that she may be right. The solution comes when Mike appears, now a mature adult, and handles the situation giving Maggie hope that the future will work out. Alan Thicke is great in this episode. Another has Ben dreaming his family is a TV show called “Meet the Seavers”, which is a great episode because we get a behind the scenes look at the cast and crew, even how the sets work! However, my all-time favorite is “This is Your Life”. I have watched this episode so many times; I could recite it word for word. Ben is having a tonsillectomy, and while under the anesthesia he dreams he has been replaced at home by a new Ben. The new Ben is sickeningly adorable, and the family is acting over the top adoring him. This episode has everything, 4th wall jokes, a celebrity cameo, silly overacting and the cast just having fun with the concept. In the end Ben realizes there is no place like home and he’s happy to have his family. I simply love this episode!
And the list goes on. The Odd Couple had Oscar dreaming he was in “A Christmas Carol”. Taxi did a great episode called “Fantasy Borough” where all the characters discuss their true fantasies. Elaine’s had the group break into a huge musical number which has to be seen. This wasn’t an honest dream episode but decided that it counted since it fit the criteria anyway. King of Queens had a sick Doug dreaming he was on various TV shows in one episode. And John Ritter did a tribute to his old series, Three’s Company, in a brilliant dream sequence in 8 Simple Rules. Great homage which involved a Don Knott’s cameo and even a pratfall by Ritter. Another was planned for the next year, until his untimely passing.
But what is the greatest dream episode ever? Hard to say but 3rd Rock From the Sun has to be mentioned. In an hour long episode, the aliens begin to discover dreaming. They each have a splashy, very symbolic dream which was also featured in 3-D! The episode was just brilliant, and if you haven’t seen it check it out.
Finally, before someone mentions it I can’t conclude without talking about Scrubs. J.D. lived in his head and every episode had some sort of fantasy sequence, several in fact. I think one of my favorite moments in the show was late in the run, when we see J.D. having one of his fantasies from the point of the view of the poor guy who has to stand there and wait for him to finally snap out of it!
Dream sequences are a standard part of sitcoms, and thank goodness because it’s fun to shake things up and just have a little fun once in a while. I think that people in real life should do that….could that be the ultimate message behind these episodes?