TV shows that were actually all just a dream

After a series of strange happenings, shocking deaths, trippy situations, or increasingly-unlikely events…the hero wakes up, and breathes a sigh of relief as they realize they were only dreaming. As a plot device, the "all just a dream" twist appears all the time in literature, movies, and television. Sometimes, the audience might learn that the plot was only an illusion, false reality, or alternate universe—or that the events took place entirely within the hallucination, fantasy, delusion, or imagination of a character.

On the big screen, you've probably seen the "all just a dream" phenomenon in films like Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Inception. In television, the theme usually appears in just an occasional episode—making it an easy go-to plot for TV script writers that need a quick idea or a "reset button" to undo recent events. Sometimes, a television series will take this idea even further by making the events of a season—or even the entire series—nothing but an elaborate ruse to fool viewers. Watch out for spoilers ahead, because here are some of our favorite examples of TV shows that were actually all just a dream.

Dallas (and Knots Landing)

After he made the hit soap opera Dallas for CBS, television writer David Jacobs got the go-ahead to create a spinoff soap called Knots Landing. To help launch the show, the new character Gary Ewing was introduced to viewers during a two-part Dallas episode in 1978. Soon afterwards, Gary and his wife Valene move to a quiet cul-de-sac in Knots Landing, California, to start a new chapter in their life. During early seasons of Knots Landing, a number of crossover episodes helped to connect the characters and storylines of both shows. Ultimately, these connections ended up changing everything fans thought they knew about Knots Landing.

When Bobby Ewing (played by Patrick Duffy) died on Dallas, the repercussions carried over into the plot of Knots Landing. Gary struggles with his grief, Valene names her son after Bobby, and other characters plot against Gary during his little brother's funeral. Actor Patrick Duffy later returned to Dallas, so Bobby Ewing was conveniently resurrected by revealing that his death—and the entire season of Dallas that followed—was just a bad dream had by his wife, Pamela. While this twist neatly tied up the loose ends for Dallas, over on Knots Landing, Bobby Ewing remained very much dead. What's more, when Gary and Val finally reunite with the rest of the Ewings in the 2012 Dallas revival series, they don't even mention Bobby's miraculous return from the grave. Presumably, this means that the entire plot of Knots Landing following Bobby's death never happened either.


One of the best (and most fondly remembered) examples of the "all just a dream" twist happens at the end of the popular CBS sitcom Newhart. In the series, mild-mannered author Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) and his wife Joanna (Mary Frann) move from New York City to small-town Vermont and become the new owners of the historic Stratford Inn. For the next eight seasons, the couple run the inn together and get to know some of the town's more eccentric residents—like the woodsmen Larry, his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl.

Newhart offered up many side-splitting moments during its run, and the show went out in similarly hilarious fashion. In the series finale, a Japanese tycoon buys the rest of the village and turns it into a golf resort, but Dick and Joanna stubbornly hold on to the Stratford. Five years later, an impromptu reunion of the townsfolk gets out of hand, causing Dick to storm outside in exasperation—where he's knocked unconscious by a golf ball. In the final scene, he wakes up not as author/innkeeper Dick Loudon, but as psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley—who Bob Newhart previously played on The Bob Newhart Show years earlier. With Suzanne Pleshette reprising her role as his wife Emily, and the scene filmed in a re-creation of their old bedroom, the Newhart finale reveals that the entire show was all just Bob Hartley's bizarre dream.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon risked the ire of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans everywhere when he used a variation of the "just a dream" plot in the beloved supernatural drama. In the season six episode "Normal Again," Buffy flashes between two versions of reality. In one, she truly is the Slayer she's purportedly meant to be and has been protecting Sunnydale from the forces of darkness for the last six years. In the other, Buffy is a patient in a mental hospital suffering from catatonic schizophrenia. A psychiatrist explains that her memories of Sunnydale, her friends there, and her life as the Slayer are hallucinations. Later, Buffy tells Willow she was put into a mental institution once—which means it's possible she may actually still be there.     

These conflicting realities begin to tear Buffy's mind apart and cause her to attack her friends in Sunnydale. Buffy must decide for herself which reality is "true," and she ultimately chooses to return to her life as the Slayer. In its final moments, the episode flashes back to the mental hospital where we see Buffy has lapsed back into a catatonic state. This ending has led many fans to believe that the psychiatrist was right, and the entire Buffy series takes place only in her mind. When asked about the episode's meaning, Joss Whedon said that he "thinks it really happened," but viewers who believe the show is just the product of a crazy person's mind are also right, because "that crazy person is me."


Fans of the popular sitcom Roseanne noticed a drastic change in the long-running show's tone and plot during its ninth season. After the Conners win the lottery, things quickly turn weird—with every subsequent episode more bizarre than the last. The typical struggles of the blue-collar family seen in previous seasons were abandoned in favor of seemingly random episodes and plots: Dan has an affair, Jackie dates a prince, and Roseanne makes an appearance on Jerry Springer. In the series finale, Roseanne reveals the shocking truth during a lengthy monologue at the end of the episode: the entire show was actually just the plot of the book she's been writing.

While she based the book on her life, Roseanne Conner fictionalized and changed many things along the way to fix the parts she didn't like. Viewers learn that Jackie—not Bev—was a lesbian, the family didn't really win the lottery, and Darlene was with Mark all along, while Becky had been with David. In an interesting reversal of the typical "just a dream" scenario, we also find out that Dan's affair was the fantasy, while in Roseanne's "real life," Dan actually died following his heart attack in season eight. If this unpleasant surprise upset you (as it did many fans), then we've got some good news—not only will John Goodman appear in the 2018 revival of the series, but the writers reportedly plan to ignore his death and the events of Roseanne's ninth season entirely.

St. Elsewhere

The series finale of the 1980s medical dramedy St. Elsewhere remains one of the most famous examples of the "all just a dream" plot. The gritty (and funny) series centered on the doctors who work at the outdated and underfunded St. Eligius Hospital in Boston. Unlike most previous medical dramas, St. Elsewhere focused not just on the hospital and its patients but also on the personal lives and families of the medical staff. In fact, the son of St. Elsewhere's top doctor provides the gigantic twist that changes the meaning of the entire series.

In the final episode of St. Elsewhere, loose ends are tied up as the characters make major changes in their lives. Later, Dr. Donald Westphall and his autistic son Tommy stand together and watch the snow fall outside of his grandfather, Dr. Auschlander's, office window. Suddenly, the picturesque scene cuts away to an apartment where Tommy silently plays with a snowglobe while his grandfather looks on. Donald Westphall arrives, and it becomes clear that the apartment is their home and Westphall is a construction worker, not a doctor. As he watches his son play, Westphall wonders aloud, "What's he thinking about?" The camera zooms in on the snow globe, revealing that it contains a tiny replica of St. Eligius. That's right, the entire series took place only within the creative mind of an autistic child. Furthermore, given the number of other shows connected to St. Elsewhere, some fans have even concluded that "something like 90 percent of all [American] television took place in Tommy Westphall's mind."  


Lost's strange fictional universe contains enough mysteries to make anyone crazy. After six seasons filled with head-scratching and jaw-dropping moments, the writers of Lost managed to outdo themselves for the mystifying and polarizing series finale. In the 104-minute-long episode, they pack in plenty of action and resolve many (but not all) of the various plotlines before finally revealing the truth about the "flash-sideways" timeline in the last scene. The survivors begin to recognize each other through flashes of memory from their time on the island and soon gather at a church, entering one by one. Inside, main character Jack finds his father helping him realize he's dead. He assures Jack that everything he remembers actually happened and that time has no meaning where they are. Jacks' father opens the front door of the church, and a bright light envelops everyone inside.

The ambiguous ending confused some fans at first, but interviews with the Lost creators and a controversial epilogue cleared many things up. While the entire show wasn't just a dream, the "flash-sideways" timeline essentially was. The plane crash and events on the island really occurred, but the survivors all died at various points afterwards—some many years later. After death, they entered an indefinite limbo state while waiting for everyone else to arrive. In the false reality of this limbo, their experiences helped them find each other and let go subconsciously of their old lives so they could "move on" together.


In the Pokémon anime franchise, many fan theories have popped up over the years about Ash Ketchum's never-ending adventures. A number of these theories relate to variations on the "just a dream" phenomenon, especially since Ash never seems to age—despite the fact that the series has been on the air since 1997. While none of these theories have ever been confirmed, one Pokémon series creator gave fans a mind-blowing explanation about the true nature of Ash's journey. Japanese screenwriter Takeshi Shudo worked as a head writer for the Pokémon anime franchise from its inception. Along with the very first episode of the show, Shudo wrote the scripts of many other episodes and the first three Pokémon movies. His original screenplay was even used as a basis for 2017's Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You!

Sadly, Shudo passed away in 2010, but a blog entry he penned reveals some quite unexpected information. In it, Shudo explains that Ash's journey is not about "catching 'em all" but about making an emotional connection and co-existing with others. What's more, Shudo explained that Ash couldn't find that connection in his real life, leading him to completely imagine his Pokémon adventures. Shudo even gave fans a glimpse of his ideal ending to the series, where we see Ash as an old man. He recalls his "embellished memory of childhood" and his adventures with Pikachu and the other "imaginary creatures." He hears his mother's voice calling him to bed, and the elderly Ash closes his eyes—perhaps for the final time.

Life on Mars

On the big screen, the movie Inception represents the "just a dream" trope at its most extreme. In television, the British TV series Life on Mars does the same. The original Life on Mars aired on BBC between 2006 and 2007 and starred John Simm as detective Sam Tyler. The show mainly acts like a traditional police procedural series, except for the fact that Sam has inexplicably found himself transported back in time to 1973 after being hit by a car. Eventually, the finale reveals that Sam was just dreaming the whole thing while in a coma. When he realizes that he much preferred his 1970s life, Sam commits suicide by jumping off of a building in an attempt to get back there. In the sequel series Ashes to Ashes, something very similar happens: policewoman Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) is shot by an assailant and wakes up in 1981. Before being shot, she had been researching the reports of what happened to Sam Tyler. In the Ashes to Ashes finale, we learn that Alex and her colleagues are actually dead and have been in some form of purgatory all along.

When Life on Mars got a U.S. remake in 2008, it started out as a straightforward retelling of the original series, but the ending changed everything. The series finale reveals that the other timelines—including in Ashes to Ashes and the original Life on Mars—have ALL been fake. In reality, Sam and the others are astronauts traveling to Mars in the year 2035. Their experiences in the three different TV shows were all part of an artificial reality created for the astronauts by the ship's computer while they slept under sedation.


Soap operas are notorious for their frequent use of the "just a dream" plot device, but the British soap Crossroads put a unique twist on the theme for the series finale of its short-lived revival. In the original version of Crossroads, the narrative mainly centered on the lives of the owners and employees at The Crossroads Motel located near the fictional English hamlet of King's Oak. After its premiere in 1964, Crossroads became wildly popular with fans and remained on the air for nearly 25 years before finally being cancelled in 1988.

In 2001, television producers tried to stage a Crossroads comeback with a revival of the series, but it ultimately proved unsuccessful. The major changes made to the setting, cast, and background of the story alienated many fans of the original ITV soap opera, which led to the new version of Crossroads being cancelled in 2003. In the revival's finale, the audience learns that the new series has taken place entirely in the daydreams of Angela. It turns out Angela is a Crossroads fan and supermarket employee who escapes the reality of her mind-numbing job by imagining herself and the store's shoppers as characters in her favorite series. With this final twist, the writers were able to undo the unpopular changes they'd made during the revival—preserving the Crossroads legacy for fans of the original show.