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10 TV Spin-Offs Better Than The Original

 

In an age where Hollywood is dominated by franchises and sequels, we can probably expect TV spin-offs to become an increasingly regular occurrence. The last few years have seen a number of mega hits continue their lifespans in the form of other shows, such as The Walking Dead leading to Fear The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad giving way to Better Call Saul, Sons of Anarchy being followed-up by Mayans M.C, and Arrow leading to an entire shared universe.

There are no signs of this slowing down anytime soon, with Game of Thrones getting *at least* one spin-off show and many more planned besides, although it’s not a new phenomenon. TV spin-offs have existed in some form since the 1950s, with The Honeymooners coming out of Jackie Gleason’s sketch show, but their record is patchy at best.

Get it right, and you could be looking at an Angel: a show that takes a beloved character, and gives them adventures worthy of standing alone, creating a tone that is different enough it’s not just a repeat, but still recognizable to fans. Get it wrong, though, and you end up with the sad excuse of a Friends spin-off that Joey was. Making something that’s different but the same isn’t an easy task, and it’s even harder to top an established original series, but that’s what all of these spin-offs managed to do.

10. Daria

MTV

Original Show: Beavis & Butt-head

Beavis & Butt-head, which itself spun-out from short film Frog Baseball, was lewd, crude, and frequently hilarious. A clear forerunner to South Park, it mixed satirical observations and outlandish humour to often great effect, although its very nature meant it was often hit and miss.

Daria, which wasn’t created by Mike Judge but did center on a character established in Beavis & Butt-head, took a very different approach. It distanced itself, quite literally, from the off with Daria’s family moving to a new town, and that distancing would only continue through the show’s five seasons.

Smart and sophisticated where Beavis and Butt-head was dumb and silly, Daria was one of the first shows to truly capture the essence of high-school. Like, say, Freaks and Geeks that would arrive a couple of years later, the show was not only incredibly fresh, but also authentic. It helped that the writing was razor sharp in its observations and genuinely funny to boot, but with a sweetness not found in its parent show to make it much more rounded. With Daria herself fleshed out into a high-school protagonist unlike any audiences were really used to at the time, mixing her smarts with an acerbic bit, this was ahead of its time and ahead of Beavis & Butt-head.

9. Mork & Mindy

Paramount

Original Show: Happy Days

A classic American sitcom, Happy Days had a lot going for it (prior to literally jumping the shark), with a great cast, its 50s nostalgia, and a fun sense of humor, but one thing it (mostly) didn’t have was Robin Williams.

The actor guest starred in an episode of Happy Days that sees him appear as Mork in Ritchie Cunningham’s dream, which was planting the character to setup a spin-off. Mork came to Earth, was taken in by Mindy, and the show was born.

It didn’t get the same reception as Happy Days, nor its other spin-off Laverne & Shirley, but it deserves a better legacy than it has. It didn’t play things as safe as the other shows, and its plot offered up commentary on American culture and human nature that was as insightful as it was entertaining. The whole cast was solid too, but, of course, the magic ingredient was Williams.

He was a singularly gifted comedic talent, and this was one of the first showcases of it. He would frequently improvise his lines (so much so that gaps were left in scripts for this to happen), and while he’d go on to do much bigger and better things, everything great about him is on full display here, ensuring this was always guaranteed to make you laugh out loud.

8. Phoenix Nights

Channel 4

Original Show: That Peter Kay Thing

There was a time in the early 2000s when, in the UK at least, Peter Kay was The Man. He had two great stand-up specials, he had That Peter Kay Thing, and he had Phoenix Nights (which spawned its own not-quite-as-great-but-still-good spin-off, Max & Paddy’s Road To Nowhere).

That Peter Kay Thing was a six-part series, each focusing on a different set of characters, and it was the characters of the Neptune Club (the show’s second episode) that became the spin-off. The Neptune became The Phoenix, but it retained just about everything else and expanded upon it over the course of 12 episodes.

Like Fawlty Towers and The Office, it’s the kind of show where you can’t believe only a dozen episodes were ever made because of how endlessly rewatchable they are, and few shows have so perfectly encapsulated and lovingly satirized the working class North. With an array of colorful characters, some absurd moments of humor, but a lot of warmth behind it too, this is a linchpin of British comedy in the 00s.

7. Xena: Warrior Princess

Syfy

Original Show: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys

Xena first appeared in Hercules’ first season, but the character was initially supposed to be limited to just three episodes, and all set to die in her third. However, the reception was so great that not only did they change those plans, but they launched an entirely new series based around the character too.

While Hercules itself offered up some swords-and-sandals fun and was popular in its own right, it was very much just ok, and Xena: Warrior Princess went to a whole new level.

Warrior Princess did offer up some of the same swordplay action as its predecessor, and for many that would’ve simply been enough, but the show also offered up a far more complicated journey as it set Xena on the path of redemption. It was unabashedly female-driven, paving the way for heroes like Buffy, but also did a great job of deepening the mythology and lore of the series too. It might not stand up to many fantasy series today, but this was an important step in raising and meeting the ambitions of the genre, while being wholly entertaining at the same time.

6. NCIS

CBS

Original Show: JAG

NCIS is now so ubiquitous a franchise, with 16 seasons and two spin-offs of its own, it’s easy to forget that it actually started life elsewhere. That was on JAG, which itself ran for 10 seasons, with characters and concepts that would make it into the show being introduced in its eighth season.

JAG was a solid enough legal procedural with a military twist, but NCIS – which has more in common with the similarly-named CSI – takes a more forensic look at things, and has been all the more interesting to watch because of it.

It helps, too, that it’s had such a great cast and strong characters, led by Mark Harmon, and its premise and writing means that even in Season 16 it remains effortlessly watchable, which couldn’t be said for JAG by the end of its own run.

5. Torchwood: Children Of Earth

BBC

Original Show: Doctor Who

When Doctor Who was revived back in 2005, it introduced us not just to a new Time Lord and his new companion, but also another time-traveler: Captain Jack Harkness. Instantly a fan-favorite, and played with bags of charisma by John Barrowman, the spin-off Torchwood was launched just a few years later.

It’s quite debatable which is the better of the two series, since both have been inconsistent over the years: Torchwood dipped in Season 2, and Miracle Day didn’t start off too strong; Who can live or die depending on the Doctor, the showrunner, or just what exactly Steven Moffat is going for. So, ok, it’s a bit of a cheat, but if the playing field is relatively level, then there’s one run that stands above them all.

Torchwood’s third season, titled Children of Earth, was a five-episode event series that aired over the course of the week. Tackling an alien invasion, with them demanding Earth’s children, it becomes a dark, tangled conspiracy that left audiences glued to screens for five nights running. It manages to keep the action grounded while still offering up sci-fi thrills, and mixes that with real suspense, human drama and some gut-wrenching emotion. Post-2005, The ‘Whoniverse’ has never been better.

4. Star Trek: The Next Generation

CBS

Original Show: Star Trek: The Original Series

Star Trek blazed a trail when it debuted in 1966, completely changing the game for what a sci-fi TV show could be (and a few for TV in general). It had great characters and strong story lines, although it was cut short after just three seasons. While movies fleshed things out further, it was The Next Generation that most fully realized the potential of Star Trek as a TV show.

Starting in 1987 and running for seven seasons, it was afforded much more time to grow, and used it wisely: the characters were better developed, the aliens more imaginative, and the stories were much richer. TNG essentially took all of what made The Original Series great, expanded upon it, and was able to toss out anything that didn’t work or was outdated.

It was able to lean harder into its sci-fi trappings than TOS ever was, which in turn helped turn it into a smarter, more nuanced series. And at the heart of it all was Patrick Stewart’s Picard, the finest Captain to ever grace a Trek series.

3. Saved By The Bell

NBC

Original Show: Good Morning, Miss Bliss

A sitcom centered on the life and career of high school teacher Miss Bliss, and set in Indianapolis, the Disney Channel show had some of what would eventually become Saved by the Bell, but lacked the focus and writing to really make it work.

It was cancelled after just one season, after which NBC took back the rights and threw out a lot of it, but kept a few key ingredients. Most importantly, they retained Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Lark Voorhies, Dustin Diamond, and Dennis Haskins, with Zack, Lisa, Screech, and Mr Belding making the leap to Bayside High, California.

They were joined by A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez), Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley), and Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen), and the focus shifted more to be on their friendships, relationships, and bending of the school rules, with Zack becoming the face of the show and his fourth-wall breaking adding a new dimension. Miss Bliss episodes were later woven into the series, but Saved by the Bell essentially started as a spin-off, and it actually realizes the potential Miss Bliss had. It touches on generational themes that affect most teenagers, but is mostly a lighthearted, funny, and sweet portrayal of high-school life.

2. Frasier

NBC

Original Show: Cheers

It’s no easy task following up a beloved, decade-spanning ensemble sitcom with a spin-off the focuses on just one character and moves them to a new city. Just ask Joey. Frasier, however, defied just about all expectations to not only match the high bar set by Cheers, but leap over it.

Cheers was essentially Friends before Friends was Friends; it’s a perfect example of a hangout sitcom, with a wide array of wonderful characters, a lot of heart, and very accessible humor. Frasier, on the other hand, is focused on a smaller cast, and attempts to take a more sophisticated look at things, which is exactly where the humor comes in.

The series is a high farce, and perfectly pitched as such: the masterstroke isn’t just the casting of David Hyde Pierce as Frasier’s younger brother Niles, with the two going toe to toe in a battle of pretentiousness, but John Mahoney as their father, who gives the series its warmth and cuts right through the bulls**t. The show’s mix of high and low humor meant it was as funny as any of its peers, but it was just how clever it was that really set it apart.

1. The Simpsons

Fox

Original Show: The Tracey Ullman Show

The Tracey Ullman Show was a great example of how to do a variety series, with its superb writers’ room ensuring it regularly generated laughs and critical approval, if not high ratings. It’ll always be remembered, however, for giving life to the Simpson family.

Producer James L. Brooks invited Matt Groening to turn his Life in Hell comic strip into animated shorts for the series, which would play before and after commercials. Groening instead created The Simpsons, based upon his own family life. The shorts initially alternated with Dr. N!Godatu, but proved so popular they became a permanent addition, and in 1989 they got their own series, starting with a Christmas special.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Tracey Ullman Show ended after four seasons, while The Simpsons is so much more than a TV show. Running for 30 seasons and counting, it is a piece of pop-culture history, a true TV phenomenon, and the finest, funniest sitcom ever made.

 

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