By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Emma Fraser, Whitney McIntosh, Andrew Rabin, and Anthony Strand
Welcome back to This Was Television’s Hall of Fame! We come to you after a group of miniseries nominees really failed to catch on with voters, but we hope that this month’s category is more compelling. We decided to put the supporting actor/actress categories on hold for a little longer because this is going to be the last Hall of Fame nomination period for at least a few months. The committee is busy with other projects during the summer and frankly, we don’t have the physical space in the Hall of Fame building that Noel is paying for to keep inducting people. Thus, consider June’s nominees as especially important and vote as much as possible since you won’t be able to for a while.
This month’s category is spinoffs. Despite no word being more thrilling to the human soul (as Troy McClure reminded us), spinoffs are often looked upon as an exemplar of the industry’s creative bankruptcy, where original ideas become diluted and copied until they are no longer interesting. However, the spinoff has long been important to television’s business model, and despite general cultural consensus, there are some pretty great products that began as spinoffs of something else. With this round of nominees, we hope to provide you some of these better-constructed spinoffs, and maybe even remind you that sometimes, the spinoff can be better than the original. Or, maybe you think all spinoffs are the scourge of television storytelling. Either way, below we make our picks, but the power is your hands.
As with all of our nominees the five-year eligibility qualifier counts, and nominees will be inducted if they receive more than 60 percent of the vote.
I’m Alan Partridge (BBC, 1997-2002); Spinoff from The Day Today
Alan Partridge first appeared in 1994 on the satirical news show The Day Today as a sports reporter. This character took on a life of its own on the fake chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You… with Alan Partridge. Like most British comedies it had a short run of six episodes and a Christmas special, but thanks to the popularity of this Steve Coogan character Alan returned two years later for the slightly longer running (two series, 12 episodes) of I’m Alan Partridge. Alan has lost his TV job and now languishes on local radio, but he believes that he is destined for bigger and better things. Alan is completely unaware of how rude and dismissive he can be and the comedy possesses the awkward charm/cringe factor of The Office and David Brent (The Office aired four years after the first series of I’m Alan Partridge and the influence is apparent).
Partridge comes from the mind of Armando Iannucci and Iannucci has since gone on to create In the Thick of It and HBO’s Veep as well as returning to Alan Partridge for the award winning Alan Partridge: Welcome to the Places of my Life and the forthcoming movie Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. This is one character who looks like he could produce endless specials and that’s partly because of Partridge’s popularity in the U.K. but also because of how Alan believes that he should be a star beyond the Norfolk borders of his home county. Partridge has never really been a success outside of the U.K. but this was one of the most quoted shows when it first aired and beyond. Partridge is from Norwich, a city I moved to for university and so the jokes and quotes became even funnier upon arrival.
It might be limited globally by how much it relies on its location and the humor might be too awkward for some; considering how many different shows have been generated by Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge in the last twenty years, this alone is an impressive feat.
Watch a clip of Alan encountering an unfortunate incident with a cow (and keep an eye out for Simon Pegg)
The Facts of Life (NBC, 1979-1988); Spinoff from Diff’rent Strokes
You take the good.
Norman Lear produced Diff’rent Strokes, but he did not have much day to day involvement. In order to even get Lear to produce the show, NBC cast Charlotte Rae, a Lear favorite who had appeared on both All in the Family and The Jeffersons in a lead role. NBC’s new president, Fred Silverman, loved spinoffs and had an uncanny ability to develop them, launching Maude, The Jeffersons, Rhoda, and Good Times while at CBS at Laverne & Shirley and The Bionic Woman while at ABC. With Diff’rent Strokes as his first hit at NBC, he decided to spinoff Rae’s character, Edna Garrett, to her own series.
You take the bad.
Silverman requested a female version of Welcome Back, Kotter, and the writers decided to make a series about an all-girls boarding school with Mrs. Garrett as the center. The first season featured Mrs. Garrett as the house mother of a seven girl dormitory. While the house included Lisa Whelchel’s Blair, Mindy Cohn’s Natalie, and Kim Fields’ Tootie (roller-skating through the first season to allow her to be the same height as the other girls), it also featured several characters who would soon disappear, including Molly played by an 11-year-old, pre-John Hughes Molly Ringwald, a headmaster, and a teacher. The show was NBC’s lowest rated, ranking 74th out of 79 shows in the end of year Nielsen Ratings.
You take them both.
The show was largely overhauled for the second season. The secondary girls were gone, and the show became about Blair, Natalie, Tootie, and Nancy McKeon’s Jo. Meanwhile, Mrs. Garrett added the job of school dietitian. The show also went outside the realm of standard sitcoms by adding Geri Jewell as a recurring character as Blair’s cousin Geri, the first television character with cerebral palsy. The show shot up to the top 35 in the ratings for the next seven seasons. As up, the store burned down in the start of season 7, and a new cast member was added as their contractor. Charlotte Rae left for the final seasons and was replaced by Cloris Leachman, coming off her own spinoff series. The series finale served as a backdoor pilot which never got ordered (the last of seven failed backdoor spinoff pilots in the series’ run), where Blair buys the school, makes it co-ed, and new students include Seth Green, Mayim Bialik, and Juliette Lewis.
And there you have The Facts of Life, The Facts of Life.
Angel (WB, 1999-2004); Spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show about teenage heroes. The mundane life obstacles of getting a date for the prom and battling for homecoming queen come hand-in-hand with the vampires, vengeance demons, and velociraptors (note: there are no velociraptors in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) of Buffy Summers’s official-ish role as the Slayer, the Chosen One who defends the mortal realm from the things that go “bump” in the night. Perhaps the best summation of that show is in the third season finale, when the laconic and introspective Oz (played by Seth Green) asks everyone to stop for a moment, not because they blew up their high school, but because they just graduated from high school. In the world of Buffy, you are a hero just for surviving the challenges of everyday life. Whatever flaws the characters of Buffy have (and all of them have more than one flaw), they always came out on the side of “right” against the defeated villains and Big Bads who were usually unequivocally “wrong.”
Angel, the spin-off series that picks up the story of Buffy’s ex-boyfriend after the end of season three of the parent show, is also about heroes, but in a very different sense. There are no teenagers here (well, not at first); the main characters are adults facing the more difficult reality of “being a grown-up.” But in the broader sense, Angel‘s characters face that reality through the manipulation of existing power structures in order to try and enact change. The term “Champions” (used here in kind of the same way Scandal uses the phrase “gladiators in suits”) refers to the way Team Angel champions the interests of the downtrodden and ignored, the people who live in the dark and under-served corners of the big city of Los Angeles that serves as Angel’s primary setting. When Buffy is faced with an institution she doesn’t like, she simply rejects it as archaic and non-progressive (The Watchers, the men who created the First Slayer and the related Slayer powers, The Intiative, even Giles at first). But Team Angel can’t simply take down (or stake down) their primary antagonist, multidimensional law firm Wolfram & Hart; instead, the two wage war over murky ethical grounds using vague prophecies and a complicated system of leverages and counter-leverages, and in so doing both sides come to understand and live with each other even though they hate each other’s guts. Life!
All of this is to say that when talking about spin-offs, the question to be asked is simply, “is this a good idea? Is it different enough from the parent show that it was worth trying?” Angel retains the core focus of its parent show, and yet by exchanging the teenager metaphors for adulthood analogues, the show broke completely new ground in talking about the same subject. “We live as though the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be.”
Laverne & Shirley (ABC, 1976-1983) Spinoff of Happy Days
Happy Days is one of the most iconic comedies in television history, so it’s no surprise that Paramount and producers would want to capitalize on that popularity with multiple spinoffs. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Joanie Loves Chachi with the dreamboat Scott Baio that experienced great success (lasting only one season) but the spinoff featuring friends of The Fonz named Laverne & Shirley living in Milwaukee and working at a bottling plant. Laverne & Shirley lasted for 178 episodes over 8 seasons. Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams were perfectly cast and suited for a spinoff from Day 1, playing off each other as two best friends just enjoying work and life in Wisconsin. Since both it and Happy Days were on the air for pretty much the same years and depicted the same era, Laverne & Shirley was not only able to use the same lot and stage but effectively translate some of the same elements of the original into the new show. Friendships and good times were part of the fabric of these two women’s lives, and as the opening credits depicted they were always leaning on each other.
Although neither Penny Marshall nor Cindy Williams were nominated for Emmy’s during the show’s run, they combined for four Golden Globe nominations with the show receiving two of its own for “Best TV Series, Musical or Comedy”. Unfortunately, the show ended in a downswing compared to all the other seasons. They moved the setting and show to Burbank for budgetary reasons during the penultimate season, using in-show twists to make it plausible that the whole cast would join the two leads there. Cindy Williams didn’t even return for the last season, being cut out of the credits all together (although the show retained its full name) and written out in about the least subtle way possible (she left a note!). However, the ratings success that the 8th season experienced proves that even with one principle gone, audiences loved Laverne & Shirley enough to stick with it through the series finale (which turned out to be a backdoor pilot for a spinoff that didn’t happen, unceremonious indeed). Even today, people will still reference two girlfriends as “Laverne and Shirley” just as they would a “Lucy and Ethel”, proving how popular this show remains even today.
Lou Grant (CBS, 1977-1982); Spinoff of The Mary Tyler Moore Show
One of the assumptions about spinoffs, no matter the quality, is that they will be at least somewhat similar to the original series. Everyone here will make a case for how their selected spinoff did something better or approached something differently than the first series, and they might have a good case for that. But I can’t think of another show that can absolutely make that claim like Lou Grant. After humorously raging his way through a workplace comedy, Lou Grant returned to a print journalism newsroom and helped young journalist chase down important social issues in a very dramatic backdrop. Along the way, the character seamlessly shifted from a 30-minute comedy to an hour-long drama. Lou Grant never really relied on the main character’s relationship to his previous co-workers (MTM characters were rarely mentioned) and instead used his background to tell significantly different stories, presumably for a significantly different audience.
Ed Asner’s titular character regularly displayed anger and borderline violent tendencies during his time WJM-TV, but still fit within that comedic workplace setting. When the character lost his job at the end of MTM and returned to the newspaper business in Lou Grant, his softer side went by the wayside, and his aggressive nature manifested more regularly, and with more intensity. Asner was so convincing with the more dramatic version of Grant that he won two Lead Actor Emmys for the performance. The series was nominated for Outstanding Drama all five years it was on the air, winning the award twice (1979 and 1980) and it collected a handful of other major awards (Golden Globes, Peabody) in its run as well.
Even the best spinoffs often give us more of the same. Lou Grant deserves special recognition for trying something completely different and succeeding in doing so.
The Jeffersons (CBS, 1975-1985); Spinoff of All in the Family
By any measure of the word All in the Family was a huge success—one of the most groundbreaking sitcoms of all time, winner of multiple Emmys and Golden Globes, and a show whose main characters were so iconic that their chairs are enshrined in the Smithsonian Institute. (And both were inducted nearly without contest into this Hall of Fame’s Lead Actor and Lead Actress comedy categories.) And one of its more noteworthy distinctions is that All in the Family holds the record for most spinoffs, as it inspired no fewer than five shows following the friends and relatives of the Bunkers. It’s even one of the rare sitcoms that can claim grandchildren, as two of those shows wound up spinning off their own shows, Good Times and Checking In.
The longest-lasting of those spinoffs was The Jeffersons, which followed the Bunkers’ next door neighbors George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) and his wife, Louise “Weezie” Jefferson (Isabel Sanford) as they moved on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky. Long before The Cosby Show, The Jeffersons was breaking ground as a sitcom focused on a predominantly African-American cast, as George and Weezie encountered the trials and tribulations of living in the big city. While it wasn’t as archly political as All in the Family was, it was a show that dealt regularly with issues of class and race, with racial epithets occasionally working their way into episodes and featuring plots involving George inadvertently attending a Ku Klux Klan meeting or being offered a tennis club membership as a potential “token” member.
And as with All in the Family, it wasn’t a show that had any intention of toning down its central character to make him more palatable to the viewing public. While a self-made businessman who’d earned his success from the ground up, George Jefferson was in his way every bit as racist and intolerant as Archie was, referring to his interracial neighbors’ children as “zebras” and regularly slamming the door in his neighbor’s face midway through a sentence. Sherman Hemsley made George every bit as fun to watch as Carroll O’Connor made Archie Bunker: In love with his sense of self-importance, he’d regularly engage in endeavors to boost his business and his social standing, only for them to be pulled down by his hubris and self-generated mishaps. His wife Louise was both simultaneously a calming influence on him and someone who wouldn’t put up with any of his shit, creating one of TV’s most endearing marriages—a central pairing kept lively by the sassy live-in maid Florence, the eccentric British neighbor Harry and the antagonistic “Mother” Olivia Jefferson. Powered by Hemsley and this ensemble, The Jeffersons even managed to surpass its parent show, making it through eleven seasons and 253 episodes.
Got a piece of the pie? I think it’s fair to say that The Jeffersons cleaned their plate, and then got seconds and thirds.
The Andy Griffith Show (CBS, 1960-1968); Spinoff of The Danny Thomas Show
Several of the shows mentioned so far began as backdoor pilots, but none eclipsed their parent shows as thoroughly as The Andy Griffith Show. The Danny Thomas Show (originally known as Make Room for Daddy) was a huge hit in its day, running for eleven seasons and peaking at #2 in the Nielsen ratings. But its cultural presence has diminished steadily since it went off the air, while The Andy Griffith Show has maintained a prominent spot in pop culture. It was a smash hit at the time, finishing its run at #1 in the ratings and engendering two acronym-crazy spinoffs of its own (Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and Mayberry R.F.D.). It ended only because Griffith tired of doing a weekly series, and it only grew more popular in syndication.
Even people who have never seen an episode know that “Barney Fife” is a bumbling deputy, that “Opie” is a clean-cut little boy, and that “Mayberry” is a small, idyllic town in the South. What those people don’t know is that the show is one of TV’s all-time funniest. The show has a reputation for being slow, but it used that lax pacing to its advantage, allowing scenes to amble through conversations and moments that didn’t add to the plot, but that let the actors simply bounce off of one another. This allowed Mayberry to feel like a real place. Watching the show, it’s easy to imagine that these kinds of things happened all the time, whether the camera was watching or not. In the decades since, many TV towns – from Stars Hollow and Cecily to Springfield and Pawnee – have emulated that small-town feeling, always keeping in mind The Andy Griffith Show’s most important lesson: Make sure the town feels lived-in.
Helping the laid-back Southern charm was a universe of fully-realized characters. Some of them appeared weekly, like Don Knott’s high-strung Barney or Frances Bavier’s fussy, warm, sometimes overbearing Aunt Bea. Most appeared only occasionally, like Hal Smith’s town drunk Otis and Howard Morris’s backwoods yokel Ernest T. Bass. But all were essential parts of Mayberry and of the show, because they gave Andy Griffith a wide variety of types of play off. As Sheriff Andy Taylor, Griffith was the consummate straight man, handling all of the town crazies with a smile, a chuckle, and a wry nod of his head. Like all of TV’s best straight men, Griffith’s reactions scored some of the biggest laughs. But more importantly, he gave the show its heart. He was a wonderful father to Ron Howard’s Opie (still maybe TV’s all-time best kid performance), but he was also a father to the entire town.
Really, he was the ideal father for all of us. Not bad for a character introduced as a multi-tasking, bizarre rube sheriff in an episode of The Danny Thomas Show.
Now it’s up to you to decide. Which of these shows is Hall of Fame worthy?