20 Best TV Spin-Offs - Rolling Stone
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20 Best TV Spin-Offs

From Mork to Maude, these were the shows that proved the second time’s a charm

Kelsey Grammer in ‘Frasier’, Robin Williams in ‘Mork and Mindy’ and Michael Dorn in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.'

Kelsey Grammer in ‘Frasier’, Robin Williams in ‘Mork and Mindy’ and Michael Dorn in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.'


We’ve been waiting for months now, anxiously pacing around our living rooms and marking off our calendars — and finally, this Sunday and Monday, we’ll get our first look at the highly anticipated, two-part premiere of the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul. The question is not whether this prequel series about the misadventures of Walter White’s shady attorney will be better than Breaking — roughly 99 percent of TV shows out there wouldn’t meet that standard, so we’re not going to judge it on that merit. Rather, it’s whether Saul will become one of those shows that sprung from a former TV hit and then went on to achieve small-screen glory on its own.

The landscape is littered with great spin-offs (and, frankly, a good deal of wretched ones as well), so while we wait to see where Vince Gilligan and Bob Odenkirk’s show falls on the spectrum, we’re looking back at the 20 best TV spin-offs of all time. Whether it was taking a supporting character and elevating him of her to star status, or simply continuing to mine a show’s universe for more adventures, these are the ones that set the bar for how to do it right.



Norman Lear needed a female character in All in the Family to act as the antithesis of the sexist Archie Bunker. So he cast the fearsome Bea Arthur as Edith Bunker's cousin, Maude Findlay, for a few episodes — an extended guest spot that eventually led to television's first outright feminist sitcom. Maude would go on to cover topics from plastic surgery to alcoholism, abortion and depression, all in a primetime forum; it would also help give birth to another great spin-off (Good Times) and, by casting Rue McClanahan as Arthur's best friend, laid the groundwork for The Golden Girls. In his recent memoirs, Lear said that "of all of the character I've created…the one who resembles me most is Maude. [She] shares my passions, my social concerns and my politics." CC


‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’

To boldly go where one beloved cult series had gone before: Over two decades after the original Star Trek series died a premature death (and had proven its pop-cultural worth with endless conventions and movies), creator Gene Rodenberry decided to return the franchise to the small screen. The syndicated show may have had a new USS Enterprise, a new captain (Patrick Stewart's indomitable Jean-Luc Picard) and crew, and new villains to battle (the Borg). But TNG, as it was called by fans, had the same wonderfully cosmic-pulpy feel of the original, and helped kick off a slew of other Trek-related series that kept the property as fresh as a Romulan daisy. DF


‘Good Times’

If you wanted your own spin-off, it helped to be the hired help on a sitcom: Florida Evans started out as the maid on Maude before the character was relocated from New York to Chicago and she became the matriarch of one of TV's great working-class families. The show was blessed with the grooviest Seventies theme song this side of Sanford and Son, the benefit of a young, fresh-faced Janet Jackson adding cachet to the later seasons and J.J. Walker's ability to turn "Dy-no-MITE!" into a national catchphrase. Long before Roseanne gave primetime viewers a look at blue-collar America, Norman Lear's comedy showed what life was like living one paycheck at a time, and whether the series was going for laughs or tackling social ills (as in the infamous child abuse episode), it gave you sense that you could make it through temporary lay-offs and easy credit rip-offs so long as you had each other. Ain't we lucky we had it. DF


‘Mork and Mindy’

If The Flintstones could introduce an alien character into the mix (long live the Great Gazoo), why couldn't Happy Days get a little intergalactic as well? The through-the-roof popularity of Mork's first appearance on TV's Fifties nostalgiafest practically demanded he get his own show, and after the series started airing in 1978, you could not escape the sight of people wearing rainbow suspenders or yelling "Shazbot!" It was the public's first introduction to Robin Williams' manic, machine-gunning style of humor, and the role made him a huge star; even when things starting getting ridiculous around the end of the run (Jonathan Winters as a Benjamin Button-ish baby Orkan?), the actor's infectious energy always kept thing moving at warp speed. DF


‘The Jeffersons’

It may have been one of the legions of shows created from All in the Family's spare parts, but this tale of dry-cleaning magnate George Jefferson and his wife, Louise, quickly proved it wasn't Norman Lear-lite; thanks to Sherman Hemsley's ability to play up the character's small-man arrogance (that funky victory walk!) and his chemistry with costar Isabelle Sanford, this sitcom kept movin' on up for 11 seasons. As for the supporting cast's MVP, it'd be a toss-up between Marla Gibbs' wisecracking maid Florence (we'll pretend we don't remember her own short-lived spin-off, Checking In) and Paul Benedict's bumbling Englishman in New York, Harry Bentley — both had the ability to knock you dead with a zinger or a look. Race was certainly a factor in the series, but given Lear's involvement, the fact that social issues weren't used to score ideological points every other episode was surprising. According to the producer, however, that was never the Jeffersons' goal. This time, he wanted to go for laughs over editorializing. Mission accomplished. DF


‘The Colbert Report’

Stephen Colbert had been introducing aspects of "Stephen Colbert" — the poorly informed, conservative pundit who cracked us up for close to a decade — in his regular Daily Show dispatches, which technically makes this a spin-off. What started as a questionable parody of The O'Reilly Report soon became a testament to the power of commitment (Colbert only broke character a few times during 10 seasons on the air) and home to some of the sharpest political satire around. Regular features such as "The Word" and "ThreatDown"  consistently cracked us up; there were nights when the Report ran laps around its sister show. We're still in denial that the boorish blowhard is gone. DF


‘Laverne & Shirley’

Schlemeel, schlemazel, hassenfeffer incorporated! Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall's dynamic duo were such memorable characters that you forget they were originally conceived as little more than one-off dates for Happy Days' Richie Cunningham and Arthur Fonzarelli. Thankfully, Penny's brother — producer Garry Marshall — somehow had the foresight to see there was series potential in the misadventures of these Milwaukee brewery workers, and soon enough, we were all living in Boo-Boo Kitty's world. Think of how many factory accidents have been caused by people trying to replicate the glove-on-the-beer-bottle assembly line trick. Guess how many young Italian kids decided to take dance lessons so they could be like Carmine Ragusa. Try to imagine a world without Lenny and Squiggy. You can't. DF


‘Lou Grant’

He started out presiding over TV news anchors in Minneapolis; he ended up leading a crack team of journalists at a daily paper in L.A. But the biggest transition that Ed Asner's Lou Grant experienced wasn't geographical but tonal — moving from lovably grumpy boss on a sitcom (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) to dead-serious editor on an hour-long drama, tackling sex scandals, human-rights issues and other torn-from-today's-headlines hot topics. The change worked wonders for Asner, who got to show off his chops and become the only actor to win an Emmy in both the Comedy and Drama categories for playing the same character. Before Hill Street Blues came along, this series was considered the highmark of primetime prestige TV. When you wanted thoughtful, compelling storytelling about the what was going on outside your living room, you went to Lou. DF



Imagined as a third corner of a love triangle involving Cheers' Sam Malone and his employee/bantering partner Diane Chambers, Dr. Frasier Crane was everything the show's resident alpha male was not: pompous, cerebral, and a "perfect" match for the braniac barmaid. He eventually evolved from being a stock stuffed shirt to key part of the show, though we wouldn't have picked Crane as a natural for his own sitcom.

So when Cheers' producers announced they were creating a show around Kelsey Grammer's psychiatrist and relocating him to the Pacific Northwest, visions of The Tortellis redux danced through folks' heads. Imagine our surprise, then, when the result turned into what many consider to be one of the greatest network sitcoms of all time — the equivalent of a screwball comedy pleasurably stretched out over 11 seasons. Partnered with his equally pretentious brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce earned every one of his 11 Emmy nominations and four wins), Frasier suddenly blossomed as a character; it's as if this was the show he was meant to be on all along. Throw in theater veteran John Mahoney's crusty ex-cop dad and ex-Benny Hill Show eye candy Jane Leeves as daffy caregiver Daphne, as well as one of the wittiest writers' rooms around, and you had a series that quickly set the bar for small-screen superiority. Just try and find another spin-off worth its weight in tossed salads and scrambled eggs. DF

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