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Big Picture, Small Screen: 20 Movie-Based TV Shows From Worst to Best

From odd couples to vampire slayers, we rank some of the most notable (and most WTF) TV series adapted from feature films

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Folks had every right to be skeptical when the FX network announced that the Coen brothers and former Bones' writer Noah Hawley would be adapting Fargo into a TV series. Yes, the fact that the filmmaking siblings were lending their name to the endeavor suggested that this wouldn't be a cheap cash-in or a con job. But you can still lose something vital when you transition from the big screen to the small one. A TV series based on a movie might expand on the original's themes and storyline. Or it might end up being something similar to the original attempt to adapt Fargo for TV back in 1997 (with a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson!), which never made it past the pilot stage.

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Thankfully, Hawley's take on crime and punishment in the Land of  10,000 Lakes has every indication of being a critical and popular slam dunk after its first week, but it does remind you that the history of movie-to-TV adaptations is littered with runaway hits, halfway interesting also-rans and a few outright stinkers. So we've singled out 20 attempts to turn a two-hour film into a two-seasons-or-longer series and ranked them worst to best. Some of these are shining examples of serial storytelling at its best — and others will make you feel like you can't change the channel quick enough. By David Fear

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20. ‘Casablanca’

Ran for: Five episodes, 1983
One of the greatest Hollywood movies of all time is given the prequel treatement, and the result isn't worth a hill of beans. David Soul may have made up one half of the greatest TV-cop duos of the Seventies (long live Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson!), but no man should be forced to walk a mile in Bogart's shoes or his impeccable white-tux jacket. NBC quickly realized that a weekly series would not be the start of a beautiful friendship, and pulled the series after only two of the five episodes aired. Seen today, it's most notable for the fact that a young Ray Liotta shows up as the joint's bartender and the voice of Hong Kong Phoeey himself, Scatman Crothers, tickles the ivories for the inevitabke rendition of "As Time Goes By." The series is now available on DVD, but trust us: You don't want to play it again.
Success rate: 1

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19. ‘Uncle Buck’

Ran: One season, 1990-1991
A lovable lout, some adorable kids, hilarity and pathos — sounds like a good John Candy star vehicle, right? Trying to recreate this John Hughes film with stand-up comedian Kevin Meany and The Honeymooners' Audrey Meadows on a weekly basis at CBS, however…that just sounds like a bad idea. You know how you'll occasionally see a parody of a bad sitcom, where everyone is over-the-top mugging for the camera and then giving each other sloppy, sentimental hugs to canned applause? This is the real-life version of that sitcom. Bonus points, however, for having what may be the best bad-show theme song of all time.
Success rate: 1

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18. ‘Ferris Bueller’

Ran: One season, 1990-1991
Memo to anyone adapting a TV show from a movie: Don't have you lead character take a chainsaw to a cut-out of the actor who originally played the role. That's how this NBC take on the John Hughes teen comedy starts, by having Charlie Schlatter's Bueller 2.0 jump out of his cool bed, say cool things to the cool camera — and then, in a moment of WTF self-awareness, saw off the head of a cardboard Matthew Broderick. "This is television; this is real," he says. It's all downhill and fast from here.
Success rate: 1

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17. ‘Serpico’

Ran: One season, 1976-1977
That's right: NBC made a police drama out of the 1973 Al Pacino movie, in which the actor played real-life honest cop Frank Serpico. For 14 episodes, a bearded David Birney ferreted out corrupt officers and busted bribers in the NYPD while still finding time to ride his motorcycle around Manhattan, looking very moody. Elmer Bernstein's theme music actually is a great mid-Seventies jam (how has no one sampled this yet?), but otherwise, this is less a cop show than a cop-out.
Success rate: 2

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16. ‘Delta House’

Ran: One season, 1979
Imagine the mother of all raunch-comedies, Animal House, only redone as a family-friendly primetime sitcom with a laugh track. Despite the fact that a number of cast members from the film (Bruce "D-Day" McGill, Stephen "Flounder" Furst, James "Hoover" Widdoes, John Vernon's slow-burning Dean Wormer) reprised their roles and original producers Ivan Reitman and Matty Simmons were involved, that National Lampoon feeling was almost completely M.I.A. thanks to network censors. Worse, since MVP John Belushi certainly wasn't going to come back, the show just decided to invent a faux-Belushi character: Jim Blutarski, Bluto's younger brother. Way to give it the old college try. Oh, and yes, that is a very young Michelle Pfeiffer in a supporting role.
Success rate: 3

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15. ‘Alien Nation’

Ran: One season, 1989-1990
It's an interesting idea: Take the 1989 sci-fi movie about a human-alien cop duo, set on a future Earth where the terrestrial and the extraterrestrial coexist, as a starting point — and instead of just making an intergalactic Starsky & Hutch, use the detective-show format to explore the intricacies of various intolerance issues. Unfortunately, the alien-as-minority metaphor was already fairly played out by the time the film's credits were rolling; over the course of 22 episodes, the concept was pounded into the ground. Financial issues at Fox handed the series a premature death, though several made-for-TV movies featuring the show's cast would be made during the mid-to-late-Nineties. The possibilities of where this program could go, however, felt limited at best.
Success rate: 3

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14. ‘Private Benjamin’

Ran: Three seasons, 1981-11983
Goldie Hawn's hit movie about a former lady-who-lunches that joins the Army raked in a lot of box office and nabbed Hawn and actress Eileen Brennan Oscar nominations. Fortunately, the producers of this CBS sitcom version convinced Brennan (as well as the scene-stealing Hal Williams) to join up, which was a smart move for both parties: The show had a great slow-burn comedian on board, and Brennan managed to win an Emmy and and a Golden Globe. Unfortunately, actress Lorna Patterson could only do so much with a stereotypical dumb-blonde role, and after a number of cast switch-ups in the last season, the series was honorably discharged.
Success rate: 4

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13. ‘Clueless’

Ran: Three seasons, 1996-1999
Amy Heckerling's 1995 SoCal update of Jane Austen's Emma, complete with mall trips and sub-Valleyspeak, ended up becoming a suprise hit, and it actually seemed like a natural for a series. Rachel Blanchard made for a likable teen-heroine Cher, and a large number of cast members from the movie — including Stacey Dash's best friend Dionne and Donald Faison's Murray — reprised their roles from the movie. But though it captured the Cali-youth feeling of the film, the interplay started to ping-pong between canned goofiness and a goody-two-shoes tone; when the series moved from ABC to UPN after its first season, the show started to OD on snark and sassiness. 
Success rate: 4

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12. ‘La Femme Nikita’

Ran: Five seasons, 1997-2001
Long before he'd contribute to the rise of the TV antihero with the high-concept, time-coded procedural 24, showrunner Joel Surnow would adapt Luc Besson's ultra-slick French thriller for the USA Network and give the cable channel an early hit. Like the movie, Nikita is a gutterpunk crook pronounced "dead" — so she can be trained as a high-priced hit woman for the government on the sly. Unlike the film version, however, Peta Wilson's assassin would balance ethical dilemmas regarding her kill-or-be-killed profession and a torrid will-they-or-won't-they? relationship with her handler (Roy Dupuis). The week-after-week missions started to wear thin after a few seasons, though it was enough of a fan favorite that a "Save LFN" campaign saved it from early cancellation.
Success rate: 4

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11. ‘Highlander’

Ran: Six seasons, 1992-1998
In the end, there can be only one…okay, one-ish. The star of the 1986 movie and the original highlander himself, Christopher Lambert, actually shows up in the pilot for this syndicated continuation of the fantasy epic to enlist his fellow centuries-old Scot, Duncan MacLeod (played by Adrian Paul), to join the everlasting battle between good and evil. Having passed the mantle and katana to the new guy, the series pitted Duncan against a series of demons, zealots, a secret society known as "the Watchers," resurrected Vikings and various other "immortals" threatening the existence of humanity? Was it all remarkably cheesy? Of course — which was why the program succeeded in being faithful to it's ridiculously pulpy source material and ended up garnering a huge fan base, as well as nominations for the fantasy-based Gemini and Saturn awards.
Success rate: 5

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10. ‘Teen Wolf’

Ran: Three seasons and counting, 2011-Present
Just say the words teen wolf, and your head is immediately filled with the sight of a hirsute Michael J. Fox backwards dunking on the basketball court and doing that ridiculous Thriller-like dance. (If your first thought was of Jason Bateman in the sequel, then we truly send our condolences.) When MTV decided to revise this Eighties comedy as a TV show, they wisely went the UPN melodrama route: Goodbye high-school zero-to-hero, hello teen angst. Hunky young Tyler Posey is a school misfit who's bit by a lupine shape-shifter; quicker than you can say "bad moon rising," he finds himself trying to get a hold of his new animalistic nature and woo the girl of his dreams — whose dad happens to hunt werewolves. Using supernatural storylines and monster-movie tropes as a metaphor for the horrors of adolescence is nothing new — Buffy bwrung seven near-perfect seasons out of the idea — but showrunner Jeff Davis and his photogenic young cast have already established an impressive blend of spooky elements and soap operatics. It's still slightly overblown, but in terms of improving on the source material, it's hairy head and shoulders above the competition.
Success rate: 6

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9. ‘In the Heat of the Night’

Ran: Seven seasons, 1988-1994
Yes, they still call him Mr. Tibbs! This surprisingly solid adaptation of the 1967 Oscar-winning film gave the underrated actor Howard E. Rollins the role of his career as Detective Virgil Tibbs, the Philly cop who returns to his hometown of Sparta, Mississippi and helps the town's Bull Connor-ish sheriff William "Bill" Gillespie — played by none other than Archie Bunker himself, Carroll O'Connor. The notion of updating the series from the Civil-Rights era of the original movie to the contemporary South took away the tense topicality, but it did allow the duo to do more than just bust rednecks and racists every week; later episodes dealt with incest and AIDS. Rollins' decision to sit most of the last season out hurt the quality of the show, but it was popular enough to get picked up by CBS when NBC dropped it in 1992.
Success rate: 6

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8. ‘Stargate SG-1’

Ran: 10 Seasons, 1997-2007
If you had asked us back in 1997 if we thought that a pre-Independence Day Roland Emmerich sci-fi joint about teleportation wormholes and Egytptian gods would give birth to a franchise, we'd have laughed and thrown our commemorative Star Trek phaser at you. But damned if this Showtime (and later Syfy) series didn't take the movie's building blocks and contruct a sturdy cult TV phenomenon out of it, making excellent use of MacGyver's Richard Dean Anderson and spawning two other series (Stargate: Atlantis and SGU Stargate Universe) and two direct-to-DVD movies. By putting the focus on a military team dedicated to figthing aliens and finding stargate portals, the show turned a dimestore interstellar epic into a cosmic cop show — a sort of CSI: Andromeda Galaxy. It remains a fan favorite to this day.
Success rate: 7

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7. ‘Alice’

Ran: Nine seasons, 1976–1985
In what has to be one of the strangest movie-to-TV transitions, writer/creator Robert Getchell took the characters from Martin Scorsese's 1974 feminist drama Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and put them in…a comedy? Once you get past the cognitive dissonance of the movie's single-mother and waitress Alice Hyatt and her cohorts at Mel's Diner being turned into comic figures, however, you can see why the show was such a success; it was a Seventies sitcom, yes, but it was a stellar Seventies sitcom. The ensemble cast had real chemistry, the talented Linda Lavin rightfully became a TV star thanks to the role and the phrase "Kiss my grits!" became part of the cultural lexicon. It was not the film, but you have to tip your cap to this CBS series for its endurance and long tenure in the Nielsen's Top 30 — and be sure to tip your waitresses. 
Success rate: 7

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6. ‘Parenthood’

Ran: Five seasons and counting, 2010-Present
Ironically, Ron Howard's 1989 comedy about the ups and downs of a large, extended family named the Buckmans felt like a network sitcom that just happened to be shown in theaters. An early attempt to adapt it in 1990 went bust after a single season (Leonardo DiCaprio was in the cast; Joss Whedon was one of the writers), but a second try hit paydirt: Now renamed the Bravermans, the new Parenthood's multigenerational clan bicker, banter, cry, giggle, deal with a child with Aspergers syndrome and get on each other's nerves. Nothing new in that, except that the cast (which includes Coach's Craig T. Nelson, Six Feet Under's Peter Krause and Gilmore Girls' mighty Lauren Graham) and the writers have managed to do it way that feels surprisingly unsuperficial for a primetime drama. It took turning this into a TV show to take the TV-ness out of it.
Success rate: 7

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5. ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’

Ran: Two seasons, 2008-2009
Highly underrated, this small-screen addition to the Terminator franchise focuses on the mother and son who'll eventually save us from those damned self-aware machines, picking up right after the Skynet shenanigans of T2. For fans of the movies and TV sci-fi, the show felt like a godsend: The writing was smart and resepctful of the mythology without being overly reverent; the supporting cast was culled from geek-culture favorites (Firefly's Summer Glau), character actors (Deadwood's Garret Dillahunt) and Nineties alt-rock royalty (Garbage's Shirley Manson); and the creators were prescient enough to realize that if you gave 300's Lena Headey a strong female role, she'd hit the damn thing out of the park. (Thanks to Game of Thrones, of course, now everyone knows.) It deserved way more than two seasons — and we'll still take any single episode of this over the Terminator: Salvation movie any day.
Success rate: 7

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4. ‘The Odd Couple’

Ran: Five season, 1970-1975
Technically, it was an adaptation of Neil Simon's 1965 play, the same Broadway smash that inspired the 1968 movie version starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. (The playwright's name even preceded the title in the early seasons' credits.) But the bantering and bickering sensibility of the TV show really came from the Lemmon-Matthau partnership, with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman building on the screen duo's irascible back-and-forth and, arguably, surpassing it. The premise was simple: Two divorced gentleman, one a neat-freak and the other a slob, move in together. Hilarity ensues for five straight seasons. 
Success rate: 8

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3. ‘Friday Night Lights’

Ran: Five seasons, 2006-2011
Actor-turned-director Peter Berg's movie of Buzz Bissinger's book on a small Texas town obsessed with high-school football proved that you could mine a moody, heartfelt atmosphere about two subjects that are normally cliché minefields. That was nothing, however, compared to what Berg and co. would do once they brought the tale of a coach and his scrappy team to the small screen. The more time you got to spend with Coach Taylor and his wife, Tami — who, thanks to actors Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, delivered the most authentic TV portrait of a working marriage ever —  as well as the team members and populace of Dillon, Texas, the more you became invested in the smallest details of their lives. You didn't even have to like football to love these characters, or this show; Berg and the cast made sure you rooted for the Panthers regardless of whether they were winning or losing on the gridiron. It stumbled once or twice — let us never speal of the Season Two murder subplot again — but when it came to elevating the twists and turns that life threw at you, the small victories and devastating defeats, FNL's track record was almost flawless. Clear eyes, full heart, can't lose.
Success rate: 9

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2. ‘M*A*S*H’

Ran: 11 seasons, 1972-1983
Robert Altman's breakthrough 1970 hit looked at the horrors of war — specifically the Korean conflict, though it was Vietnam by any other name — through the lens of countercultural coolness and gallows humor. When Larry Gelbart decided to turn the misdaventures of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Unit into a series, he opted to downplay the gonzo aspects and deepen the emotional bonding between the camp's various medics, Majors, maniacs and patient-of-the-week military personnel. The result made TV history: A dramedy before such things were commonplace on the tube, a Top 20 show for close to a decade, a left-turn take on a popular movie that not only mined its war-is-hell subject for laughter and tears but eclipsed its source material several times over. The series finale remains the single most watched TV event that wasn't a Super Bowl game. It remains the gold standard for taking a movie's tone in a different direction and creating  great television out of it.
Success rate: 10

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1. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

Ran: Seven seasons, 1997-2003
Even if you could buy the premise — a SoCal cheerleader becomes the Chosen One, destined to destroy demons and bloodsuckers — there was the movie's name, which suggested a sort of cut-rate novelty comedy along the lines of Killer Klowns from Outer Space or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Thankfully, writer Joss Whedon didn't give up on his idea, and thought that maybe, just maybe, he might sell the concept to the fledgling WB Network. The result was a masterpiece: seven seasons of a Joseph Campbell-esque hero's journey as filtered through Whedon's knowing voice (he captured real teenspeak as few have), pop-culture-savvy approach, genuine sensitivity and seamless melding of comedy, drama and horror-fantasy elements.

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He'd do formalistic goofs like a musical episode ("Once More, With Feeling"), an almost dialogue-less episode ("Hush") and a gut-wrenchingly real look at death ("The Body"). But this was about the characters first and foremost: good/bad romantic interests Angel and Spike, nerd-to-witch Willow, nerd-to-slightly-more-handsome-nerd Xander, the father-figure Giles  — and Buffy, the role Sarah Michelle Gellar was born to play.. You could argue that modern geek culture and the now-taken-for-granted TV renaissance starts here; you can assuredly prove that this was ground zero for the wave of strong female heroines that followed. The movie was a one-joke wonder. The series was a chronicle of teen life in which the emotional ups and downs of high school and college life nestled side by side with monsters, vampires, werewolves, mummies and every other ghoul out there. It continues to have one hellmouth of a bite.
Success rate: 10