The history of television is littered with truly terrible spin-offs like Joey, AfterMASH, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo and, of course, Joanie Loves Chachi. But as Better Call Saul has recently proved, some great ones do manage to make it onto the air. The key is to tell a very different story than the original show and introduce memorable, new characters from the get-go. We asked our readers to vote for their favorites. Here are the results.
A show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer is perfect for a spin-off. When you introduce a vast world of vampires and vampire slayers, creating a new show around the most popular character is a natural move. David Boreanaz played Angel, an Irish bloodsucker who's over 200 years old. They moved him out out to Los Angeles, where he works as a private detective alongside others from the Buffy universe. The show ran for five years and earned a huge cult audience, but it never quite had the mainstream appeal as Buffy. Boreanaz now stars on the long-running Fox show Bones, though fans continue to dream of a reunion movie where Buffy and Angel join forces once again.
The 1970s were the golden age of the spin-off. Almost any time a series became any sort of hit, networks were scheming ways to spin it off. That's what happened with The Facts of Life, which was spun-off from Diff'rent Strokes after just one season. They took the maid, played by Charlotte Rae, and turned her into the housemother at a private all-girls school. The last episode of the first season of Diff'rent Strokes was essentially the pilot, though they brought in many different girls before centering the show around Blair, Tootie, Jo and Natalie. It ran from 1979 to 1988, and during that time, no less than six additional spin-offs were attempted. Not a single one made it, but you gotta admire the effort.
Three shows from the 1970s generated an insane amount of spin-offs: All in the Family, Happy Days and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Charting out the endless web they spun would require a PowerPoint presentation and a few very confusing hours. Somewhere in there would be Maude, who we first met in a 1971 episode of All in the Family where she played Archie Bunker's cousin. She's as liberal as he is conservative, and the show tackled many hot button political issues, most famously abortion. Bea Arthur played Maude for six seasons, and seven years after it ended she began work on Golden Girls, which had its own share of spin-offs.
The television world first met Laverne De Fazio and Shirley Feeney on a November 11th, 1975 episode of Happy Days. Richie is having a little trouble meeting women, so Fonzie sets up a double date with his two fast-talking friends. Two months later the girls had their own show where they worked as bottle-cappers at a Milwaukee brewery. They were buddies with dim-witted greasers named Lenny and Squiggy and had all sorts of misadventures, but the series ran out of gas after they moved to California. By the end, it was just Laverne – even though Shirley's name remained in the title.
By 1987 the world was more than ready for another Star Trek TV series. The original show had been off the air for 18 years, but the reruns aired constantly and the four motion pictures were all big hits. Paramount ultimately decided to create a show that took place with an entirely new crew on the Enterprise D, decades after the events of the original series. They wisely made no attempt to recreate the personality types of the original cast, making Captain Picard as even-tempered and cautious as Captain Kirk was impulsive and brash. The result was a huge hit, lasting seven seasons and four more movies. Sadly, the final two were such disasters that the Star Trek world was rebooted, and there have been no new adventures for the TNG gang since 2002. That said, Star Trek: First Contact remains absolutely brilliant. Let's hope they get one more shot some day in the future.
The concept of building a show around Walter White's law-bending lawyer Saul Goodman started out as a joke, but eventually showrunner Vince Gilligan realized it wasn't such a bad idea. And with Breaking Bad gone and Mad Men on its way out, AMC was more than willing to greenlight a series with a built-in audience. That's enough to get big ratings for an episode or two, but as Matt LeBlanc knows all too well, people soon stop watching if a show offers nothing but fond memories. Thankfully, Better Call Saul explains Goodman's complex history and exactly how he wound up practicing law in a strip mall. Hopefully they can maintain this momentum for years to come.
Few people think of The Simpsons as a spin-off, but it actually began its life back in 1987 on The Tracy Ullman Show. These were crudely animated, short segments with very few laughs, but Fox agreed to give them a full show in 1989. Once The Simpsons became a cash cow, Tracy Ullman filed a lawsuit asking for a piece of the pie. She lost the case. Tracy Ullman Show vets Julie Kavner and Dan Castellaneta, however, continue to make insane amounts of money for voicing characters. On a recent Halloween episode, the modern-day Simpsons where visited by their crude past selves to demonstrate just how much the show has changed.
All in the Family viewers heard about Archie Bunker's black neighbor George Jefferson from the very first episode, but he didn't actually appear for a couple of seasons. It was said that George refused to step inside the house of a bigot like Archie, but the delay was actually caused by Sherman Helmsley's role in a Broadway play: Creator Norman Lear wanted the actor so bad that he was willing to wait it out. Jefferson owned a dry cleaning store, and business was so good that he moved to a Manhattan luxury building for his own show, The Jeffersons, in 1975. Amazingly, it ran for 11 seasons. As soon as it ended, Helmsley started work on Amen, which ran for five seasons. That man was born to be in sitcoms.
Robin Williams' lovable alien character Mork from Ork first appeared in a 1978 episode of Happy Days where he attempted to take Richie Cunningham back to his home planet for study. (Happy Days got really weird sometimes.) The character was such a hit that he quickly got his own show, somehow jumping forward in time to present-day Boulder, Colorado. It turned Robin Williams into a superstar, but it only lasted four seasons.
Anyone thinking of creating a spinoff should study Frasier. Its creators not only took one of the more intriguing characters from a hit show, they moved him to a different city and gave him a different job and a whole new set of friends. Detailed knowledge of the Cheers universe wasn't necessary to enjoy Frasier, and the show was well-established before any of the old gang stopped by for a visit. It ran for 11 seasons and really didn't begin to run out of gas until the very end. A therapist with a radio call-in show can only have so many adventures, but it was great while it lasted.