The Hit & Miss World of TV Spin-Offs
The world of TV spin-offs is one littered with glittering successes and dismal failures. Sometimes producers manage to recapture the lightning in a bottle that made the original show such a hit with viewers and on other occasions it’s a painful watch as series creators try and throw the kitchen sink at their new creation while foregoing the originality of the predecessor. So what are the best and worst in recent memory? To guide us through the hits and misses of TV spin-offs over the years is our resident TV expert Pat Quin.
Check it Out! with Dr. Steve Brule
John C. Reilly’s performance as the titular host of Check it Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, a parody of a public access talk show that airs on Adult Swim, warrants comparisons to comedy legends like Andy Kauffman and Sacha Baron Cohen. But don’t think for one second that Reilly is following some kind of formula. The character of Brule is wholly unique: a frizzy-haired man-child who plows through his speech impediment and his social encounters alike with the truculence of a toddler. And although the premise of the show seems to start where Borat left off—with deliberately awkward interviews done as a goofy character—it ends up going in a direction all its own. According to Tim Heidecker, one of the show’s creators, the people Reilly interviews as Brule aren’t in on the joke. But there is a way in which there is no joke to be in on. You see, unlike other ‘real life trolls,’ Reilly isn’t pretending to be stupid in order to make others look stupid or feel uncomfortable. Why is he then? Well, like Brule himself, Check it Out! is comfortable not making a clear statement, and it is, in all of its aimless absurdity, one of the funniest things on TV.
Source material: Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul came out less than two years after Breaking Bad had wrapped up its historic five-season run. But the show never gives you the impression that it’s trying to rush greatness. If Breaking Bad makes you gasp and wonder what will happen next, Better Call Saul makes you furrow your brow and wonder what’s happening right before your eyes. You’re not sure who the good guys and bad guys are in the Better Call Saul universe. This isn’t to say that the characters in Breaking Bad are cartoonish or two-dimensional, just that Better Call Saul stares even more deeply into the grey areas of people’s souls. It has a meditative quality, a respect for moments, and although there are some pretty juicy cliffhangers as well—it is a Vince Gilligan production after all—you never feel like you’re being rushed along toward some grand denouement. And that’s OK because with a show this beautifully made, you’ll want to enjoy the ride.
Source material: Breaking Bad
The theme song, the hideous multi-colored 90s apparel, Steve Urkel—rewatching this TV spin-off of Perfect Strangers in 2018 is surreal. It all feels a little corny, but the show has more than enough heart to anchor all the catchphrases and slapstick in something real and substantial. In an era of television where social commentary and mind-blowing plot twists carry the day, it’s good to watch a show like Family Matters and be reminded that when a show’s got the characters, it doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles. And with this timeless sitcom currently streaming on Hulu, now is the perfect time to throw on an episode and forget about how big and messy the world is for one sweet half hour.
Source material: Perfect Strangers
This witty sitcom was launched as a TV spin-off of Cheers, and in fact, its set was built directly over the bar where everyone knows your name. But this wasn’t to be an omen that Frasier would remain in the shadow of its immensely successful predecessor. I just rewatched the first season in preparation for this piece, and by the third episode 1 was, once again, totally enthralled. Frasier carries you along with its jauntily clever dialogue, while at the same time pulling you deeper into the lives of its central characters. Frasier and his brother Niles might be snobs, but Frasier is nothing if not down to earth. Cutting through all the banter are stories about flawed unbalanced human beings trying to live meaningful lives. And their efforts to do so will make you laugh and move you, whether you’re an opera guy like Frasier or more of a beer and a ballgame guy like his dad. With an abundance of wit but even more heart, Frasier isn’t just a stellar spin-off, but a sitcom for the ages.
Source material: Cheers
This Beavis and Butthead spin-off—it’s true, that’s where the character of Daria first appeared—has aged tremendously well. In fact, it might even provide more trenchant social satire now than it did in the nineties. In the show’s very first episode, Daria gets put in a special class at school to help with her supposedly low self-esteem. She remarks that her self-esteem is fine, it’s just that she has “low esteem for everyone else.” There are other characters from the 90s with deadpan negativity, but thanks to Tracy Grandstaff’s subtly brilliant voice acting, Daria never feels like a walking trope. So, next time you spend a little too long on Instagram and start to feel like all of the bright images of happy, motivated people are eroding your sanity, throw on an episode of Daria. I promise her monotone sarcastic delivery will be music to your ears.
Source material: Beavis and Butthead
Some spin-offs fail primarily because of how they stand up vis-à-vis their source material. But other spin-offs fail because they are simply bad shows. Young Americans is a perfect example of the latter. It is a lifeless turd, and as such, cannot be said to have been birthed by Dawson’s Creek, so much as shat out. To be fair, it’s a good looking piece of poop; in it you’ll find Ian Somerhalder’s eyes and Kate Bosworth’s cheekbones and the rolling hills of New England. But at the end of the day, it’s excrement, which means when you’re asked to describe it, you’re going to skip the lofty metaphors and cut to the chase. You’ll call a spade a spade, and then use that spade to dig a hole in which to bury the steaming… OK, you get it.
Source material: Dawson’s Creek
Viva La Bam
Jackass wasn’t exactly deep. It was a guy wearing a jockstrap sliding down a hill in a bucket (Chris Pontius, ladies and gentlemen). But it was beautiful. Moreover, despite aiming for the lowbrow by showcasing a lot of low-blows, Jackass seemed to have something to say. The message might have been puerile, unlikely to stand the test of time as a pillar of philosophical wisdom—but, as Walter from The Big Lebowski might say, “at least it’s an ethos.” You can’t really say the same for the artistic vision—or lack thereof—behind Bam Margera’s spin-off reality show: Viva La Bam. Bam Margera doesn’t have Knoxville’s charisma, but more importantly, his kooky ideas lacks the playful touch that made the awfulness of Jackass strangely appealing. There is nothing playful about a grown man beating up his father for a camera crew. Or funny.
Source material: Jackass
You’d be hard-pressed to find a list of the worst TV spin-offs that doesn’t include Joey. But here’s the thing—the show isn’t that bad. It’s just run-of-the-mill bad. Seriously. The writing is uninspired and hammy, but the cast was talented enough to make the dialogue sound vaguely similar to human beings having real conversations. Matt LeBlanc is predictably lovable as Joey, and Drea de Matteo has her moments as Gina, Joey’s crass but caring older sister. The show is bad, sure, but not that bad. So why all the hate? Well I have a theory about it…
My suspicion is that we like bashing Joey not because it deserves it per se, but because it reminds us that the Friends universe was too perfect to last. Friends gave us the enjoyment of watching characters who are basically insulated from reality, with its abundance of death, disease, depression, and danger. But it also gave us the deeper satisfaction that comes from watching characters who grow and change in response to their world. A show can give us both things for a while—Friends did for 10 glorious seasons—but not forever. Joey reminds us of this. That’s why we love to hate it. OK… maybe it really was just that bad.
Source material: Friends
Girl Meets World
With some nods to its predecessor—an inside joke here and a cameo there, Girl Meets World occasionally tried to tap into the TV magic that was Boy Meets World. But for the most part, it courted viewers who were wearing diapers in the 90s. That means the show isn’t derivative, which would at least allow its badness to be connected to something good. It’s just bad, in its own self-standing way. So if you’re feeling nostalgic for Boy Meets World, go watch Boy Meets World. If you want to watch a mediocre comedy for fifteen-year-olds, feel free to check out Girl Meets World. I mean, Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel are back as everyone’s favorite couple, so how bad could it really be? Pretty bad it turns out.
Source material: Boy Meets World
The Cleveland Show
This spin-off was supposed to be more heartfelt and character-based than Family Guy, or as one of its creators said in an interview, “what King of the Hill was to The Simpsons.” Whether it achieved this is up for debate, but at the end of the day, The Cleveland Show just never seemed to find its groove. Maybe the reason is simple: the character of Cleveland is just too mellow and unremarkable to build an entire show around. Or maybe it’s true that the problem lies much deeper, perhaps in the way a show created by three white guys approaches blackness. Whatever the case, Seth McFarlane seemed to know at the outset that The Cleveland Show would flop; he helped get the show-up and running, but then handed over the reins to Rich Appel and Mike Henry, as if to say: it’s your problem now.
Source material: Family Guy
Check out more of Pat Quin’s writing on his television blog HERE