It’s impossible to talk about remakes of any kind, as I do here, here, and here, without eventually having to consider spinoffs. I want to start by saying that by “spinoff” I mean that an existing character is given their own show, either after the end of the original series, or concurrently with it. And by TV franchises, on the other hand, I mean two or more different versions of the same show.
Aside: I think movie franchises are more a species of sequel. Star Trek? That’s tricky. Are they spinoffs? Reboots? Franchises? All of the above?
It looks as though comedies are the most likely type of TV program to be successfully spun off. If we go back to the early 1970’s we’ll find that All in the Family (1971-1979) was spun off into two series, The Jeffersons (1975-1985), and Maude (1972-1978). What people often overlook, is that the series Good Times (1974-1979) was actually spun off from Maude. Making All in the Family a kind of grandparent program.
These new series were all true spinoffs, going by my definition. Both George Jefferson and Maude Findlay were recurring characters on the original series who captured the interest of the audience enough that they were given their own shows. The same was true for Maude’s maid/housekeeper Florida, whose home life was spun off into Good Times. You’ll notice that there was a considerable amount of overlap in terms of TV seasons between all 4 shows.
Probably the most successful comedy spinoff is Frasier (1993-2004). The character of Dr. Frasier Crane first appeared as a recurring and then regular character in the popular series Cheers (1982-1993). Both series ran for 11 seasons, but unlike the group above, here the spinoff followed the original, there was no overlap of seasons. I believe that because of his appearance in these two popular shows, Kelsey Grammer holds the record for the longest portrayal of the same prime-time character.
There’s a different kind of spinoff, however, one that’s a little less organic, a little more contrived. Happy Days (1974-1984) was an extremely successful show in its time, and it seems the producers took advantage of that to create other shows using it as a hook. The characters of Laverne and Shirley were “introduced” in six episodes, whereupon they were given their own eponymous show (1976-1983). In a similar way, the character of Mork, appeared in 2 episodes before getting his own show (Mork and Mindy, 1978-1982). Possibly these characters weren’t deliberately given a “try out” on a popular series in order to launch their own shows, but it sure feels like it. Note that the original show ran the longest.
Of course, there are series that we know were created exactly that way, which in my opinion makes them more franchises than spinoffs. Remember CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015). A couple of episodes introduced the Miami lab, and spawned CSI: Miami (2002-2012) and later and later the same technique was used to create CSI: NY (2004-2013). Obviously these are dramas, and once again, the original show proved to be the most popular, and outlived both of its spinoffs.
Around about the same time producers on another popular show took a page out of the same play book. Apparently the producers of a show called JAG (1995-2005) felt that the end was in sight, but thought there was still room on TV for this type of show (military law), so in 2003 NCIS agents were deliberately introduced and a new show was born (NCIS). Again, the same technique was used to create NCIS Los Angeles and NCIS New Orleans. Please note that all three of the NCIS shows are still on the air.
But let’s leave crime solving for now and look at something a little closer to our hearts. First there was Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996-2003), and then there was Angel (1999-2004), a true spinoff in the original sense. Angel was obviously a popular enough character in the original series to anchor a series of his own. But I’d also like to point out that after the first few seasons there really wasn’t anything more to do with his character if he’d stayed in Sunnydale. There’s only so much “doomed love affair” an audience can tolerate. Angel had to go, and a spinoff was the best possible outcome for him.
Is Torchwood a spinoff of Dr. Who? Sure. Is there a character who could be spun off from Firefly? Surely there must be. I hear there might be a spinoff from Supernatural . . . .
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the Faraman Prophecy series. Book Two, Gift of Griffins, is out next week. Find Violette on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @VioletteMalan.