Thursday, December 10, 2009

90s TV Spinoffs

With all the movie remakes currently in the works, it's not a stretch to wonder if we've just plain run out of ideas. The Karate Kid and The Never-Ending Story are just a few decades young and already they're being treated like golden oldies in need of revamping for the new millennium. To dismiss this generation of hangers-on as a new fleeting phenomenon would be dishonest, though. Our coming-of-age era entertainment was equally if not more guilty of the same abhorrent offenses. We didn't call them rip-offs back then, though. We called them spin-offs.

A spin-off is an admittedly lazy creative process of launching a new program. Relying on the popularity of an already successful show, spin-off creators simply take existing characters and separate them from their natural habitat in an established program. The moment audiences respond remotely positively to a secondary character, producers often jumped on the spin-off bandwagon. The theory was, you liked seeing them on this show for five minutes, why not thirty? It seemed a logical leap, and certainly easier than coming up with an original idea.

In reality, some spin-offs work better than others. There's a fragile balance to keep: true enough to the original characters to ride the wave of the established show's popularity, but original enough not to appear a complete facsimile of the first show. Most of the successful spinoffs relied on repackaging standby semi-major characters, though some managed to coast on showcasing minor or one-time guests. The best of them went on to outstrip the fame of the show from which they were spawned. The worst faded into obscurity as poorly thought-out network schemes to milk a show's popularity for all it was worth.

There were many, many spin-offs in the 90s, but let's take a look at a few of the most-watched:


Here's an incidence of a seriously popular spin-off. It ran eleven seasons, the same as its predecessor, Cheers. The show followed regular Cheers patron Dr. Frasier Crane as he hosts a pop psychology call-in radio show. His brother is also a psychiatrist, and a very neurotic one at that. Frasier takes in his aging father and his full-time character, and hilarious, toned-down subdued antics ensue. The show was witty and didn't talk down to its audience, which was always a refreshing notion for a sitcom. Though it wavered a bit in its final years, it remains one of the most successful spin-offs to date.

Perfect Strangers-->Family Matters

Perfect Strangers: two wacky mismatched cousin roommates with differing nationalities. Family Matters: charming middle-class black family. Tough to see the connection, right? Winslow matriarch Hariette Winslow started as a character on Perfect Stranger and was deemed worthy of further exploration. Of course, then they brought in Urkel and everything changed plot focus-wise, but it was a decent staple of the popular TGIF lineup. Not too shabby for a spin-off.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer-->Angel

If you think vampires are the hot new thing, you're probably suffering from acute memory loss. I'd get that checked out if I were you. In the 90s, it was all about Buffy. Her vampires didn't need skin sparkling gimmicks, just her pure ass-kicking finesse. The show spun off Angel in 1999, featuring Buffy regular David Boreanaz as its title character. Angel was a vampire cursed with the restoration of his human soul, thus racking him with guilt and internal struggle. It was a little hokey, but if you're into that kind of thing, it was a pretty for Buffy seconds.

Golden Girls-->Empty Nest-->Nurses + Golden Girls-->The Golden Palace

Talk about a strangled route on this one. The Golden Girls actually split into two separate spin-off tracks, one focusing on a once-featured neighbor couple and the other rebranding the original as a Bea Arthur-less project. None of them assumed the level of popular of Golden Girls, but they did reasonably well for spin-offs.

On track one, we had Empty Nest, a project that had a bumpy road to production. Originally intended to spin from the GG episode Empty Nests about a neighbor couple whose children had all flown the coop. Unluckily for producers, the characters bombed, so they brought in entirely new characters with a different premise altogether: a widower whose post-college aged daughters come back to live with them. They still called it Empty Nest, which of course makes no sense. It was a full nest. The hen was gone, but all the chicks were there. Sounds full to me. Guess they just wanted to spare themselves the embarrassment of admitting they had to can the original concept altogether.

Remarkably, Empty Nest also managed to spurn a spin-off, Nurses. The Nurses in question worked at the same hospital as Dr. Harry Weston of Empty Nest. The show was okay, but the first-season ratings were in a bit of a slump. In response, show writers played all sorts of cheap tricks including like adding new characters and completely changing existing ones. Regardless, the show lasted 3 seasons, so they must have been doing something right.

Meanwhile, on track two we had the McLanahan/White/Getty vehicle, The Golden Palace, in which Don Cheadle gives his second best performance as a hotel manager. Throw in Cheech Marin, and you've got yourself a zany bunch of hotel proprietors. That was the idea, at least. The theme song was a cheesy musakified version of The Golden Girls' "Thank You For Being a Friend". It only lasted one season, partially because of its terrible time slot and partially because it wasn't all that great.

Animaniacs-->Pinky and the Brain

After seeing them on Animaniacs, how could you not give these little lab mice their own half hour to shine? If nothing else, I'm sold on theme song alone. It's so straightforward. One is a genius, the other's insane. So incredibly simple, yet so humorous. Well played, Warner Bros.

Beavis and Butthead-->Daria

This is the first half of the first episode...intrigued? They're all up there. On YouTube. Just don't tell the authorities. They've been uploaded backwards. Ingenius, no? Now go watch them before they're gone.

Here's a case in which the spin-off was entirely different from the series from which it originated. Daria had none of Beavis and Butthead's bonehead humor. It was smart, sarcastic, quick-witted, and hilarious. It was as sharp as B&B was dumb. Our protagonist Daria was something of a social outcast, giving voice to misfits and brains everywhere. The show so perfectly captured the stereotypes of high school, though it treated its subjects with kindness even while mocking them. It had heart, but just when you thought they were going in for the kill on an aww moment, they triggered back with a biting retort.

Party of Five-->Time of Your Life

Another one-seasoner, Time of Your Life was meant to launch Jennifer Love Hewitt's character from Party of Five character into her own series as she tackled New York City. It didn't even make it all the way through its first season before cancellation, if that gives you any hints to the critical reception. It was really pretty terrible.

90210-->Melrose Place-->Models, INC

Melrose Place was intended as an expansion of the 90210 franchise to reach out to the twenty-something demographic. The Jake Hanson character originally appeared on 90210 as a bad-boy biker hired to do some construction for Kelly's family. The two engage in a brief tryst, which was conveniently resolved in time to transfer Jake to the MP apartment complex setting. The show went on to establish its own following and featured much darker storylines than its after-school-special-leaning predecessor.

I'm going to open myself to mockery and admit that as a child, I was a shameless Models, Inc. fan. Really, it was awful, but I was probably among the only disappointed people upon news of the cancellation following the first season. I mean, they ended it with To Be Continued... I heard they eventually aired the continuation on E!, but obviously I missed it. I may never know these answers.

The Tracey Ullman Show-->The Simpsons

You have to give some credit to the longest running sitcom of all time, especially considering it's a cartoon. The Simpsons premiered as animated shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show, featuring a dysfunctional family and their humorous episodic experiences. It may not still be up to its original quick-witted standards, but they do still have their original cast. That's almost as good.

Good Morning Miss Bliss-->Saved By the Bell-->Saved by the Bell: The College Years-->Saved by the Bell: The New Class

How many times can you repackage a franchise? That's the question Saved By the Bell producers must have asked themselves, obviously putting faith in the answer "a whole lot". The original Disney Series centering around junior high students and their teacher played by Hayley Mills was cute enough, but nothing cult fanship worthy. Producers tweaked the shows into the California-based Saved by the Bell and launched a franchise that begot awesome product tie ins like my previously mentioned Zackberry flavored shampoo. The show wasn't really one for continuity, but it made its shaky way to graduation and we assumed they'd all call it a day.

Not so. Featuring a distinctly huskier Zack Morris and some god-awful 90s flannel getups, Saved by the Bell: The College Years, ran one lone season from 1994-1995. It was an effort, sure, but not a particularly valiant one.

Oh, and there was an even worse but far longer-running spin-off, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, retaining only Screech and Mr Belding from the original. And really, I doubt those two were swatting away dozens of projects. They needed the work.

A few of the originals drop by The New Class

Spin-offs can obviously be very hit or miss. Some characters have the potential to carry their own series, while others are better left fading into the background. One thing's for sure, though: if you can grind a franchise into the ground, you might as well give it your best shot. You might get a Frasier, you might get a Time of Your Life, but the odds seem pretty well-stacked in your favor.


P said...

Angel, Daria, Melrose Place . . . oh yeah!!!

I will risk ridicule though and admit that I actually kinda LIKED the Saved By The Bell spinoffs. Far better than SOME of the kids tv around today...

Jannie girl talk said...

LOVED DARIA!! LOVED MELROSE PLACE! LOVED MODELS INC!!! Family Matters was good until that whole Stefan Urkel mess!!! but yeah Saved by the bell the college years sucked!

Moonjava said...

For the most part, I think I've only seen the originals. I will admit, I was in love with Zack...maybe not with the long hair. :P

And yes I did try watching Angel for a while because I loved David Boreanaz for his soulful vampire goodiness, but I didn't keep up. :)

Cee said...

I never realy saw cheers which is why I had not clue until now that fraiser was a spinoff. Interesting!

Maggi said...

Oh I miss Daria! lol Yeah, most of those were horrible!

Midna said...

I liked Saved By The Bell: The College Years for one reason, and one reason only. Patrick Fabian, who played Professor Lasky. He was delicious. *sighs*

I'm seriously considering studying anthropology after I get my biology degree...

Lauren Kelly said...

I loved a good majority of those remakes!!!!!!! :)

Retrofaze said...

I used to LOVE Pinky and the Brain! A little mean mouse trying to take over the world..LOL! I couldn't stand Daria...too snobby for me. But Frazier, I loved Cheers and Frazier was Eh, okay.

Badass Geek said...

Uh... I swear I am a child of the 90's, but I never watched any of these shows when they were currently on air.

Sadako said...

Ah, so many great shows. Daria, Frasier, and the Simpsons in particular! :D

Melissa said...

Haha I love these!!!

And how did I now know they're remaking The Neverending Story?!

Melissa Blake said...

Frasier, hands-down is the BEST SHOW EVER!

Melanie's Randomness said...

I guess I'm a spin-off junkie, because I loved all of these!! Frazier & Angel & Saved by the bell the college years rules!!

bibberly said...

Excellent post... but no mention of The Heights in the 90210 segment? Don't you have "How Do You Talk to An Angel" stuck in your head still?

Jessica {The Novice Chef} said...

This was so fun to read through! I loved the 90's! Haha :-)

And I was a Saved By The Bell fanatic!

Mrs. Dew said...

OMG I Loved Perfect Strangers! And SBTB the New Class SUCKED! lol

Emily said...

Dude, Zack was HOT during the college years!

Jen said...

I also am a shameless Model's Inc Fan. I LIVED for it. Of course it's no where to be found (Except dubbed in Spanish on you tube). When are they going to make that available to DL or give it a proper DVD release? argggg

I also totally love Daria, and I hear it's finally coming to DVD in 2010

Richard @ The Bewildered Brit said...

Angel didn't really know what it wanted to be, until it's final season. Then it's as good--or better--than Buffy. Before then it was a bit hokey (esp in season 4).


I know too much about Angel, don't?

Heather Taylor said...

Okay now I'm dying to watch Models Inc. Never heard of that show!
And Daria, oh man, I spent all summer watching it on Youtube. Totes amazing. Now I understand why one of my girlfriends used to refer to me as "Quinn" when we were in middle school.

Opanga-Tay said...

I love Frasier, it's one of the best sitcoms ever (except, you're right, during the last couple of seasons). I was a bit too young to get into Cheers, but I always loved watching Frasier on Tuesday (and then Thursday) nights!

Also, the SBTB clip makes me smile. I love how absolutely apeshit wild the crowd went when Zack came into the room, heheh. I was so in love with him during the SBTB years...but, who wasn't? The college years were all right, but the cheesy charm of SBTB didn't translate too well to college. And forget about the new class, they were so lame. You know you're in trouble when only Screech and Mr. B are willing to stick around.

kanishk said...

I think I've only seen the originals. I will admit, I was in love with Zack...maybe not with the long hair.

Work from home India

Kerree said...

I loved loved loved Models Inc and if it came back on I would watch it again!

HersheyKissez said...

wow this brought back soooo many memories!!! I still remember staying up way too late in grade school just to catch Saved By The Bell: College years... haha They made college seem so cool back then. and 90210- loved it! it was better than the remake they have now... and Daria... loved her too.. i wish re-runs of that would come on. my friend and i were talking about that show the other day! thanks for showing clips =)

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