The spinoff is alive and well in a television landscape that’s always hungry for new content and eager to trade on the success of an existing series. Just this year, we’ve seen Better Call Saul (the prequel to Breaking Bad), The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore (the third spinoff of The Daily Show), and the self-explanatory Fear The Walking Dead and CSI: Cyber, along with the expansion of the reality-show parody Total Drama, Total Drama: The Ridonculous Race. Expectations are also high for the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow, spun off from the CW’s existing Flash and Arrow superhero series.
But spinoffs can easily spin right off the road and into the ditch, and the television landscape is littered with their creative and commercial failures. Here are eleven that TV producers should review every so often, just to reflect on how wrong things can go… and one end-note about a not-so-terrible spinoff that may surprise you.
Mr. T and Tina (1976, 5 Episodes)
No, this was not a show about the Mohawk-sporting, jewelry wearing, fool-pitying star of Rocky III and The A-Team. That Mr. T was still Lawrence Tureaud, serving in the army and a year away from creating his stage name.
This “Mr. T” was Taro Takahashi, the sort of “brilliant inventor” that TV and movies love (but usually confine to animated cartoons or the Back to the Future series), played by Pat Morita. He appeared in a single episode of Welcome Back, Kotter before NBC decided he was the next big thing, hooking him up with ditzy nanny Tina Kelly. For this, they passed over not one but two spinoff proposals featuring the actual child stars of WBK.
Surely, some members of the production thought they had some great things to say about Japanese and American cultural interchange. But what they ended up with was clunky and racist even by 1970s standards, punctuated by wacky invention shenanigans for which the show really didn’t have the budget. The last episode to be aired, the fifth, was fittingly titled “I Thought He’d Never Leave.”
Hello, Larry (1979-1980, 38 Episodes)
McLean Stevenson played Lieutenant Colonel Blake on M*A*S*H, but the rest of his career seemed to indicate that M*A*S*H had succeeded in spite of him: The McLean Stevenson Show (1976-1977), In The Beginning (1978), Condo (1983), and Dirty Dancing (1988) each featured him and failed within a year. Hello, Larry, featuring a divorced radio announcer with two teenage daughters, was his longest-lived regular gig after M*A*S*H.
One could argue whether Hello, Larry qualifies as a spinoff: it wasn’t originally marketed as such, but had an ongoing relationship and three crossover episodes with the then-popular Diff’rent Strokes, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Turns out Larry was an old army buddy of Strokes’ Philip Drummond. What a coincidence.
The crossovers couldn’t save the flimsy writing. Stevenson’s shtick was funny in small doses but couldn’t carry a series, and Hello, Larry achieved notoriety as the worst sitcom on any network. Johnny Carson’s late-night monologues kept making jabs at its expense, almost ten years after the actual show had left the airwaves.
The Brady Brides (1981, 10 Episodes)
The Brady Brunch, a saccharine series about a remarried family of eight and their maid, is one of those shows to which producers just can’t seem to say goodbye. It generated numerous spinoffs over the years: The Brady Kids (a Saturday morning cartoon), The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, The Bradys, the TV movies The Brady Girls Get Married and A Very Brady Christmas and two feature films.
The Bradys only lasted six episodes, but it at least had an interesting slant: it was a more serious-minded reinvention of the Bradys’ innocent comedy. The Brady Brides was just a contrived setup that forced the adult Marcia and Jan to share a house with each other and their husbands. The original Brady Bunch had reflected the changes to American family life: this new series reflected screenwriters desperately trying to force more than one popular Brady into the same household. One Brady husband was a neat freak and one was a slob, a scenario ripped off from The Odd Couple. The creativity went downhill from there.
Joanie Loves Chachi (1982-1983, 17 Episodes)
Happy Days proved the power of nostalgia by lasting longer than the actual decade that inspired it, and it was a fertile source of spinoffs, yielding Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, Blansky’s Beauties and Out of the Blue. Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley also got Saturday-morning cartoon incarnations for kids. And then there was Joanie Loves Chachi.
The premise wasn’t so bad: Fonzie’s younger cousin Chachi and his girlfriend Joanie are trying to make it as a rock band in Chicago in the early Sixties, just when Beatlemania and the British Invasion are looming. But musical sitcoms are a tough sell even when the actors have musical talent. Scott Baio and Erin Moran did not. A Happy Days lead-in and early contributions from Happy Days writers gave the series a strong start, but the writing was already starting to sputter when ABC rescheduled it to Thursday nights, away from Happy Days and directly against The A-Team.
AfterMASH (1983-1985, 30 Episodes)
M*A*S*H, like Happy Days, also lasted longer than the actual event it portrayed (the Korean War), so some kind of spinoff seemed like a good bet to CBS. AfterMASH, like Joanie Loves Chachi, also featured some stars from the original series: Potter, Klinger and Mulcahy, but no Hawkeye or Radar. And it also went up against The A-Team in the latter series’ early days, and got thoroughly squashed.
Shifting the setting to a veterans’ hospital allowed this show to explore M*A*S*H‘s themes of the horror and absurdity of war even after the war was over. But there wasn’t much left to say about them or the M*A*S*H characters after a movie and eleven seasons of M*A*S*H. Even the story of Klinger’s wife, child and troubles with the law only led to him faking insanity for the umpteenth time.
It’s telling, too, that AfterMASH lost to The A-Team: even thought the A-Team members were Vietnam vets, theirs was the opposite of a “war is hell” story, a rock-’em-sock-’em action-adventure show with lots of gunfire and explosions and almost no consequences. America was ready to move on. (Another M*A*S*H spinoff, a cop show about Radar called W*A*L*T*E*R, never made it past the pilot.)
Baywatch Nights (1995-1997, 44 Episodes)
Though cancelled after one season by NBC, Baywatch found new life in international syndication, becoming one of the most popular TV shows in the world. Its relatively simple formula—good-looking people wearing as few clothes as possible in silly but exciting adventures—appealed to viewers looking for escapism.
Producer and star David Hasselhoff tried to channel that popularity into a detective show by throwing a few Baywatch characters, including his own, into a private investigator agency. But any Baywatch spinoff that dressed its stars in normal clothes instead of tight-fitting, skimpy red bathing suits was already at a serious disadvantage. The broadly silly writing and hammy acting didn’t mix with the detective genre, either.
In the second season, Baywatch Nights abruptly switched to science fiction, retaining Hasselhoff but replacing its lead character with a paranormal investigator. This threw narrative continuity out the window, but at least it wasn’t boring—it was like a season of X-Files directed by Ed Wood, almost bad enough to come full circle around to being good. Sadly, we’ll never know if the third season could have made that jump.
Buddies (1996, 13 Episodes)
Comedians Dave Chappelle and Jim Breuer had a very successful 1995 appearance on NBC’s top-rated sitcom Home Improvement, in which they asked the main character for advice on their girlfriends. That episode, “Talk to Me,” went over so well that NBC executives decided to skip the logical next step, making Chappelle and Breuer recurring characters on Home Improvement, and went right ahead to making them stars of a program about men struggling with their girlfriends’ expectations.
Maybe that would have worked, or at least not failed so dismally, if NBC hadn’t then fired Breuer during rehearsals and replaced him with Christopher Gartin, a competent actor who nevertheless couldn’t duplicate the chemistry Breuer had had with Chappelle. The show fell so flat that Chappelle had no qualms about distancing himself from it, a decade later. “It was a bad show. It was bad. I mean when we were doing it, I could tell this was not gonna work.” You can find DVDs of it on eBay, marketed with the tagline, “The show Dave Chappelle doesn’t want you to see!”
That 80s Show (2002, 13 Episodes)
Like Hello, Larry, That 80s Show might not be considered a spinoff as such. Though Terry Turner, Linda Wallem and Mark Brazill executive-produced both, they didn’t take any plots or characters from That 70s Show, just a style of name, style of humor, and general structure. The main characters from each show, Corey Howard (Glenn Howerton) and Eric Forman (Topher Grace) were cousins, which seems like reason enough to do a crossover. Also, the series featured a group of twentysomethings struggling to pursue creative dreams while dealing with money issues, a concept that would be a natural fit for 70s Show characters, aged forward a decade or so.
But Wallem brushed aside that possibility in an Entertainment Weekly interview. “It makes no sense to do crossovers. I used to live in Wisconsin and we would never go to San Diego. It’s too far away.” Such high-minded logic might seem admirable, but it only confused the series: neither its creators nor its producers seemed to have any idea what it was in relation to the original show. After 13 episodes, they didn’t have to worry about it anymore.
The Apprentice: Martha Stewart (2005, 13 Episodes)
Donald Trump’s bid for the Presidency killed the Apprentice franchise at NBC, but this spinoff came close. The Donald blamed The Martha, but there were plenty of reasons why it flopped so badly. The Apprentice in general was declining when Stewart’s version was launched. A Martha daytime program and a Donald Trump-led Apprentice were both airing when TA:MS did, competing for attention with it. The original plan was for Stewart to replace Trump, at least for that season, and when Trump changed that plan, it left producers and promoters little time to change their strategy.
But none of that reflects on the quality of the work, and it’s there that The Apprentice: Martha Stewart committed the cardinal sin of reality TV: it was boring. The cast was bland, the tone was muted, and even though Stewart was a famous name in the news at the time, still under house arrest for insider trading, the show never made much use of her incarcerated status or controversial actions. Stewart’s persona of calm confidence didn’t leave much room for juicy confrontations. Say what you will about Trump, but he knows how to draw in the cameras.
The Pauly D Project (2012, 12 Episodes)
Remember Jersey Shore? The show that put “GTL” into the lexicon, and taught us that you could get away with a name that was more than 50% W’s if you looked like J-Woww?
Memories of this erstwhile “reality phenomenon” are already fading fast. Most of its notability and notoriety came from the questions of whether it represented an ethnic group—Italian-Americans—or a state—New Jersey. It could also be argued to represent New Yorkers who’d relocated to the shore, or just a few young, hot, vapid Italian-Americans who used the term “guido” with affection. Whomever the cast represented, they weren’t exactly good representatives.
Upon the show’s cancellation, it fragmented, shrapnel-like, into three spinoffs. Snooki & J-Woww, built around the series’ biggest stars, at least had eye candy going for it, and The Show with Vinny had a relatively daring talk show format. The Pauly D Project had Pauly D’s quest to become a DJ, his earnest desire to remain famous and little else.
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (2012-2014, 52 Episodes)
If That 80s Show is an odd case of not exploiting old characters enough, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a case of exploiting its real-life stars far, far too much. Spun off from Toddlers and Tiaras, TLC’s already questionable beauty pageant reality exercise, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo followed the daily life one of the more successful contestants, Honey Boo Boo, and her mother, June.
Even by the low standards of reality TV, the results were stomach-churning. One episode featured a pet pig pooping on the table and concern that June might have mistaken the poop for a burnt hot dog and eaten it. June also gave her daughter highly caffeinated “go-go juice” to rev her up before a pageant, just one of a litany of unhealthy habits.
Then a scandal hit the series in June, and with that news, even TLC had had enough and cancelled the show with multiple episodes unaired. A recent episode of another reality show, The Doctors, indicated that Honey Boo Boo faces a series of life-threatening health issues if she doesn’t change the habits that HCHBB marketed as entertainment.
But What About… Joey (2004-2006, 46 Episodes)?
Scout around the Internet and you might conclude Joey is the most hated spinoff in history. It was definitely ill-conceived: Friends’ main point of interest in its last two seasons was its two neurotic couples’ slow ride to maturity, not Joey Tribbiani’s amusing but essentially unchanging schtick as a lunkheaded ham with big show-biz dreams. Joey debuted shortly after Friends’ finale and sputtered for two years before its mercy cancellation.
Still, the show wasn’t really that bad, nor was it even that hated at the time: it won a People’s Choice Award as “Favorite New Television Comedy” and Matt LeBlanc, still charming as the title character, was nominated for a Golden Globe. Though none of the new actors had the chemistry with LeBlanc that Matthew Perry had on Friends, they were fine and the writing was at least competent.
The main reason Joey gets so much retroactive contempt is that it just wasn’t Friends, or even Joey from Friends. Making Joey a lead character meant dropping his friendship with Chandler and making him a bit smarter, which made it hard for loyal Friends fans to even recognize him after a while. And yet it’s hard to see Joey as its own show rather than the eleventh and twelfth seasons of Friends that its other stars wisely declined. Spinoffs invite comparisons, whether they’re deserved or not.
Of course, the garbage bin of history is littered with forgotten spinoffs, and most of them aren’t worth the time of day. Do you have any other suggestions for this list? Let us know in the comments below!
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