While they may seem like a fairly recent scheme concocted by greedy modern networks and producers, spinoffs have been around for about as long as television itself. The Honeymooners, which debuted in 1955 and was one of the first hit American sitcoms, was a spinoff of an earlier variety series called Cavalcade of Stars. To have one series give birth to another is a television tradition as old as shlubby husbands with disproportionately attractive wives.
Usually a spinoff doesn’t end up matching the success and popularity of its anchor show. It makes sense that there would be diminishing returns as one series leads into another, especially as the original show is usually still on the air and it’s a tall order to expect that all of the same viewers will both stay with the original series and watch its successor.
There’s also just the matter of creative fatigue, as fans eventually grow tired of a particular television “universe” and aren’t interested in following it for decades as a show branches off into generations of spinoffs. However, there are rare examples where the student surpasses the teacher, and a spinoff ends up becoming more popular than the original show from which it spawned.
Here are 17 TV Spinoffs That Got More Popular Than The Original Show.
17. The Flash- Arrow
Though it debuted only a year after Smallville came to a close, Arrow was a fresh start for the DC universe on television and would go on to serve as the starting point for an entirely new generation of DC Comics-based television shows. And while Legends of Tomorrow has struggled to match the success of Arrow, The Flash has easily zoomed right past it.
Though Arrow took a couple of seasons to find its confidence, Flash benefited from its creators already having that experience from Arrow and hitting the ground running much more quickly. Flash is also a more lighthearted show and is seen as a welcome break from the dark, gritty nature of not only Arrow, but Marvel’s Netflix efforts.
Finally, while most superhero shows these days seem to go out of their way to portray a more realistically-grounded version of the characters, Flash has no problem embracing the over-the-top nature of its source material.
16. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
When Law & Order premiered in 1990, it heralded a more mature, less campy style of television drama than had been seen in the ’70s and ’80s. Not relying on the kind of goofy gimmickry that was typical of even adult dramas in the previous decade, shows like Law & Order and ER came to define a whole new generation of primetime television in the 90s and beyond.
The original Law & Order ran for an impressive twenty seasons and nearly 500 episodes, regularly refreshing its cast every handful of years to extend its run beyond the ages of the initial cast of cops and lawyers. The series was so popular that it ended up spawning multiple spinoffs that took the format to different cities, and specializing on more specific aspects of the world of crime.
Special Victims Unit, which focuses on sex crimes as well as crimes against children, is easily the most successful of the spin-offs and eventually took over as the most popular branch of the Law & Order brand. In fact, it only needs to last for two more seasons in order to be the longest-running Law & Order series ever.
15. Xena: Warrior Princess – Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
After Star Trek: The Next Generation proved to the world that a syndicated, live-action series could be hugely successful, the ’90s saw a number of attempts to get a piece of that action. From other sci-fi shows like Babylon 5 to campy hits like Baywatch, syndication became a place for shows with off-kilter concepts that weren’t going to consistently draw the tens of millions of viewers needed to make a show viable on a network during that era.
At one point during the mid-90s, there were over 20 hour-long syndicated shows running simultaneously. But while most of them quickly faded into obscurity– who remembers Forever Knight or High Tide?– among the standouts was the soapy fantasy series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, which was quickly spun off into the similarly-themed Xena: Warrior Princess.
14. NCIS – JAG
In the ’90s, CBS was something of a punchline as the network for old people. It had its share of ratings successes, but for those were mostly just stuff that parents watched.
One such show was JAG, which had a one-season stint on NBC before being picked up by CBS, where it gradually found an audience over its next few seasons. During the best years of its ten-year run, JAG even cracked the top 15 in the weekly ratings.
Still, the somewhat surprising success and longevity of JAG has nothing on what would be accomplished by its spinoff, a little show called NCIS. The naval-based procedural has not only been on the air for 15 seasons and counting, but it has been in the top 5 for the past nine, even finishing as the #1 show for the 2012-13 American television season. And as if that weren’t enough, NCIS has even spun off two shows of its own: NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans.
13. Beavis and Butt-head – Liquid Television
To be fair, a show like Liquid Television is supposed to spawn spinoffs that exceed its popularity. The avant-garde animation showcase was designed as both a place for independent animators to show off their works in a pre-YouTube world, and also a testing ground for future full-fledged animated series. And while Liquid Television would bring the world Aeon Flux, which definitely ended up becoming much more famous than its parent series and popular enough to eventually be a feature film, the compilation show’s greatest success story was no doubt Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head.
The original run of Liquid Television would only last for three years in the early ’90s, while Beavis and Butt-head boasts eight seasons, a feature film, a comic book series, several video games, and countless other forms of merchandising.
The series would go on to define MTV for an entire generation of viewers and remains a household name, despite how rarely it is shown on TV anymore due to licensing issues with the music videos the pair used to watch. Not bad for a property that was one of over two dozen recurring segments on a show that came and went in just a few short years.
12. Teen Mom – 16 & Pregnant
As MTV began to shy away from the music videos that it originally built its legacy on, the cable network– like most cable networks in the 2000s– saw its salvation in changing focus to reality shows. However, in an effort to still court younger viewers, MTV’s reality shows typically featured teenagers doing teenager-y things– including being pregnant.
With music and interstitial animations styled after recent hit teenage pregnancy comedy Juno, 16 & Pregnant followed a group of teenage mothers-to-be as they prepared for the major changes in store for them. Eventually, the group was narrowed down to the four most interesting girls– Farrah, Maci, Catelynn, and Amber– who would later be the stars of the follow-up spinoff series Teen Mom.
Between Farrah’s questionable brushes with celebrity to Amber being charged with spousal abuse, the lives of the four original 16 & Pregnant girls became even more compelling to watch than the latest batches of pregnant teens that MTV was still showing on the original series. Even subsequent installments of Teen Mom that featured different girls couldn’t quite match the popularity of what came to be known as “Teen Mom OG“– and 16 & Pregant never even came close again.
11. Family Matters – Perfect Strangers
Many of the shows within the TGIF family were spinoffs of each other, often with some very blatant backdoor pilot episode that arbitrarily introduced a previously unseen character or family that was brought on specifically as a way to preview them for their upcoming series.
The way that Perfect Strangers spawned Family Matters didn’t feel quite so jarring– Strangers featured an elevator operator named Harriet Winslow who would later be the matriarch for the family at the center of Family Matters. While both series were on the air for about the same amount of time, it’s pretty clear that Family Matters ultimately had the more enduring legacy.
Not only did it benefit from having the bulk of its run take place within the lucrative TGIF block– Perfect Strangers didn’t become a TGIF show until its final years– but Steve Urkel became a cultural phenomenon all his own in a way that Strangers‘ Balki never quite did. Urkel inspired toys, lunchboxes, and even a short-lived breakfast cereal.
10. The Colbert Show (Spin-off of The Daily Show)
This one is going to be a little bit contentious, but hear us out. The Daily Show is definitely a television institution at this point, as acclaimed, long-running, and even respected as many of the “real” news shows that it is satirizing. It’s been running for over two decades now. Though it has struggled a bit to maintain its John Stewart-era popularity since Trevor Noah came aboard, TDS has almost settled into a Saturday Night Live-esque position of seeming like it’s going to be on the air indefinitely.
That said, The Colbert Report remained white-hot for its entire nine year run. It is perhaps unfair to compare the full run of a show that’s been on the air for 21 years to one that was only on for nine, but there is something to be said for going out on top.
On top of that, while TDS remains that consistently reliable show that people turn to for news and laughs and maybe just have it on in the background, The Colbert Report just seemed to stir more passion in its viewers by virtue of being a slightly different, less constricted type of show.
9. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo – Toddlers & Tiaras
Near the end of the 2000s, a field of competitors that seemingly doubled every year meant that the only way a reality show could differentiate itself was to have a shocking premise. And what could be a more controversial subject to base a reality series around than the world of putting extremely young girls in make-up and having them compete in beauty pageants?
It didn’t take long before Toddlers & Tiaras found its breakout stars in Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson and her mother, June “Mama Bear” Shannon. TLC saw potential in basing an entire series around the mother/daughter duo and the rest of their gleefully country family, bringing along relatives with nicknames like Pumpkin, Sugar Bear, and Chubbs.
Sure enough, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was a hit for the network in spite of overwhelmingly negative reviews. Viewers kept the show a ratings success even as TLC canceled Toddlers & Tiaras in the middle of Honey Boo Boo‘s run. However, allegations that June had begun dating a convicted child abuser led to the show’s abrupt cancellation, cutting down the potentially long-running series in its prime.
8. The Facts of Life – Diff’rent strokes
Even though Diff’rent Strokes has become more known for the troubled lives of its young stars than as a fun family sitcom, the 1978-1986 series was a major hit in its day. Diff’rent Strokes was also one of the early pioneers of the over-the-top “very special episode,” with the most infamous examples being a Nancy Reagan cameo during an anti-drug episode, and the often talked about “Bicycle Man” episode that addressed the issue of child predators.
Besides star Gary Coleman’s Arnold, the standout character in the first season of Diff’rent Strokes was housekeeper Mrs. Garrett, played by longtime character actor Charlotte Rae. Mrs. Garrett was so popular, in fact, that she quickly moved on to a show in which she’d play a more central role. That series was The Facts of Life, where Mrs. Garrett served as the housemother at an all-girls boarding school.
Following Diff’rent Strokes‘ cancellation, Facts of Life really proved itself by reaching ratings heights that Strokes never did. Most importantly, while Strokes quickly became dated and is mostly looked at as a product of its time, Facts continued to be rediscovered and enjoyed by subsequent generations of kids.
7. Laverne & Shirley – Happy Days
Happy Days capitalized on 1970s America’s fascination with 1950s America, the same nostalgia that also spawned the musical Grease. In addition to being a massive hit that launched the careers of several future stars, continued the career of a few established ones, and even led to the creation of a still-used pop culture term– “jumping the shark“– Happy Days also became its own spin-off factory.
While the less said about Joanie Loves Chachi and the Fonz cartoon the better, there’s no denying that Happy Days contributed two more classic sitcoms to television history.
The goofy Mork & Mindy was largely only memorable because of the charming performance of an up-and-comer named Robin Williams; it was Laverne & Shirley that gave Happy Days a run for its money both critically and commercially. Although Laverne eventually suffered in the ratings due to endless rescheduling on ABC’s part, it outperformed Happy Days when the two existed simultaneously. It would also prove to be more popular in the long run as it wasn’t so reliant on the gimmicky era-based set pieces of Happy Days and therefore stood up better in syndicated reruns over the years.
6. Frasier – Cheers
Cheers and its spin-off Frasier are two of the most successful sitcoms in history, and its tough to make a definitive call that one was “better” or more popular than the other. Both ran for 11 seasons, both remained highly-rated until the end, and both were critical darlings that raked in the Emmy awards.
However, it is definitely valid to make the case that Frasier gets the edge. In comparing Emmy counts, for instance, Cheers‘ already-impressive 28 Emmy wins are handily outdone by Frasier‘s 37– which continues to be the record for a television comedy by a large margin.
There is also the matter of competition, with Cheers leading a far inferior television landscape while Frasier remained a highly-acclaimed, top-rated show against some incredibly stiff competition from the likes of Roseanne, Everybody Loves Raymond, Home Improvement, The Simpsons, and countless others.
Frasier also had to justify its continued existence on NBC alongside some of the biggest sitcoms of all time, and had much room to fail than Cheers, which famously struggled in the ratings for its first few seasons but was given the chance to grow because, frankly, NBC didn’t have much else going for it.
5. Saved by the Bell – Good Morning, Miss Bliss
Even if the title Good Morning, Miss Bliss doesn’t ring a bell, you’ve probably seen the show’s entire run. The short-lived series, mostly a vehicle for veteran actress Hayley Mills (Pollyanna), aired on The Disney Channel from 1988 to 1989. Although Mills’ Miss Bliss was to be the central character on the show, its young actors– Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Dustin Diamond, and Lark Vorhees, all playing their Saved by the Bell characters– became the breakout stars. Interestingly enough, those weren’t the only familiar names on Miss Bliss— the pilot featured future stars Brian Austin Green, Jonathan Brandis, and Jaleel White as the students before being replaced.
Miss Bliss only lasted a single season, but the basic premise and much of the cast– less Hayley Mills– would be reformed as Saved by the Bell in 1989. While some people have argued that Good Morning, Miss Bliss was retooled as Saved by the Bell rather than it being a spin-off situation– especially since the Miss Bliss episodes were eventually folded into Bell‘s rerun rotation– the fact remains that the two shows were once independent of each other, and there is a clear ending to one and beginning to another, making it fair to call Bell a spin-off.
4. Diagnosis: Murder – Jake and the Fatman
Despite the extremely silly title, Jake and the Fatman was a serious crime drama that ran for five seasons on CBS from 1987 to 1994. Interestingly, Jake and the Fatman is itself a pseudo-spinoff of Matlock as its two stars played very similar characters together in a stint on that series.
Dr. Mark Sloan– no, not that one— was a side character on Fatman played by TV icon Dick Van Dyke. He soon would get his own medical drama series, Diagnosis: Murder, joined by his real-life son Barry playing his fictional son Steve.
Diagnosis: Murder debuted in 1993 and ran all the way to 2001, well past the aforementioned “channel for old people” era of CBS. The star power of Van Dyke likely helped to ensure that Murder vastly eclipsed the popularity of its forerunner, and it eventually settled in nicely onto channels that had lineups full of similar shows like Matlock and Murder, She Wrote to keep it in reruns for many years.
3. A Different World – The Cosby Show
No, A Different World never came close to being as big of a ratings success as the juggernaut that was The Cosby Show, and it’s hard to argue that it has been as popular– yet. But as reruns of The Cosby Show have largely been pulled from the air and are almost impossible to enjoy anymore given the disturbing allegations that have come to light about its star, there’s a really good chance that A Different World will have a longer-lasting legacy since it doesn’t have that same baggage.
Originally a vehicle for departing Cosby co-star Lisa Bonet, World lived on and retained its popularity following Bonet’s early exit, making a name for itself as its own, separate beast independent of the Cosby tie-in. And while Bill Cosby is still a producer, his lack of screen time on World means that its at least possible to watch the show now without cringing.
Beyond that, World represents the college experience in a way that might make it easier to discover and enjoy for future generations in a way that a very of-its-time look at an American family might not be able to do.
2. Star Trek: The Next Generation
Mass geek rage is something that existed well before the internet and social media, and nowhere was it more visible than in the huge backlash that followed the announcement of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Long-time Trekkies couldn’t believe that anyone would have the nerve to have a Star Trek series that didn’t feature the original cast or even characters, especially at a time while they were still actively making movies with Shatner and company as Kirk, Spock, and the rest.
The crew of completely new actors and characters might have been met with reservation following their announcement, but The Next Generation became a blockbuster success. The original Star Trek series famously only lasted a few seasons before low ratings forced its cancellation, but TNG was a full-fledged cultural phenomenon that not only revived the ailing Star Trek brand but lasted an impressive seven seasons.
1. The Simpsons – The Tracey Ullman Show
When the new Fox network launched in 1986, it took a few months for the fledgling channel to find its voice. In April of 1987, the foundation of what Fox would become was laid when Married…with Children and The Tracey Ullman Show made their Sunday night debuts. Ullman was an edgy sketch comedy show that was home to some impressive talent, but ultimately would’ve been forgotten following its brief run had it not given birth to the longest-running scripted series in prime time TV history.
Each episode of The Tracey Ullman Show would feature an animated short about a yellow-skinned family known as The Simpsons. The shorts quickly became the most popular part of the show, and Fox commissioned The Simpsons as a half-hour, prime time animated series.
It was seen as a risky move at the time, as a cartoon hadn’t been a big hit in prime time since The Flintstones. But the gamble obviously paid off, as The Simpsons is one of the most popular TV shows in history and is currently contracted through its 30th season. The Tracey Ullman Show lasted only four.
What other spinoffs have outshone the originals? Let us know in the comments!
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