We are all familiar with a typical spin-off of a popular sitcom or drama series.
For instance, Happy Days giving us Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy or Buffy the Vampire Slayer providing us with Angel, but those are the obvious, things can get more convoluted and far less easy to spot sometimes.
Some shows that we take for granted as always being around, such as The Tonight Show, with all of the many hosts and longevity that show has had, is technically a spin-off of a show called Broadway Open House which ran from 1950 – 1951, and was NBC’s first late night series—with The Tonight Show making its debut in 1954.
A series may spin-off of itself, as in the case of say Rowan Atkinson’s brilliant Black Adder, which would then give the world Black Adder II and Black Adder The Third, etc.
There are shows, especially of the variety or anthology type, that would spin-off something much greater than the original, with the most famous example of all being The Tracey Ullman Show providing the world with The Simpsons.
To really get detailed, the fun, goofy comedy anthology series Love, American Style (which ran from 1969-1974) is the show that originally spawned Happy Days (which gave us many spin-offs, mostly terrible, aside from Laverne and Shirley), as well as Wait Til Your Father Gets Home (1972-1974), the first prime time animated series to last more than one season since The Flintstones and before The Simpsons.
So in thinking about spin-offs, and the complexities involved in sticking to what constitutes a true spin-off (a re-boot of a series such as with Battlestar Galactica is not a spin-off) here, in no particular order, are a few of my faves.
Unpredictable are some, while others, perhaps not so much.
I will only be listing television shows that are with live actors, so no animated shows this time around, but I promise that Mystery Box column will come in the near future, and with something to look forward in this column, you would be amazed if you knew just how many spin-offs a few animated series like The Flintstones or The Archie Show spawned!
Lastly, I’m also not going to mention anything from the Star Trek world on this list, as it would take up several columns to discuss these shows. To put it simply, I worship the original classic series, loved Enterprise, really liked Next Generation and found the other two spin-offs to be a chore.
Fish (2 seasons ABC 1977-1978)
After he goes home from his job as a detective at NYC’s 12th precinct, this spin-off from the hit series Barney Miller has our lovable hero Phil Fish enjoying home-life along with his wife Bernice and their five racially diverse, and troubled foster kids (in a prescient role, one is portrayed by a pre Diff’rent Strokes Todd Bridges). Laughter, tension, tears and joy abound in what is actually not the greatest comedy I’ve ever come across, but hey, anything that has Abe Vigoda in a starring role automatically gets a free pass into The Mystery Box Hall of Fame.
The Facts of Life (9 seasons NBC 1979-1988)
A spin-off from Diff’rent Strokes (Todd Bridges shoehorns his way into this column again) that featured the Drummonds’ housekeeper Edna Garrett leaving to become the housemother of a dormitory at a private all-girls academy named Eastland School.
Why do I like this show so much? First off, I was not a big fan of Different Strokes, but giving a starring vehicle to the great Charlotte Rae, an actress I’ve been a fan of since her days yucking it up on TV shows with everyone from Phil Silvers, to Car 54 Where Are You? and Sesame Street, was the big draw at first.
Then something strange took hold. There was often so little I could relate to on this all-girl boarding school show, it soon became a balm of comfortable solace as I was caught up in the travails of this mighty comedic three: the snooty Blair, little Tootie the gossip, and of course, the omnipotent Natalie, as so expertly portrayed by Mindy Cohn.
Their problems became my problems, at least for a half hour.
Now, after years of many a late night sucked into a syndicated episode, I marvel at the original first season’s mess of a cast which included the delightfully small Molly Ringwald, and shake my head at later seasons that included roles featuring the likes of George Clooney, Jamie Gertz and Cloris Leachman.
This show had tons of “backdoor pilots” that were intended to set up possible future spin-offs, but thankfully none happened.
Family Feud (first run – ABC 9 seasons 1976-1985)
A rare game-show spin-off from the superb and still funny Match Game. As a regular celeb on Match Game, Richard Dawson’s charmingly British charisma and quick witticisms were enough to give him his own starring show. A gamble that paid off giving us one of the all time great game shows. It might not be as notoriously legendary as Hollywood Squares, Match Game or The Gong Show, but with Dawson at the helm, it comes pretty close.
Green Acres (6 seasons CBS 1965-1971)
Taking place in the same rural land as that of the show it was spun off off, Petticoat Junction, this was also the brainchild of producer Paul Henning, who had struck gold with that show and his blockbuster The Beverly Hillbillies. Henning used the plot of an earlier radio show he’d had with the premise of a well-heeled couple leaving the big city and restarting life in the backwoods.
The plot might not have worked so well had it not been for such an outstanding cast including the main stars, Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor as the determined Oliver Wendell Douglas and his wife, Lisa. The revolving group of outstanding character actors revving up the insanity of the backwoods environment, most notably Pat Buttram as a disreputable traveling salesman, and Arnold Ziffel son to The Ziffels, a nearby elderly childless couple, are what really put the show over the top. Arnold, portrayed by an actual pig, was often a better actor than many human actors have been on television.
The show lasted a healthy six seasons and could have kept going but CBS and to a lesser degree the other networks, went through their great “Rural Purge” and canceled any show that they deemed no longer accessible to urban and younger viewers. Or as Pat Buttram put it, “It was the year CBS canceled anything with a tree—including Lassie.”
This paved the way for some great shows that would change television, such as All In the Family, yet also cut off some successful and worthy shows such as Wild Kingdom, The Johnny Cash Show, Hee Haw and The Andy Williams Show. Many of the shows canceled ended up having popular new lives in syndication which remains to this day and many have been rediscovered for the incredible musical guests and performances they featured at the time.
Out from under the giant umbrella that was All In The Family come the final three…
All In The Family used storylines with characters and subjects that had never fully been dealt with before on television. By using the grey areas of life and dealing with subjects such as prejudice, the independence of women, religion, the Vietnam war, sexual preferences, sexual inadequacies, divisional politics and the generation gap, it broke all barriers and became a huge hit show. The day to day life of the WWII vet, conservative working class stiff, Archie Bunker, along with his family and friends in their Queens neighborhood, presented what television could do with a sit-com by pushing every boundary there was.
Breaking all sorts of ratings records, All In The Family as you would imagine, gave television some memorable spin-offs, three of which I have chosen.
The Jeffersons (11 seasons CBS 1975-1985)
I had to pick this show since George Jefferson, while he was Bunker’s next door neighbor on All In The Family, was a hilarious integral part of the show and even long before the Jeffersons had moved next door, Michael Evans as George’s son Lionel Jefferson, was fantastic. Lionel was introduced early on as friend to Archie and Edith Bunker’s Daughter Gloria and her husband Mike.
George received some money from a car accident settlement and used it to buy a dry cleaning business. What started as one store, turned into five and next thing you know George and his wife Louise, who had been a great friend to Edith Bunker, so there was that tearful goodbye, decided to move to a luxury apartment in Manhattan.
The Jeffersons, was really not all that great when compared to All In The Family or the following spin-offs I have picked below. It was a fairly safe sit-com, relying on the jokes surrounding cranky George and how he adjusted to his well-off neighbors, his sassy housekeeper and the families’ new life.
The show had a great theme song, at least for one season was pretty funny.
I really like Sherman Helmsley as George, and as I learned more about the actor, how he loved psychedelic music for instance, I loved him even more. Michael Evans left after season one, the new Lionel wasn’t so hot, and the show lost much of the spark. I always felt pretty bad for Louise, since she really missed living next door to Edith Bunker.
So I pick this more out of an obligation and how well these characters were on All In The Family. Damn, eleven seasons is a head-scratcher though.
Maude (6 seasons CBS 1972-1978)
On All In The Family, there was perhaps only one character that could ever put Archie Bunker in his place with a smart, calm, verbal smack-down, and that was Edith Bunker’s cousin Maude Findley.
So well received by audiences from her All In The Family appearances was Maude, that she was given her own show revolving around her family living in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York.
Much of the humor of the extremely liberal Democrat, Maude, was how sharp she was (wonderful acting from Bea Arthur) and her wit in dealing with everyone from her fourth husband Walter, to her Republican next door neighbor, to her seemingly promiscuous daughter Carol (played by Adrienne Barbeau, another reason I watched this show so much). There was just as much topical controversy as on All In the Family with many issues covered.
Earlier in the series, the Findleys’ housekeeper was Florida Evans, brilliantly portrayed by Esther Rolle. There were many uncomfortable, but hilarious, moments that revolved around Maude trying to overcompensate to show just how liberal she was towards black people, which of course drove Florida crazy.
Florida proved to be such a big draw for the show that when she learned that her husband James, had been given a big raise at his job, she was able to quit working as a housekeeper and just be a stay at home mom.
Thankfully, this led to one of the great spin-offs ever from All In The Family.
Good Times (6 seasons CBS 1974 – 1979)
Here you had a family of a mom, dad, two brothers and a sister, that were the complete opposite of the Jeffersons. Oh they also lived in a high rise, but they were a poor family just struggling just to get by in rented tenement high rise located in the inner city of Chicago.
Every character was really wonderful, and the subject matter brought the inner city into every home.
From the start, the most popular and soon to be most famous would be the oldest son James Jr., known as J.J..
Portrayed by the charismatic Jimmie Walker, J.J. was seen as a comical goldmine, with a catch phrase that every kid in schoolyards everywhere would soon learn, “Dy-no-mite!.”
There was hope kept alive for the family because J.J. was not only sharply witty, he was an aspiring painter who was shown as having incredible talent that could lead him out of poverty.
After three seasons, the actor that played the dad James, John Amos, wanted off the show, so he was written out as being killed in a car crash. Aside from the first episode of season four where Florida learns of his death, the show takes a nosedive for me as a fan and though I faithfully stuck with Good Times til the end, other than J.J., it paled in comparison to the earlier seasons.
Storylines began to develop other characters for the last three seasons including more of an annoying building super, a young Janet Jackson as an abused child who is adopted by Florida’s best friend/neighbor Wilona, and the departure of Esther Rolle eventually (although she would return for the last season, but the damage was already done).
A really incredible show, at least for the first three seasons, and overall the finest of the All In The Family spin-offs.
So faithful readers of The Mystery Box, which spin-offs have I left out that are your faves?