The Spin-Off Series that (Actually) Found Success

Jacob Harper  |

One of the biggest media stories this fall is the end of the legendary dramatic series Breaking Bad. But legends never die, or at least in the world of television. They merely get spun off.

A scant two weeks before the end of Breaking Bad AMC announced the continuation of the series, sort of, with the prequel Better Call Saul, centered on Breaking Bad’s consigliore and resident competent scumbag lawyer Saul Goodman. While the spin-off, as a concept, has a spotty track record (friends spin-off Joey, anyone?) the spin-off isn’t necessarily doomed to failure or disappointing sequel like diminishing returns, and in some cases can grow even more prosperous than its parent show.

Better Call Saul is going to have a hard time getting out of the shadow of its enormously successful forebearer, but as history shows, it’s not an entirely ludicrous proposition.

The gold standard for what a spin-off can be, as few people seem to know this show was a spin-off at all. It was, as the story of Richie Cunningham, Fonzie and the rest of their clean-cut 50s gang was descended from the show Love, American Style. 

The multi-cam (meaning, filmed in front of a live studio audience) ran for an astounding 254 episodes, and thrity years after its conclusion still continues to worm its way into both the public consciousness and public vernacular. The phrase “jump the shark,” which means when a series has ceased to be any good, is a direct reference to a late-period episode of Happy Days where the water-skiing Fonz literally jumped over a shark.

Of all the insanely likable characters to come out of the Cheers franchise – affable playboy Sam Malone, cheery functional alcoholic Norm, barroom know-it-all Cliff Clavin –  prickly psychiatrist Frasier Crane seemed one of the least likely to get his own show. However, when Cheers ended its fantastically profitable run and it came time to take another crack at a spin-off (Carla spin-off The Tortellis had already tanked), Kelsey Grammer’s defining character Frasier was the one to take center stage.

Defying nearly every sitcom stereotype for its leads, Frasier was haughty, disdainful, and exceedingly uptight. While he was tempered by his down-to-earth father, tThe show further defied general odd-couple expectations by sticking Frasier with someone even more haughty and uptight, his impossibly foppish brother Niles.

But despite the unusual premise of the story of  two snooty brothers getting flustered in Seattle, the show was a massive hit. The multicam ran for an astounding 11 seasons and 264 episodes, just six episodes shy of Cheers.

Melrose Place took the teenage soapy melodrama of its parent show Beverly Hills 90210 and turned it up to 11. Unencumbered by the restraints of high school, the denizens of Melrose Place were free to spend all their time making everything all dramatic in their hip corner of West Hollywood. They fought, schemed, and of course hooked up with trashy abandon, and the show only got tawdrier and soapier as its run progressed. Viewers ate it up, and the show anchored Fox’ Monday night for the entire late 90s and launched Heather Locklear into superstardom.

The Fox hit ran for seven seasons and 226 episodes, and helped launch Fox into legitimacy, if not in taste then definitely in ratings.

Stephen Colbert’s send up of blowhard narcissist new show hosts has been a hit since its inception. On its very first episode Colbert coined the word truthiness (denoting something that just feels right) and has remained a steady ratings hit and critical darling throughout its run.

 The show made an especially bold statement this year when it ended The Daily Show’s ten year Emmy winning run for Best Variety Show. The Colbert Report has always had its own voice and audience, but has at times been overshadowed by the mammoth popularity of its Jon Stewart-hosted lead-in. The Emmy win though, legitimized The Colbert Report as a successor that, however successful, didn’t just play second fiddle.




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