Q: Does the greenlighting of “Better Call Saul” herald the resurrection of the TV spinoff?
A: “Breaking-Bad”-related anything — an apron, a box set, a spinoff — is a good thing. Who doesn’t crave more, more, more blackly comic shenanigans in the Albuquerque flats? More Huell! More shady clientele! More lines like, “The monkey’s in the banana patch, capisce?”
And “Better Call Saul” is rumored to be a prequel, meaning that Gus Fring is still alive and cooking up meth delicious, delicious chicken, and...
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Especially because every spinoff comes with a risk of spectacular failure.
With “Better Call Saul," we could be looking at another “Frasier” or “Knots Landing” or “The Colbert Report," all of which are, or were, successful spinoffs. Or we could be doomed to another “Lone Gunmen”-type death spiral. “Breaking Bad” visionary Vince Gilligan co-created that show back in 2001, as a spinoff of “The X-Files.” It lasted one season, which is about one season longer than it should’ve.
Ditto with “Enos,” which was a spinoff of “The Dukes of Hazzard”; “Highlander: The Raven,” an offshoot of the hit TV series about tortured, immortal Scottish people; the “Cheers”-borne “The Tortellis”; and “Mona,” based on Tony Danza and Alyssa Milano’s old sitcom launchpad, “Who’s the Boss?”
All survived one season, or less.
[Related: AMC Is Prepping a 'Walking Dead' Spinoff]
These days, we may not see quite so many obvious spinoffs as we did back in the era when “Happy Days” spawned “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy,” all of which descended from “Love, American Style." You can blame a more Balkanized audience for that development; more cable channels and streamed content means a more fractured audience, which means less guarantee that enough people are committed to any particular show strongly enough to embrace a spinoff.
“Now you’re looking at showrunners having to put all their creativity into the show they already have, just to keep their limited audiences,” Ron Simon, curator of TV and radio at the Paley Center, tells me. “They may be stretched too thin to create spinoffs.”
But if you think that hit-borne TV series are totally dead these days, you’re not thinking broadly enough. “JAG” spawned the ridiculously popular “NCIS” and “NCIS: Los Angeles,” in which Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J go undercover to bust bad guys ranging from nuclear arms dealers to poisoners. (Don’t pretend like you don’t watch it. Either way, I guarantee your dad is Tivoing it right now.)
And the examples don’t stop there.
“I don’t think we’re seeing the live sitcom spinoffs that we used to see,” Simon tells me. “But they’ve always been a part of the TV landscape. ‘The Simpsons’ is a spinoff of ‘The Tracey Ullman Show.’ ‘The Cleveland Show’ came out of ‘Family Guy.’”
("The Cleveland Show" has been canceled, but will debut in syndication on local TV stations next week.)
[Related: Could a 'Dexter' Spinoff Be in the Works?]
And yet the current hit TV landscape seems to be producing little to no spinoffs — no children of “Modern Family” or “The Big Bang Theory,” for example. But that may have to do more with the makeup of those shows than anything else.
“Every character in those shows seems to be pretty integral to the show’s success,” says TV historian Wesley Hyatt, author of "Emmy Award Winning Nighttime Television Shows" and "Short-Lived Television Series." “Spinning off any one of those characters could wreck the chemistry of the current show.”
Maybe spinoffs seem dead right now because so many spring from a more disposable source: reality TV. Let’s not forget “The Surreal Life” begat “Strange Love,” which begat, directly or indirectly, unholy spawn such as “I Love New York,” “New York Goes to Work,” “New York Goes to Hollywood,” “Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School,” “My Fair Brady,” “Real Chance of Love,” and “I Love Money.”
Or maybe we should forget. I’ll leave that up to you.
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