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Monday, March 30, 2009

Spun into gold ... or mold?

The history of spinoffs is littered with the carcasses of the actors involved in them, not to mention the ruined memories of the good shows they were often based on. Of course, there are the lucky few that seem to break the spinoff barrier, setting new standards of their own -- shows you often forget are spinoffs in the first place.

The spinoff for CW's "Gossip Girl" doesn't have a name, yet -- let's hope "Lily of the Valley" is not an option -- but the May 11 episode will feature flashbacks to a younger Lily van der Woodsen, setting up the spinoff for the fall. Casting Brittany Snow ("American Dreams") as Lily and 80s hearthrob Andrew McCarthy ("Pretty in Pink," "St. Elmo's Fire") as her father, the spinoff seems to be at least reaching for recognition as something more than "The O.C. Loves the 80s." Let's hope so anyway.

With this soon to be spinoff on our minds (OK, truly only two of us care, but we like to pretend there's consensus), Channel Surfers Malavika Jagannathan, Thomas Rozwadowski, Kendra Meinert, Adam Reinhard and Sara Boyd take a look at a few of their favorite spinoff series -- and a few of those that should have never seen the light of day, much less our TV sets.


Spun from: "Beavis and Butthead"

Why It Ruled: All right, all right, I'll admit that I watched "Daria" because she kind of looked like me in high school. But it's pretty hard to believe this sarcastic, pop-culture-filled epic about suburban life and high school came out of "Beavis and Butthead." Narrated in Angela Chase-style by our beloved Daria, the show had all the makings of a good teen drama -- an unpopular heroine, lame parents, a bff (Jane) and all the uncomfortableness of adolescence. There's just something about Daria -- despite all her jaded musings on life -- that made you care about her, and, seriously, when has an animated character EVER had that effect? "Daria" figured out how to navigate the spinoff waters by being the anti-"Beavis" and the plan worked.

"Private Practice"

Spun from: "Grey's Anatomy"

Why It Should Die: Now, I was one of those hardcore "Grey's Anatomy" fans not that long ago, you know the type that has serious discussions on the merits of McDreamy versus McSteamy. Then, I saw the light -- thanks partially to "Private Practice." Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) was actually one of my favorite characters on "Grey's." How often do you find the scorned wife character sympathetic or admirable? Hardly ever, so the thought of Walsh helming her own spinoff seemed to hold promise. But when Addison moved to L.A. to set up her "Private Practice," she apparently lost a few dozen brain cells on the Pacific Coast Highway. Walsh turned on the ditz and downplayed Addison's steely charm. Her vapid crew on "Private Practice" (no matter how hot Taye Diggs is, his hotness alone couldn't save the show) wasn't any better. It's been a while since I've caught an episode of "Grey's" -- but I have heard something about an inappropriate relationship with a ghost -- so I'm not sure if "Private Practice" is still worse than the original. Either way, it should be off the air. Stat.

-- Malavika Jagannathan,

"The Hills"

Spun from: "Laguna Beach"

Why it ruled: On "Laguna Beach" Lauren Conrad was the girl you wanted to be friends with, Stephen Colletti was the guy you wanted to date and Kristin Cavallari was the girl you wanted to punch in the face. It had everything. It was on MTV, so clearly, it was, like, so cool and like, the guys, were like, totally cute. … OK, I'm done. Too many commas. Anyway, "Laguna" was the definition of guilty pleasure. That is, until "The Hills" came alive with the sounds of drama. When MTV realized the beauty of “Laguna Beach” was in the totally-real-yet-artificial characters of its premiere season (two subsequent seasons of the show didn’t hit the same ratings), it was time to cue the spin-off. It only makes sense that the lovable “LC” was asked to be the star of “The Hills,” but even with that in mind, I don’t think the producers could’ve seen success like this coming. The term success should be taken lightly, after all, “Laguna Beach” really only lasted a season before slowly dying. “The Hills,” however, is about to begin its fifth and final season – not a final one due to lack of interest, but a final due to Lauren’s decision to leave the show. (No worries though, reports say Miss Audrina may have her own reality series in the works soon.) Between the Heidi-Lauren drama, the Heidi-Spencer drama and the Lauren-Audrina drama, “The Hills” became reality gold, er, as-close-as-MTV-can-get-to-reality gold.


Spun from: "Friends"

Why it sucked: When “Friends” ended, and I thought my life was over, ahem … I had high hopes for “Joey.” OK, no, I didn’t have high hopes, but I so badly wanted the show to not suck. But it did. It sucked hard. Really hard. It still makes me cringe even typing the show’s name. The problem with “Joey” (ughhh … ) is that no one really cared about what Joey did while on “Friends,” so why would they care after none of the other friends stuck around? He was the perfect side character. Even when he was in the main plot of “Friends,” he was still only good for his occasional catchphrases and jokes about liking food and women. Joey Tribbiani only thrived when he could play off Chandler Bing – the two were like a new breed of Ralph and Ed in the “Honeymooners.” They worked well as a team, but take them apart and it’s just an unfunny guy setting up jokes that never make it to a punch line. The plot itself was pretty poor, even before the first episode premiered — Joey moves to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career. Only, we never cared about Joey’s acting career on “Friends” unless there was a need to plug a guest star in somewhere. Even with the help of “Road Trip” stoner Paulo Costanzo (who basically played the exact same character), the show never had a prayer and folded shortly after it’s premiere. It’s now known as the prime “exhibit A” in failed spinoffs.

-- Sara Boyd,

"Saved by the Bell: The College Years"

Spun from: "Saved by the Bell"

Why it sucked: Teen sitcoms are a snapshot in time the same way no adult female with an ounce of integrity should want to see a grown up Donnie Wahlberg still singing "Hangin' Tough" in 2009. (Er ... hold that thought.) Nostalgia, as warm and fuzzy as it makes us feel, needs to stay within reason as it "matures," and "SBTB: The College Years" expected a Saturday morning teen audience to grow old with the continued misadventures of Bayside brethren Zack, Slater and Screech at good ol' Cal U. Except the inherent cheesiness of the original "SBTB" is what made the show: Jessie becoming addicted to caffeine pills, Johnny Dakota smoking a fat, chronic blunt, anything and everything revolving a doofus Screech actually being friends with the "cool kids." But no one wants to see Screech making balloon animals in a dorm room or Slater pretending that a newfound respect for his Chicano heritage suddenly makes him the next Cesar Chavez. Even the Zack-Kelly adult drama was too flimsy a teenage love story to ever care about in a serious primetime kind of way. The audience got older and smarter, which is the way it should be, and why 26-year-olds should no longer be listening to Backstreet Boys "Millennium" like they did in high school. Change the setting, change the spirit of the show. More important, change Mr. Belding to Bob Golic, really change the show.

"Family Matters"

Spun from: "Perfect Strangers"

Why it ruled: I'm not going to pretend to remember that Harriet Winslow was an elevator operator on "Perfect Strangers." I leave that Balki-rich territory to a true "Strangers" fan like Adam. I'm also not going to pretend that Harriet had anything to do with the success of "Family Matters," or ultimately, any of the reasons it's been granted "why it ruled" status by yours truly. Rather, Steven Q. Urkel references, Stefan Urquelle references, Urkel Bot references, or a well-timed "No sweat, my pet" still never gets old to anyone from the "TGIF" generation. That's go-to material in any setting, and you KNOW that if you're flipping past Nick at Nite and you see those damn suspenders and multicolored cardigans, you still sit transfixed sometimes. Now, that's not admitting that "Family Matters" was a good show. Because it wasn't. Dear God Almighty it wasn't. Yet even if the writing made "Full House" look like "The Wire," Steve turning into Bruce Lee, or drinking "cool juice" to woo Laura as Stefan, or my all-time favorite, Jaleel White playing Steve's N.W.A. loving, glock totin', hardcore wannabe cousin, Original Gangsta Dawg ... well, even as it makes me feel dirty, at least I can smile knowing you have to suffer with these memories, too.

"Mork & Mindy"

Spun from: "Happy Days"

Why it ruled: I only recall snippets from "Mork & Mindy," but I remember enough about Jonathan Winters' role as Mork's son in Season 4 and a particularly scary episode involving an evil, apartment bombing alien to know that it captured my fascination as a child. Really though, "Mork & Mindy" is special for two reasons. Like "Bosom Buddies" did for Tom Hanks, "Mork" launched Robin Williams' career. And despite what you might think about the same insufferable routines he's been known to repeat on the late night talk show circuit, his manic improv and silly voiced antics were fresh and funny as the "nanu, nanu" spouting Mork from Ork. Second, his classic face-off with The Fonz on a 1978 episode of "Happy Days" is one of those rare cameo appearances that TV viewers remember forever. When Richie (Ron Howard) dreams up an alien landing in Milwaukee, Mork challenges The Fonz for the right to claim good ol' Cunningham as a specimen. Classic TV ensues, and all these years later, the clip gives you an appreciation for watching one actor (Henry Winkler) nail an iconic TV role, and another (Williams) announcing to the world that he's about to be a future comedy standout.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,


Spun from: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

Why it ruled: Where "Buffy" is a TV benchmark for girl empowerment and fantasy geeks, it's spin-off "Angel" catered to a slightly different audience: film noir buffs. The time-tested noir essentials -- a grizzled, emotionally shut-off detective seeking redemption; a dirty city full of crime and ne're-do-wells; a wily, streetwise informant -- are here, even if they're represented by vampires, demons, and sunny Los Angeles. The more Dashiell Hammett-esque shadings were tamped down in later seasons as the cast and scope grew, but the theme of redemption played out through five seasons, giving "Angel" a unique focus and narrative drive that not even its predecessor had. Never a breakout hit, "Angel" can still be seen in syndication daily on TNT (albeit at monkey's ass A.M. in the morning), a sign of its enduring cult popularity.

"Sealab 2021"

Spun from "Sealab 2020"

Why it ruled: One of the most psychotic television shows ever conceived, "Sealab 2021" was less a spinoff of little-remembered Hanna-Barbera cartoon "Sealab 2020" than outright theft and dismemberment. By taking the short-lived '70s series' original animation and replacing the dialogue (and adding some new animation), the creators of this Cartoon Network gem not only turned it on its head, they crammed the head down a toilet and gave it a good flush. The show's characters -- the crew of an underwater research lab -- were now either dangerously inept or clincially insane (sometimes both.) There was no semblence of plot or character development, as characters were often killed off one episode only to come back next week unscathed. (Several episodes even ended with the complete destruction of Sealab itself, often with a giant explosion.)

-- Adam Reinhard,

“Knots Landing’’

Spun from: “Dallas"

Why it ruled: It was desperate housewives before “Desperate Housewives."

The houses weren’t dripping with fake wisteria, but the SoCal cul-de-sac that black sheep Ewing bro Gary and his wife Valene called home was every bit as perfect from the street and scandalous and dysfunctional behind closed doors. Yet, the neighborhood gang here – the Ewings, the Fairgates, the Averys and the Wards -- felt more relatable than those big-money Texas Ewings. Plus, they could make us cry.
If Nicollette Sheridan became the ultimate maneater on “Desperate" as Edie Britt, it’s because she got her start as Paige Matheson on “Knots", where no doubt she learned everything she knows from uber-cougar Donna Mills as Abby Fairgate. (Don’t think “Melrose Place’s" Amanda Woodward didn’t take a page from the Abby bitch book, either.)

On “Knots," when they said “cliffhanger," they meant it literally. Who could forget Season 2 when the brakes went out on Sid Fairgate’s car and he went careening toward the cliff? Nooooo!

The prime-time soap lasted for 15 years (and a pre-Thirsty Thursday ritual for my college roommates and I). It became the second-longest running drama on the tube behind “Gunsmoke" when it signed off in 1993. When a show hangs around that long (see “ER") it’s bound to have its good (Greg Sumner, twins Betsy and Bobby get kidnapped, Laura’s weepy farewell videotape) and bad (that whole Cathy Geary/Ciji Dunne/Chip Roberts mess) moments. But even when “Knots" was bad, boy, was it good.

Where it is now: It’ll receive the Anniversary Award (30 years) at the TV Land Awards airing on April 26. The second season comes out on DVD on April 14 – 12 more to go.

-- Kendra Meinert,

Did we leave any of your favorites off the list? Are there any shows you'd like to see have a spinoff? Drop us a line either via email or in the comments below.

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Remember when I started my Angel viewing last summer? I just finished last weekend. And the last season of Angel is quite possibly the best season of ANY show I've seen. Angel Season 4, on the other hand, was painful.

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