There’s no denying it at this point. We love seeing connected universes and watching worlds branch out like intricate spider webs.
We’re now at the point where the announcement of the next spinoff project isn’t always the signal of a cash-hungry move like it once was. Now there’s almost the expectation that the spinoff will deliver just as much as its predecessor. With the return of Better Call Saul and Fear the Walking Dead, we decided to look through some of the most impressive spinoffs that have graced our television screens through the years.
It’s worth mentioning that while certain programs like The Simpsons could technically be considered spinoffs, we chose to focus on examples where characters from one show are migrating to another, rather than just a recurring segment being turned into a full-length series. Or shows where simply a concept was being spun off, like in the cases of American Crime Story or Perversions of Science.
What Did It Spin Off From? Cheers
How Long Was It On For? 11 Seasons
One of the prime examples of how to successfully pull off a spinoff, Frasier saw the pompous sophisticate from Cheers relocate from a comfortable Boston speakeasy to a psychiatry couch in Seattle. The secret to David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee’s now-classic piece of television is how they spun off a character that arguably nobody was asking to star in a show in the first place. Sure, Frasier Crane was a popular character on Cheers, but on a show with such a large cast, he was certainly in the lower tier. Imagine if Friends had launched a spinoff starring Gunther or Tom Selleck’s Richard, for example.
Frasier never felt beholden to what had been set up in Cheers. Not that it was looking to dismantle what Cheers had established either (and there would be cameos a-plenty throughout the series’ run), but certain details like Frasier being an only child, and his father being a deceased scientist, are playfully retconned because Frasier found better angles for those character beats. In fact, one of the smartest things that Frasier ever did was putting Frasier with someone that was even more like himself, in the form of his equally reticulated brother, Niles.
After stepping out from under the shadow of Cheers, Frasier would tap into a verbose energy with farcical situations that truly felt like you were watching pieces of theater on television. Few series would so thoroughly understand their engine and what makes their show work. That was the reason it ran for over a decade—with Kelsey Grammer playing Frasier Crane for over 20 years—and still feel as fresh as when it began.
What Did It Spin Off From? Buffy the Vampire Slayer
How Long Was It On For? Five Seasons
It’s remarkable to think the man who was plugging away on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel would eventually be handed the keys to the largest movie franchise in the world, but Joss Whedon’s ambition is clear even from his early television work.
While his precedent-setting Buffy propped up much of its premise with the metaphor that high school literally was hell, Angel traded Buffy’s sunny locales for a grittier, brooding noir setup.
Starting up a private eye firm in Los Angeles, with Buffy’s egotistical Cordelia Chase in tow, Angel slowly morphed an episodic tone poem about “helping the hopeless” into a heavily layered story that arguably hit higher heights than Buffy did during its peak. Look no further than the inspired, dramatic arc that the series takes the beleaguered Wesley Wyndam-Pryce on to see what it was capable of.
I also firmly believe that it was Angel that helped teach me what serialized storytelling was capable of doing. Seasons three and four are truly some intricate, hard-boiled plotting, and this was in the pre-binge watching era. I’m pretty sure all of the fourth season happens over the span of less than a week, at that. Whedon’s constantly innovative characterization and storytelling might have been ahead of their time during Angel’s tenure, but to see plenty of creatives from the show now helping run productions like Daredevil, American Horror Story, and UnREAL, is a testament to the environment that the show created.
What Did It Spin Off From? Beavis and Butt-Head
How Long Was It On For? Five Seasons
Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head might not exactly be a show that screams “spinoff,” let alone one starring an intelligent, opinionated female, and yet Daria is such perfect spinoff lightning in a bottle. While still set in an oppressive high school environment, Daria almost feels more tailor-made for MTV than Beavis and Butt-Head (except for the music videos, of course).
It also presents nearly the opposite perspective of Beavis and Butt-Head. Rather than languishing in sloth, this show is all about bucking the norm and saying something. Making average obstacles like family, school, and dating the obstacles of Daria Morgendorffer was a no brainer, while her counter culture group of Gen X-ers continued to scoff and roll their eyes at the system that was oppressing them.
Daria would manage to become a real cultural touchstone for the network’s demographic—and not just among females, either. With the strong community that the character continues to see, and with the continued relevance that Beavis and Butt-Head has seen, it’s surprising that we haven’t gotten a return to Daria Morgendorffer and her sick, sad world yet.
What Did It Spin Off From? Arrow
How Long Was It On For? Two Seasons and Counting
The Flash is more than just a spinoff, it’s a good example of a superhero TV show adapting the “extended universe” concept that’s so popular in the movies right now. Grant Gustin’s chipper iteration of iconic superhero, The Flash, was originally introduced in Arrow’s second season episodes, “The Scientist” and “Three Ghosts,” where he made his debut as police scientist Barry Allen.
Acting as a backdoor pilot, the character was given his own series the following season. Crossovers have become commonplace, with some big two-part “events” between the series now a yearly tradition. Popular side characters from both of these series have even been spun off into yet another series, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.
If it wasn’t for the strong example that The Flash set (it’s currently The CW’s highest rated show) with story arcs, characterization, and respect for its source material, surely the CW wouldn’t be acting so headstrong when it comes to these spin-offs. That being said, until the whole model falls apart for them, they’re no doubt going to keep churning them out.
The Colbert Report
What Did It Spin Off From? The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
How Long Was It On For? 10 Seasons
It’s easy to forget that The Colbert Report originally began as a bumper gag to help fill time on The Daily Show. With Colbert’s hard-headed correspondent persona and his search for “truthiness” rapidly gaining popularity, what started as a joke became a more essential part of the show. Stewart carried his show as himself, while Colbert was a blown up character much in the vein of Bill O’Reilly, which allowed The Colbert Report to tap into a slightly different ideology than the series that spawned it.
While it might have seemed like a joke in its infancy, The Colbert Report quickly grew into a juggernaut of journalism, with Stewart himself even saying at times that Colbert’s show had surpassed what he had started. And fervor that Colbert was capable of conjuring in audiences was unheard of. With nearly all of the series on this list being narratives and concerned with continuing and exploring story and characters, it’s enlightening to think of a more unusal, variety-based spin-off like this. Especially now, with The Colbert Report a thing of the past, and Colbert’s taking over of The Late Show from David Letterman, this sort of departure feels even more surreal.
NTSF:SD:SUV:: and NewsReaders
What Did They Spin Off From? Childrens Hospital
How Long Were They On For? Three and Two Seasons, Respectively
Childrens Hospital operates under such tenuous rules of reality that it shouldn’t come as a shock that several tangents that they’ve explored ended up spooling into full-fledged television programs in their own right. When Childrens Hospital was originally transitioning from a web series over to an Adult Swim production, it consisted of two five-minute web episodes paired together. This still left episodes running a little short, which led to various ads for fake television programs being made to fill in the gaps. One of such, the CSI and police procedural spoofing, NTSF:SD:SUV:: made the most sense to get the promotion.
Created by Paul Scheer and Jonathan Stern, NTSF:SD:SUV:: pretty much exhausted everything that it had to say on the crime and action genres, producing countless efficient parodies over the course of three seasons. The series is just as ridiculous and features just as eclectic of a star-filled cast as its predecessor, making the series a no-brainer for action junkies and alt-comedy fans alike.
Through Childrens Hospital’s many seasons, one of their most reliable gags has been exploring the behind the scenes antics of the production, usually through the guise of the fictional news exposé program, NewsReaders. With Childrens Hospital producing at least one NewsReaders episode a season, it felt like a natural move to extend this into a broader skewering of journalism. The series might have seen a rotating host over its seasons, but its humor has remained sharp, delivering unique stories that feel only possible in this sort of context, with personalities like Kumail Nanjiani and Ray Wise helping bring it to life.
What Did It Spin Off From? Perfect Strangers
How Long Was It On For? Nine Seasons
With the strange evolution of Family Matters, and its slow but inevitable progression into becoming “The Steve Urkel Show,” it’s hard to believe that Family Matters began its life as a spinoff, let alone that Harriette Winslow was the connective tissue between its parent series. Harriette began as the elevator operator in Perfect Strangers‘ newspaper office during the show’s third and fourth seasons. Due to a popular response to the character, Harriette was spun off, with the hopes of tapping into a Jeffersons sort of program, with the series’ focus being the middle-class life of an African-American family in Chicago.
Perfect Strangers might have been more interested in workplace comedy, but Family Matters put Harriette’s husband, Carl Winslow, in the spotlight, along with what it takes to run a family in such a context. The repositioning of Harriette couldn’t have worked better, with Family Matters outliving its predecessor, and even spanning two networks…even if Harriette might have been a bit of an afterthought by the end of the series.
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
What Did It Spin Off From? Law and Order
How Long Was It On For? 17 Seasons and Counting
This pretty much is Law and Order at this point. When people mention Law and Order, this is what they’re talking about. And while Dick Wolf’s mega-franchise at one point had a number of spinoffs suckling at its teats, SVU is now the sole Law and Order program on the air. It’s also the current longest running American prime-time program that isn’t animated, which is truly a testament to how addicted people have gotten to this material. It’s no coincidence that a number of networks have wisely blocked off hours of their schedule for syndicated Special Victims Unit marathons, knowing that they’re an easy draw.
The first spinoff of Wolf’s Law and Order, the specified slant here is sex crimes, which is slowly becoming all crimes as time goes on. The series has accordingly taken on a pulpy, seansationalistic tone, that’s easy to see how people can still be hungry for more of it after nearly 400 episodes.
Mork & Mindy
What Did It Spin Off From? Happy Days
How Long Was It On For? Four Seasons
This is just one of my favorite spinoffs because of how little sense it makes. In a fifth season episode of Happy Days, Richie Cunningham witnesses a UFO, and then later, an alien in the form of (then unknown) Robin Williams’ Mork. That’d be like if one of the children on Everybody Loves Raymond had an imaginary friend for one episode that was played by Zack Galifianakis, who then was given his own TV show.
It’s a highly atypical episode (and one that even hinges on the crucial plot point of the Fonz’s all-powerful thumbs) that writer Jerry Paris got his feet wet with by penning a very similar sort of story on The Dick Van Dyke Show. This experiment was again attempted on Happy Days, with the popularity of Williams’ Mork earning him his own series. They even filmed an additional scene for his Happy Days appearance that changes the “it was all a dream” ending into a canonical intro to his spinoff.
This was during a time where fantasy and comedy mash-ups were a popular fad. Series like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie dominated and it’s just crazy to think of such fantastical material coming from such a slice of life ‘50s pastiche. Mork would remain a strong presence in the Happy Days-verse, not only returning to the series a handful of times, but with other Garry Marshall characters frequently stopping by his show, too.
Better Call Saul
What Did It Spin Off From? Breaking Bad
How Long Was It On For? Two Seasons and Counting
Essentially the modern template that showed AMC that spinoffs not only weren’t a bad idea, but could actually be a brilliant one under the right circumstances. Breaking Bad hit such a peak for television and ended on one of the highest notes possible, that many thought that continuing this story in any form—even if it was a prequel—was not only suicide, but could risk tainting the legendary source material. Now in the middle of its second season, Better Call Saul has shown audiences that a spinoff doesn’t have to come with such a stigma, and can even enrich the original story.
Breaking Bad might have blown people’s minds with efficient plotting and its knack for constantly finding ways to get itself out of corners, but Better Call Saul wisely has other priorties. Better Call Saul is an undeniably slower show that is mostly concerned with characterization as opposed to story. The big moments are watching someone plummet internally, and knowing where some of these people end up makes that journey all the more exciting.
The series has done an impeccable job of respecting what came before it, and proves that Bob Odenkirk is one hell of a dramatic actor. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of its run we’ll be looking at a series that’s created just as strong a legacy as Breaking Bad, which is praise of the highest order.
Laverne & Shirley
What Did It Spin Off From? Happy Days
How Long Was It On For? Eight Seasons
If this list is any indication, Garry Marshall knows how to program hit spinoffs. As Happy Days would continue to run, it was continually a launching pad for several new hit sitcoms (which would then in turn inspire their own hit spin-offs…). Marshall quickly got this down to a science, and while some of these spinoffs would cater to the outlandish, some were simply showcases for popular characters to get a chance to grow. In this case, Penny Marshall’s Laverne and Cindy Williams’ Shirley were introduced as friends of the Fonz on Happy Days.
Laverne & Shirley hardly reinvented the wheel, but its strong female characters, their infectious friendship, and its Milwaukee setting all made the show a catch. With addictive side characters like Lenny and Squiggy, off kilter plots that saw things like Laverne and Shirley heading to the army, and a focus on the Broadway musical, Hair, Laverne & Shirley managed to chisel out a niche for itself. Its success would even lead to the animated spin-off Laverne & Shirley in the Army, which was later renamed The Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour when Marshall’s spin-off empire had truly hit its breaking point.
Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain
What Did It Spin Off From? Pinky and the Brain and Tiny Toon Adventures
How Long Was It On For? One Season
Sometimes with spinoffs you see a real “mix and match” approach where it truly feels like a bunch of character names were put in a hat, mixed around, and then pulled out at random to cobble together a “new” television show. It doesn’t come as much of a shock when these enterprises fall on their faces, but it’s even more unusual when these anomalies have some sort of staying power and latch on to an audience.
The success of Pinky and the Brain is undeniable. The popular Animaniacs segment created such demand that it was eventually given a full half-hour to play around with its concept. Then, after people were still hungry for more (and perhaps a combination of the series beginning to feel like it was flailing), the wild card of Tiny Toon Adventures’ Elmyra was inserted into the mix, complicating Pinky and the Brain’s dynamic in exciting new ways. Granted, this isn’t exactly a “good” spinoff, but more a fascinating example of what can happen with too much meddling.
This transition for Pinky and the Brain was basically forced upon the show by the network (in an attempt to make the show have more of a Simpsons-esque sitcom quality), a decision that not only made the original creator leave, but one where the dissatisfaction for it is clear by the series’ own theme song poking fun at the situation. As you might expect, the series shows Pinky and the Brain continuining to achieve world domination, with Elmyra’s actions a constant wrench in their plans. Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain is more an example of what can go wrong when something has too much power, but it still contains value through it ambitious balancing act.
The Facts of Life
What Did It Spin Off From? Diff’rent Strokes
How Long Was It On For? Nine Seasons
Growing into one of the longest running sitcoms from the ‘80s, The Facts of Life took Diff’rent Strokes’ Edna Garrett, showing her journey from the Drummonds’ housekeeper to the housemother (and dietitian) at an all-female boarding school in New York City. By moving Edna into a much larger atmosphere, she was able to pass her sage wisdom onto a number of girls from the school who looked up to her as a mentor.
Containing a uniquely feminine, kind-hearted perspective, The Facts of Life put topics like sexuality, drug use, and eating disorders under its microscope. The series would transform in several ways as it struggles to find ways to keep Edna and her girls under the same roof. It would eventually rise above Diff’rent Strokes in the ratings, so clearly the changes worked.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
What Did It Spin Off From? Star Trek
How Long Was It On For? Seven Seasons
Set approximately 70 years after the the original series, Star Trek: The Next Generation… we don’t really have to introduce this one, do we? Look, there are a number of Star Trek spinoffs to look at (both of the live-action and animated variety), with more on the way. Depending on what your priorities are, you’re likely going to gravitate towards a different iteration of Trek, but The Next Generation handles so many of its core themes effortlessly, and managed to finally get Star Trek a lot of the mainstream recognition that the title deserved, garnering it the first ever Trek Emmy nomination (for Best Drama).
The journeys of Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard delight in what made the original series so awe-inducing to begin with, while occasionally injecting serialized stories.
What Did It Spin Off From? All in the Family
How Long Was It On For? 11 Seasons
To start this list looking at Frasier and end up examining The Jeffersons is pretty appropriate. The’re like two sides of the same coin, spinning off from monumental hit shows, and using reliable characters and concepts to tap into unexpected ground. George and Louise Jefferson were the African-American neighbors to the bigoted Archie Bunker from All in the Family. It might have been a controversial move taking away such important foils to the Bunkers, but with Norman Lear already having one successful spinoff under the show’s belt, The Jeffersons seemed like more of a solid plan.
Admittedly, The Jeffersons had less of the sharply political viewpoint that Lear’s sitcoms were famous for (which isn’t to say that it avoided important issues entirely), instead offering a more affable, character-based engine to fuel the show’s humor and situations. It was a strategy that worked, and with plenty of poignant commentary being made on other Lear shows, The Jeffersons was often allowed to just have fun.
It’s one thing to follow All in the Family and still remain relevant, but The Jeffersons would manage to become one of the longest running American sitcoms, period (and even birthing its own spin-off in the process), emphasizing how a new playground and context can make all the difference. It would eventually become one of the standards for the model.
We’re far from finished with this fascination with spinoffs. Dick Wolf is already busy fleshing out his “Chicago-verse” that he started with Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D., while Criminal Minds continutes to extend their brand, too. ABC’s Agents of SHIELD is also in the midst of expanding their superhero slate on the network even further. And I’d be deeply surprised if we didn’t see the Arrow/Flash/Legends of Tomorrow-verse turn out another series in the next few years. Thankfully with recent examples like Better Call Saul and The Flash keeping the standard high, hopefully Fear the Walking Dead’s second season and whatever’s next will follow suit.
This article originally ran in 2016. It’s been repromoted ahead of the return of Better Call Saul and Fear The Walking Dead.