Better Call Saul recently ended, leaving behind a spectacular televisual legacy in its wake. The Bob Odenkirk-fronted crime drama was a staggeringly good piece of work in its own right, enthralling fans and earning a place as one of the decade’s best pieces of television. Perhaps more remarkably, BCS pulled off that rarest of tricks: a spin-off that matched up to the esteemed legacy of its predecessor. It may, and say this extremely quietly, have even outmatched the genius of the show that spawned it. It’s certainly a close-run thing, and that in itself is praise enough for Vince Gilligan and the brains over at AMC.
Spin-off shows, it seems, only come in two distinct flavours: those that are so earth-shatteringly awful that they threaten to tear asunder the carefully constructed legacy of the great trees off which they branched, or those that take those elements of a show that worked and transpose them to ever greater glory. A successful spin-off conveys what made the original special while also understanding that sometimes characters need their own space to truly become excellent.
Mismatched lab rats Pinky and The Brain first debuted as a recurring sketch on the original incarnation of Warner Bros’ brilliant animated showcase Animaniacs, later commanding their own spin-off on the Kids’ WB channel a few years later. In what has turned out to be a rather pleasing piece of circularity, the genetically altered rodents returned to their place as part of the Animaniacs team when the show was revived in 2020.
Like so much of the best of Warner Bros. animation and certainly in keeping with the tone and style of Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain was ostensibly marketed at children but harboured a cross-generational appeal thanks primarily due to its creation at the hands of some exceedingly talented, cine-literate creators. Offbeat and hugely self-aware, Pinky and the Brain was elevated by Maurice LaMarche’s peerless Orson Welles-esque inflections used for the voice of Brain, a talent he also demonstrated to great effect in Al Jean and Mike Reiss’ short-running satire The Critic.
However old you get or cynical and jaded you may become, there’s never a time when Pinky and the Brain isn’t a welcome tonic.
9. Man to Man with Dean Learner
Shows don’t get much cultier than the short-lived parodic chat show Man to Man with Dean Learner. Fronted by the always superb Richard Ayoade, Man to Man was hosted by the eponymous Dean, the publicist for fictitious horror author and master of the fantastique Garth Marenghi. Having starred in the also fictitious cult medical horror show Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace as Rick Dagless’ boss Thornton Reed, the publishing magnate moves to late-night television for a chat show coming live from his swanky apartment within the heart of London’s sparkling East End.
Man to Man is fantastic, a superb “character behind the character” showcase that sees Ayoade play Learner as a lascivious semi-tycoon never far from an oversized cigar, a glass of malt whisky or a sexual harassment lawsuit. Featuring a new fictitious guest each week, always played by Matthew Holness, Man to Man showcased the pair’s natural ability to send up the smoke-filled, faux-glitzy atmosphere of 80s late-night television.
If you loved Darkplace, seek out Man to Man with Dean Learner as the ultimate comedy aficionado’s relic.
8. The Punisher
It feels as though everything in the Marvel universe is a spin-off from everything else. Frank Castle’s eponymous vigilante and trench coat enthusiast initially debuted in the second season of Daredevil before getting picked up for his own standalone show, although we’re yet to see Frank break out and make an appearance elsewhere in the MCU.
Only lasting two seasons before its somewhat inexplicable cancellation, The Punisher stays true to its gritty and sometimes gruesome source material by being as ferociously merciless in its indulgence of violence and brutality as its titular antihero.
The show, like any superhero vehicle revolving around the examination of a single given hero, sinks or swims on the strength of its protagonist’s lead performance. Fortunately for Marvel, the casting of Jon Bernthal, a decision that initially met with some scepticism, turned out to be a masterstroke, The Walking Dead alumnus carrying the show on his broad, weather-beaten shoulders. There have been a few granite-jawed brooders to don the iconic white skull on their chest, but Bernthal has set the new standard for just what an on-screen Punisher should be.
The dichotomy that existed when comparing Daria to Beavis and Butthead pretty much encapsulated the collective school experience for a whole generation of viewers in the late 90s and early 2000s. Whereas Beavis and Butthead were conceived as a scathing satire on a brain-dead generation of TV-addicted, junk-food-obsessed dunderheads with almost no interests besides fart jokes and sexual innuendos, Daria was the logical antithesis to the pair’s empty-headed slackitude. Rest assured, there are still girls today who base their entire personalities around Mike Judge’s laconic intellectual adolescent.
As a result, the perceptive and intelligent, if a little self-righteous Daria Morgendorffer finds herself on the fringes of school and society, trying to understand the fads and phases of the American high school wilderness while always knowing that she is somewhat above them. Daria’s transfer to a standalone show threatened to tear her away from some exceedingly rich comic dynamics, but the show suffered nothing when the spotlight was shone more directly on the adventures and inner workings of a precocious teenager always striving to understand what made everyone else tick.
Behind all the layers of sarcasm, of course.
6. Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule
Another spin-off courtesy of the relentlessly excellent Adult Swim content production line, Check It Out! and its titular Dr. Steve was originally conceived as a segment called Brule’s Rules on the excellent sketch vehicle Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. A piercingly well-observed parody of low-budget public access TV from the 1980s, Check it Out! saw Dr. Steve exploring a different topic or theme each week, from Boats to Pleasure, Eggs to Music, Skateboards to Crime.
What really makes Check it Out! click is that there’s a genuine heart behind all of the goofy facial expressions and Brule’s inability to pronounce most words with more than three syllables. The childlike naivety that Reilly brings to the character, especially when interacting with members of the public, often comes off not as exploitative but as strangely moving.
Brule’s effort to make paninis with the aid of TV chef Cathy Mitchell, in particular, demonstrates this surreally heart-warming thread.
And for good reason. Aqua Teen Hunger Force encapsulates everything great about Cartoon Network’s subversive adult programming block – irreverent, weird, throwaway and almost wilfully nonsensical, ATHF is a show doing what it wants because it can, and that, in essence, captures the spirit of Adult Swim. Only there could a slice-of-life adult animation about a drinks cup, a packet of French fries and a ball of gelatinous meat become a perennial cult hit. Patti Smith even wrote them their own tribute song when the show ended.
What most fans forget, however, is that the eponymous gang of supposedly crime-fighting fast-food items initially debuted on the excellent parody talk show Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Originally operating as the corporate mascots of the superbly-named fast-food chain Burger Trench, the show’s core trio somewhat resembled the more honed designs that they would later become, albeit with far more toned-down personalities. And thus, a true cult hit was born.
Easily one of the most successful and beloved spin-offs to be spawned on America’s fair shores, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Dr. Crane was once merely a bit-part player in the larger ensemble of the beloved sitcom classic Cheers. Usually heralded as the thinking man’s sitcom, Frasier’s dry wit and middle-class cosiness have seen it endure for the best part of thirty years, both in the States and across the globe. Turn on Channel 4 in the UK at any time before 9am and it’ll probably be playing back-to-back episodes. It’s either that or The Simpsons.
Frasier built its success on the charm and presence of Kelsey Grammer’s timeless performance, but its greatest success was introducing new characters into the equation who felt as natural being comic foils as the inhabitants of Cheers’ eponymous Boston drinking hole. Matching its bigger brother’s impressive eleven-season run and coming pretty close to outshining the show that spawned it, Frasier is a spin-off done right. It’s very much the anti-Joey.
If TV-to-TV spin-offs are tricky, the process of taking a feature-length movie and transposing it to an episodic format is even trickier. Anyone who watched an episode of the short-lived 1983 Casablanca spin-off starring Starsky and Hutch’s David Soul could tell you that.
M*A*S*H is the exception that proves the rule, the one show people cite when talking about cross-media transfers and likely one of the first names they think of whenever anyone uses the term ‘spin-off’. Robert Altman’s seminal 1970 satire on the Korean War was a big hit in its own right, but the adventures of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital on the small screen outshone their cinematic counterparts in almost every way. The show’s final episode was one of the most-watched broadcasts in American history, only challenged by trivial matters such as the Super Bowl, Nixon’s resignation or the 1969 Moon Landing.
While that in itself is a remarkable achievement, there’s no denying that M*A*S*H earned the extraordinary popularity it continues to enjoy today. Funny, cynical and with an undiminished cultural relevance, M*A*S*H is American sitcom royalty whose influence is still felt half a century down the line.
What’s remarkable looking back at those original incarnations of such ubiquitous characters is how much has changed and, equally, how much hasn’t. A far cry from the far more subversive creation it would eventually become, there’s something rather safe, even cosy about the dysfunctional family unit on display. Bart’s still something of a hellraiser, Homer displays his signature rage at unrelentingly volcanic levels, but The Simpsons is still tethered to an earlier, more familiar comedy tradition than the more chaotically satirical one it ultimately pioneered.
The animation is rudimentary, the sketchy designs are nightmarish and the actors clearly haven’t found their voices (pun intended), but these primitive ancestors would one day evolve into the greatest cartoon family in history, and for that, we owe them our admiration.
1. I’m Alan Partridge
Technically, everything that Alan Partridge does is a spin-off. Steve Coogan’s bungling middle Englander was originally conceived as a useless sports presenter on the 1991 BBC Radio 4 news spoof On the Hour. Only later, when On the Hour was transferred over the television via the excellent and criminally underrated current affairs parody The Day Today, did Partridge make it onto our screens. But it wasn’t until 1994 when Alan would enjoy his own standalone vehicle in the form of chat show spoof Knowing Me, Knowing You.
Alan has gone on to star or cameo in countless shows and movies over the past 25 years or so, but I’m Alan Partridge is arguably the character’s ultimate peak, a perfect blending of accessible sitcom tropes and skin-meltingly sharp cringe comedy that sees Alan’s worst tenancies dialled up to eleven while packaging him within his most accessible format. From his love of The Daily Mail to his militant disregard for the Mini Metro, I’m Alan Partridge encapsulates everything that the small-minded middle-Englander stands for.
Easily one of the greatest British sitcoms of all time. Back of the net.
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