What’s old is new again, especially on TV. Last year, Netflix brought back Full House as Fuller House, a “revival” of the 1987-95 series set in the present day. Despite terrible reviews, it’s starting a third season in September. Will & Grace, which went off the air in 2006, will also premiere new episodes that month on NBC. Not to be outdone, ABC is bringing back the ‘90s sitcom Roseanne with the same cast.
Each announcement of a new TV show revival always comes with plenty of hand-wringing about whether it’ll be as good as the original. But whether or not you think revivals make for good TV, recycled material is a feature, not a bug, of television history.
Networks have been re-purposing successful shows into new ones pretty much since television’s birth. Today, trendy revivals like Twin Peaks or The X-Files focus on the lives of original cast members years later. But for decades, networks preferred to capitalize on successful shows with “spin-offs” (which are still employed today). These spin-offs used characters or elements of an existing show to create a new series with a different premise.
Some of these spin-offs are so famous that fans might not even know they were derived from another series. Jackie Gleason, for instance, adapted his 1950s hit The Honeymooners from his variety show. Norman Lear created game-changing, provocative television by unleashing an army of All in the Family spin-offs in the ‘70s, including The Jeffersons, Maude, and Good Times. Lear’s follow-up series usually focused on one or two characters who’d appeared in a previous show. Good Times was actually a spin-off of a spin-off, since central character Florida Evans first appeared on Maude. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the popular series A Different World, Family Matters, Saved by the Bell, and Daria were all created as spin-offs from other original shows.
Despite the success of many spin-offs, the ones that bombed have given the genre a bad reputation. And to be fair, there are a lot of bombs. M*A*S*H* was an intensely popular show about a Korean War medical unit that aired during and after the Vietnam War. It was such a hit that for 27 years, its 1983 finale held the record for being the most watched U.S. program at 105.97 million viewers. In contrast, the spin-off AfterMASH tanked in its second season. A pilot for a second spinoff, W*A*L*T*E*R*, was never picked up.
When you start to look through television history, it’s become challenging to find an original hit that didn’t have at least one bad spin-off. The Golden Girls’ 1992 finale was watched by a solid 27.2 million viewers, yet the follow-up show The Golden Palace flopped after one season. Americans may have loved The Brady Bunch, but they didn’t like the short-lived series The Brady Brides. And though All in the Family and Happy Days had successful spin-offs, they also had their share of flops, too. Fans have even been known to take preemptive steps to try to fend off resuscitation of their favorite shows: The Washington Post recently published an article begging NBC not to bring back The West Wing, a prospect the network has floated by Aaron Sorkin.
Even some follow-up shows that did well when they aired seem obscure today because they’re overshadowed by the original. I Love Lucy is one of the most famous television shows of all time; but modern fans might not have even heard of The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour and The Lucy Show (a semi-spin-off), both popular shows in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Trapper John, M.D. was apparently a decent ‘80s show. It was technically a spin-off of the 1970 film MASH, which the TV show M*A*S*H* was also spun off of—but even so, it couldn’t compete with TV M*A*S*H*’s record-breaking success.
So despite the fact that some second-generation shows have proved to be quite popular, spin-offs are still widely considered to be “less-than.” The Simpsons, for example, once aired a whole episode mocking the genre. But the episode was also making a subtle joke about its own show. After all, The Simpsons—which is about to overtake Gunsmoke as the longest running series—is itself a spin-off of The Tracey Ullman Show.