Honorable Mentions: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Lone Gunmen (2001), The Jeffersons (1975-1985), Freddy vs. Jason (2003), The Cleveland Show (2009-2013), NCIS: Los Angeles, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, The Wolverine (2013)
5. Maude (1972-1978)
This All in the Family spin-off featured Bea Arthur as Maude Findlay, Edith Bunker's uber liberal cousin, and the great Bill Macy as Maude's husband Walter. Like all of Norman Lear's 1970's sitcoms Maude had a sort of political message and wasn't afraid to discuss the political and social issues of the day (Conrad Bain's Arthur Harmon was the conservative Republican foil to Maude's liberal), but what made you keep watching was Bea Arthur's hard ass performance. She was caustic, mean spirited at times, but always funny. She was always right. And poor Walter, he just sort of had to go along with her because he knew that he couldn't win against her. Maude was a force of nature. It was also a hoot when Maude, pissed off at Walter for something, told him "God will get you for that, Walter."
Oh, and the show had a great theme song. Go ahead and listen:
"Right on, Maude!" indeed.
4. Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001-2011)
This second Law & Order spin-off dealt with the detectives of the Major Crimes division in Manhattan and the criminals those detectives dealt with. Each episode would start off with the audience seeing the crime committed and the criminal/criminals involved, and then we'd see the detectives (Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe as Robert Goren and Alexandra Eames for the first few years, and then Chris Noth, Julianne Nicholson, Jeff Goldblum, and others sort of took turns with D'Onofrio and Erbe) figure out how the criminal did it. D'Onofrio was always awesome as Goren, using his super folder to gather the necessary evidence and figure out what happened, while Erbe's Eames sort of stood back and watched. Even when the episode in question was so-so at best D'Onofrio was always incredibly watchable. And it was ballsy to change up the lead detectives every episode, alternating main casts later on in the show's run. Only a Law & Order show could do that.
3. The Avengers (2012)
The Avengers was the comic book movie team-up story the comic book movie loving world had been waiting for since it was announced that Marvel Studios was going to essentially combine its standalone comic book movie franchises into one movie. Bringing in Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury as one big super team could have failed big time as there are just, on paper, too many characters. But in the end it all works and is now its own thing. Yes, Marvel is releasing more standalone movies, but they will eventually lead to the next Avengers. It'll be interesting to see if the next one, which is set to have an even bigger cast of characters, can engage audiences as well as the first one. I think it will, but, hey, you never know.
2. The Simpsons
This animated spin-off comes out of the old The Tracey Ullman Show sketch variety show, one of the Fox broadcasting network's original shows. On UllmanThe Simpsons appeared in crudely animated shorts that were sort of funny. When Fox decided to take The Simpsons shorts and expand them into a full on half hour show it was a big gamble. A prime time cartoon? When was the last time that worked? I don't think anyone back in 1989 thought that the show would still be on twenty-six years later. I know I didn't. And it's still going with no end in sight. It's still a funny show, maybe not as good as it once was but still worth watching every week. How many more years can it go?
This spin-off of JAG is one of those rare TV shows that actually gains viewers with each new season. It's a solid drama with a stellar cast (Michael Weatherly, Sean Murray, Pauley Perrette, and David McCallum, with Mark Harmon as the leader), great writing, and a tone that makes you want to watch, even if you have no idea what's going on. Even when the show changes cast members the show still kicks ass. I really thought that Cote de Pablo's exit from the show would damage it and the show would start to slide into mediocrity. It has happened so far and it doesn't look like it will. Hopefully, one year, NCIS receives an Emmy nomination for Best Drama. It doesn't have to win or anything, but it would be nice if it got one nomination. And Harmon deserves a Best Actor nomination, too. He's so damn good on the show.
5. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Closer to catching up to its parent series in length, this spin-off may slump now and then but can still deliver some astounding and powerful drama. The stories are dark, using "ripped from the headlines" inspirations and can sometimes be lecturing. But the cast (especially Mariksa Hargitay) can sell it with cops fighting the worst of criminal scum and often wrestling personal issues as they do. It may not be pretty but damn compelling and its long run puts it on the list of successful spin-offs that still make you tune in for some great and powerful drama.
People forget that this CBS ratings champ was a spin-off of the military drama JAG but has since ended up becoming the jewel in the ratings crown for the network. It's not hard to see why as it maintains a vibe of a procedural drama but with a great cast of characters, mixing military crimes alongside thrilling drama but also light comedy. Mark Harmon is the boss as Gibbs but the rest of the cast is good enough to back him up from joking Tony to quirky Abby and the show has managed to thrive following the exits of lead stars Sasha Alexander and Cote de Pablo. It's birthed its own spin-offs as well but the main show remains a major success in syndication while new episodes continue to provide the fun that made it a hit in the first place.
3. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
While it took a few seasons for The Next Generation to click, this spin-off started off strong and just got better and better. Showing an outpost that mixed Federation and alien cultures in a planet recovering from long occupation, the series went to much darker places than the Trek universe previously had, addressing questions like how far this seemingly utopian Starfleet would go to protect itself and the clashes with cultures that seemed even worse. The multi-season Dominion War was a highlight of the show with amazing action and adventure but we still had the great character bits that pulled you in. Sisko, Kira, Odo, Dax, Worf, O'Brien, Bashir, Quark, they all had amazing arcs that would shift them majorly over the show's run and become arguably the best of all the Trek series by showing how the quest for a better universe means making a few dark turns over time.
I'm of the camp that this is a case of a series superior to its parent show. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can argue how that show lost its way a bit, particularly in its last few years. But the spin-off succeeded thanks to the great cast. Not just David Boreanaz as the troubled vampire wrestling with his past but Charisma Carpenter providing the humor as Cordelia while Alexis Desinof was stunning showing Wesley transforming from stiff British scholar to bad-ass warrior. Throw in later turns like Amy Acker as the quirky Fred and the battles against the evil law firm and other demons and you had great compelling drama. But it was always Angel and his fight against his dark past that pulled you in, including the great last season of them running their former evil foes and Spike clashing with his former sire, leading up to a fantastic finale for a show that really shone better despite its dark side.
1. The Simpsons
The obvious choice. Who would have guessed back in 1989 that the little brief cartoons on The Tracy Ullman Show would end up becoming the longest-running and most acclaimed prime-time animated series ever? About to wrap up its 25th season and still no signs of slowing down, the series still wins you over with sharp writing and pulling you into the whacky goings-on of the town of Springfield. It's a massive cultural phenomenon from comics to clothing to its own mini theme park land, it has inspired numerous comedians and brought in a new style of comedy that breaks down conventions and lampoons popular culture around it and still the standard any other animated series strives for. All this from a few brief bits on a sketch comedy show, amazing to see how it grew.
5. The Jeffersons
All in the Family is one of those shows that could not survive in the "PC" world we live in today. The show was considered groundbreaking with its takes on such as racism, homosexuality, women's liberation, rape, miscarriage, abortion, breast cancer, the Vietnam War, menopause, and impotence. It is widely considered one of the most influential comedies of all time. While it delivered some busts as spin offs (Gloria, 704 Hauser, Archie Bunker's Place), it did produce Maude, and the real success, The Jeffersons. George Jefferson was the next-door neighbor of Archie Bunker, and was his combative counter part. As The Jeffersons find success, George sticks it to Archie one last time, but offering their house to Archie's daughter Gloria, and her husband, known by Archie as Meathead. Jefferson was the owner of a chain of seven successful dry-cleaning stores; as The Jeffersons begins, they have just moved from the Bunkers' neighborhood to a luxury high-rise apartment building in Manhattan's Upper East Side. The show was very successful in the ratings, with eight of their eleven seasons in the top 25. The show had 13 Emmy nominations, including Marla Gibbs for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series each year from 1981 through 1985. Sherman Hemsley was nominated for Best Actor in 1984. Isabel Sanford was nominated for seven consecutive Best Actress Emmys. Her victory in 1981 made her the second African-American actress to win an Emmy Award. The show was widely praised for the inclusion of an interracial couple as well as the positive portrayal of an African American family making good, a contrast to shows like Good Times.
4. Happy Days
Love, American Style was a weekly ABC show that featured unrelated stories of romance, usually with a comedic spin. Episodes featured different characters, stories, and locations with the show often featured the same actors playing different characters in many episodes. Gary Marshall once stated that the show was where failed TV pilots went to die, and Happy Days was initially one of those. Originally titled New Family in Town, it was passed on when the thought of a show based on teenagers in the 50s wouldn't fly at the time. But when Grease, American Graffiti and M*A*S*H took off, ABC felt that they had the perfect mix, and Happy Days got the greenlight. The show lasted 11 seasons, 255 episodes and gave us THE FONZ. The show had the iconic music, two animated series, lives on in syndication today and spawned FIVE spin offs; Laverne & Shirley (178 episodes), Blansky's Beauties (13 episodes), Mork & Mindy (95 episodes), Out of the Blue (9 episodes), and Joanie Loves Chachi (19 episodes). The show always did good ratings, and of course, gave us the infamous "jumping the shark" motto.
Cheers is one of my all time favorite TV shows. Cheers was a show everyone could relate too, it was highly praised, and when it was coming to an end, many speculated about a spin off. Many thought Norm and Cliff could get the nod, or even Woody, but instead, Psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane got the call. The show featured Crane returning to his hometown of Seattle, Washington, following the end of his marriage and his life in Boston. The show featured the title character, his brother who is just like him, their father who is nothing like them, the English therapist and Frasier's producer as the main characters. The show featured cameos by Cheers cast members through out the run, but that is not why the show succeeded. The show never relied on the cameos, they surely embraced the past, but they also did what the original show did, create an ensemble cast you could relate too, follow and even fall in love with. The series won 37 Primetime Emmy Awards during its 11-year run, breaking the record set by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The show essentially matches the run of Cheers, and Grammer played the role of Frasier for 20 years, which may be even more impressive. Frasier may not be everyone's glass of sherry, but no one can deny the success of the show.
2. The Simpsons
The Tracey Ullman Show may not be remembered by many, but it was the home for a little animated short named The Simpsons. The Simpsons aired as bumpers for the show, airing before and after commercial breaks during the first and second seasons of the show. In season three the bumpers got promoted, and had their own full segments in between the live action segments. From there, it has only run for 24 seasons, producing 550 episodes, with the 23rd season starting this month. While I fully understand the camp that says the show has declined in quality, you cannot look past the accomplishments the show has made. From an animated short to a show that has surpassed Gunsmoke as the longest-running American primetime scripted television series, it has received 27 Primetime Emmy Awards, 30 Annie Awards and a Peabody Award. Hell, Time magazine named it the 20th century's best television series and they even received a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. Bart Simpson was pop culture, and was even named one of the century's 100 most influential people in Time Magazine. The show's accolades go on and on, and out of that they even produced a movie that made over $527 million worldwide, from a $75 million budget. Add in the comic books, the video games, the CDs and merchandising; it would be impossible not to include the show on this list.
1. Star Trek: The Next Generation
And coming in at #1 on my list is Star Trek: The Next Generation. I will not lie, I am a HUGE Star Trek fan, and in my opinion Star Trek: The Next Generation makes the top of the list for several reasons. First of all, it not only lives up to the original series (which I am a huge fan of) but I also feel that it surpassed it in terms of overall quality. But not only did it surpass the original TV series, it also produced successful spin offs. Star Trek: The Next Generation was so successful that Star Trek: Deep Space 9 got the greenlight and started it's voyage while TNG was still on the air. And as TNG was ending, they wanted more, and Star Trek: Voyager was born while DS9 was still on the air. The Next Generation universe was so strong that three successful series ran in it, and they were also able to cross over characters from TNG to DS9 perfectly. Star Trek: Deep Space 9 delivered 176 episodes, and Star Trek: Voyager produced 172 episodes. Add in the failed Enterprise series (98 episodes) and four Star Trek: The Next Generation movies; there is no doubt that the series was successful, but that it has to be considered one of the greatest spin offs of all time. Original "Trekkers/Trekies" could have shit all over Star Trek: The Next Generation, they could have ruined it all, but they gave it a chance, they fell in love with a whole new series in their beloved universe, and we're better off for it.