The Best TV Shows Based on Movies, Ranked

In the age of branding and franchises, every existing story has added value. But not every film is fit for TV.

The challenge of adapting movies to a new medium is a tricky one with no clear-cut way to do it. Many new series credit “Fargo” as their benchmark, citing its tone and setting as inspiration for creating a new world around the best parts of what came before. That’s all well and good, but there are as many failed attempts to replicate Noah Hawley’s strategy as successes.

Similarly, some carbon copies — using the same characters and plot points as the preceding movie — are just as good, if not better than their cinematic predecessors. Because any way can work, many various attempts have been made. There’s no right way to do it, but there are a lot of wrong ways; as evidenced by the growing pile of canceled shows based on movies.

Below, IndieWire has assembled the best of the best; the series that have taken on one of writing’s greatest challenges and come out with an adaptation, inspiration, or spin-off to be proud of. The TV shows below aren’t all straight adaptations. Some include aspects from books. Some only borrow the title or a character from the film that preceded them. But they’re all great television shows that wouldn’t exist without a film that came first.

Whether they were made to cash in off a successful film property or out of the pure artistic vision of their creators, these small screen gems live up to — or surpass — their big screen brethren. Enjoy.

20. “Lethal Weapon”

Listen, the odds were stacked against this one. The four-film franchise hadn’t seen a new entry in nearly two decades when Fox brought Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh out of retirement. Moreover, it was the lead actors who literally kept the characters from being too old for this shit, and replacing them seemed like too daunting a task, even if elongating the story somehow proved sustainable.

But Matthew Miller’s semi-procedural made us forget all about Mel Gibson before the first season hit the halfway point, as Clayne Crawford proved himself a charismatic leading man. We knew he could do great character work thanks to four seasons of outstanding supporting service in “Rectify,” but Crawford’s attention to detail, addictive action-star swagger, and jovial camaraderie with Damon Wayans makes the “Lethal Weapon” series a more-than-worthy addition to the franchise.

19. “Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later”

“Wet Hot’s” first foray into scripted television — the Netflix prequel series, “First Day of Camp” — highlighted the best moments from the series, tossed in a number of additional characters, and played up the joke that these adolescent campers were being portrayed by middle-aged adults. It also felt a little overstuffed and never fully came together; at least, not compared to the movie itself.

The sequel season changes that. “10 Years Later” has a more creative and cavalier attitude toward its story, focusing instead on the core characters and actors who made up the original ensemble, while still utilizing a few favorite famous faces in key moments (instead of broad arcs). It recaptures the camp nostalgia of the film and has a good time doing it. We’ll have a formal review in time for its release, but for now, trust us: “10 Years Later” is the “Wet Hot” follow-up you’ve wanted.

18. “Stargate SG-1”

Who knew that the quirky Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich film “Stargate” would be the start of an entire franchise? MGM’s foresight created one of the longest-running sci-fi series, shepherded by “MacGyver” star Richard Dean Anderson as the steady leader Jack O’Neill. The concept of instantaneous space travel, however, opened up the series into a world of possibilities that extended to colorful alien worlds and a far deeper mythology that also encompassed ancient Egypt. Best of all, the often campy series was self-aware, and this was its saving grace, compared to other excellent, but heavy sci-fi series like “Battlestar Galactica.” Running for a healthy 10 years, “Stargate SG-1” showed how a solid idea could create a veritable universe, given the right resources and imagination. Now, 20 years after the series’ premiere, the “Stargate” franchise will be resurrected in the new web series, “Stargate Origins.”

17. “Gomorrah”

Garnering inspiration from Roberto Saviano’s book as well as the heralded 2008 film, “Gomorrah” tracks an Italian crime family living in the suburbs of Naples. Though based on Saviano’s thorough research as a journalist, the series tracks the fictionalized Savastanos, a loyal and unforgiving crew led by Don Pietro (Fortunato Cerlino). The Don is getting up there in the years, and he’s looking to ensure his family’s future before it’s too late.

That’s harder said than done given his hot-headed son, but “Gomorrah” doesn’t merely dwell on the Italian crime syndicate known as the Camorra. It works from the ground up, depicting everyone from street dealers to middlemen to the Dons ruling over everyone. Because of this, the series has drawn many comparisons to “The Wire,” but it also adheres closely to “The Sopranos”: Each focuses on family. Each forces reality upon the viewer, and each makes for damn fine television.

16. “Black Dynamite”

“Black Dynamite”

Cartoon Network

The original film of the same name, starring Michael Jai White, was a clever and hilarious parody of blaxploitation films, and once it was adapted as a cartoon for Adult Swim, “Black Dynamite’s” voice really took off. The misadventures of the titular former CIA officer and Vietnam War vet (who knows kung fu) reached nose-bleed new heights of awesome ridiculousness as Black Dynamite is joined by his pals Bullhorn, Cream Corn, and Honey Bee to take on dangerous foes such as the IRS and encounter famous people in the day like Richard Pryor or Sidney Poitier. Animation from the same folks behind “The Boondocks” made “Black Dynamite” a stylish and kinetic treat to watch, while its playful dialogue and stories cleverly sent up pop culture and racism. A rotating group of guest voices like Snoop Dogg and music by Adrian Young, who had also contributed to the film, brought the series to the next level.

15. “About a Boy”

Jason Katims might be the master of transferring beloved two-hour films to hours and hours of equally enriching television. As you’ll see as this list progresses, the creator of this painfully short-lived NBC sitcom has dabbled not only in multiple film-to-TV adaptations, but multiple genres, as well. No matter the format, they all come back to family, and the chosen family in “About a Boy” is one for the ages.

A lively, likable comedy blending significant arcs of a drama with quick comedic payoffs, the David Walton and Minnie-Driver starring series takes its time establishing the neighborly dynamic between Will (Walton), the rich, aimless, single guy next door, and Marcus (Benjamin Stockham), the fatherless oddball whose mom (Driver) doesn’t know how to help him relate to his classmates. But the charm of these three actors is there from the start. They bring out the best in one another, whether they’re trying to figure each other out or working together against the man. Funny, sweet, and with an equally endearing supporting cast — Al Madrigal and Annie Mumolo have never been better — “About a Boy” was a keeper cut loose too soon.

14. “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles”

Created, co-written, and produced by George Lucas, “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” delved into the adventurous beginnings of a young Indy in great detail and with a keen eye toward his core character traits. Indy himself was played by four different actors, with Cory Carrier handling Henry Jones from ages 8 – 10, Sean Patrick Flanery from 16 – 21, George Hall as the oldest Indy at 93, and Harrison Ford(in one episode) reprising the role he created at the age of 50.

Similar to the creative means by which they tackled Indy’s portrayed adolescence, the series’ success stemmed from a clever reframing of the stories’ purpose. Rather than trotting out as many random adventures as possible, the series used Indy’s relationship with his father as a good excuse to visit factual historical events. In other words, Lucas turned Indiana Jones into an educational experience for young fans, without losing the fun and thrills of the original films. The professor would be proud.

Continue reading for sci-fi success stories and an animated classic.

13. “Ash vs. Evil Dead”

“Ash vs. Evil Dead”

Starz

The entire “Evil Dead” franchise has been a marvelous example of how comedy and horror can marry, in a dysfunctionally glorious way, thanks to a strong visual style and irreverent humor. More than 30 years after we first met Ash (Bruce Campbell), he returned to our screens — on pay cable, no less — to wreak groovy chainsaw havoc with the Deadites again. Storytelling got even sicker, fun and kooky sidekicks were added, and Costco-sized vats of fake blood were spilled. Even better, Ash in his 50s has transitioned from wise-cracking leading man to one whose sardonicism is well-earned. Ash has seen some shit in his day, which makes his impatience with every creature threatening to swallow his soul that much more ridiculous.

12. “Fame”

After the 1980 film of the same name became a hit, the series set in a high school for the performing arts revitalized the teen musical genre. Young adult angst was balanced with elaborate song and dance numbers created in music video style. Debbie Allen, who only had a small role in the film, had her role increased for the series, including essential behind-the-scenes duties such as choreography and even directing.

While none of the young stars really became household names afterwards, one of the biggest names it did lure in was Janet Jackson, who joined as student Cleo Hewitt. With its episodic structure, the multiple-Emmy-winning series was able to spread its storytelling out among its many students, while also saving plenty of time for spectacle. Each episode of the series was a celebration of artistry, expression and physical fitness that also tapped into the pop culture of the day. Its iconic theme song and its refrain, ‘I’m gonna live forever” could very well have been referring to the series’ legacy.

11. “Alice”

Based on Martin Scorsese’s film “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” the series was a workplace comedy set in in Arizona, where recent widow, single mom, and aspiring singer Alice Hyatt (Linda Lavin) works at Mel’s Diner as a stop on her way to eventual stardom in Hollywood. As a sitcom, “Alice” was far sillier and more formulaic than the original, but its warm-hearted premise was an affirmation for how life goes on and how families can be made, despite the problems and tragedies that come. Vic Tayback, Polly Holiday, and Beth Howland rounded out the diner family, while an array of guest stars such as Adam West, George Burns, and Robert Goulet stopped by for some of Mel’s famous chili. “Kiss my grits!” became Holiday’s best-known catchphrase that haunted her even when she left the show. While the series wasn’t much of an awards draw, it was a consistent ratings winner and lasted nine seasons before it finally displayed the “Closed” sign for the last time.

10. “Westworld

Writer/director Michael Crichton’s 1973 science-fiction film starring Yul Brynner became a classic partly because its story about androids run amok in an adult theme park tapped into society’s fears about increased automation and decreased control. HBO’s ballsy adaptation pushes the premise even further and eliminates the simple duality of good human vs. bad robot.

Black and white are merely the hat choices given when entering “Westworld,” but every step of the way, the players are challenged to make choices that will slide them along the moral and ethical continuum. The question of humanity is two-fold: Is a person’s humanity based upon sentience and autonomy? Or is one considered human based upon empathy and mercy?

“Westworld’s” world-building is impressive, from its deep mythology and vast sets to its meticulous details (such a the songs on the player piano) and complex characterizations. Stellar turns by Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and Ed Harris are standouts among many strong performances, all of which ground the fantastical series that is full of revelations and chilling violence. “Westworld” is a wild ride that banks on you holding onto the reins, and if it sometimes bucks you off, that’s part of the fun, too.

9. “Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther” (1969-1970)

Though there have been many iterations of the character, the best stretch for the Pink Panther on television came during the best stretch for the films: the ’60s. Shortly after Peter Sellers introduced the world to Inspector Clouseau in “The Pink Panther” and “A Shot in the Dark,” the cartoons that played during the film’s opening and closing credits delighted audiences at home via short, six-minute stories piled into half-hour episodes. Silent sans for a score, sound effects, and a period appropriate laugh track, the format only served to emphasize Henry Mancini’s iconic score (and the Panther’s perilous adventures).

The titular panther poked fun at a hand-drawn Clouseau character much like Bugs Bunny pestered Daffy Duck, but the protagonist shifted from cat to detective and back again between segments. The Pink Panther became the butt of the jokes when taking the lead, but would later one-up the Inspector when the two shared the screen. Someone had to be the clown, and the Panther was only exempt when a proxy could take his place. Reliably funny and infinitely charming, the cartoon remains the franchise’s best continuation (and you can even watch a few segments on Hulu).

8. “Bates Motel”

Not adherent to Alfred Hitchcock’s film but never disrespectful to it, this “Psycho” prequel stood on its own while deepening our appreciation of the characters we thought we knew. OK, so maybe we never knew Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) that well. She was just a skeleton, after all. But boy did we ever come to understand Norman (Freddie Highmore) and his mom once they moved into the fateful Bates Motel.

Thanks to committed performances from Farmiga and Highmore, the evil inherent in this family was more fascinating than vile. Even when they repeatedly crossed a moral line, with bloodier and bloodier results, watching them never felt gross. This was horror handled with great humanity. Creators Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse built their own terrifying tale Hitchcock would be proud of (and modern audiences adored).

Continue reading for a shot at fame under the bright lights. 

7. “Clone Wars”

Who says that “Star Trek” is the only franchise that can rule both film and TV in equal measure? Not only did “Clone Wars” successfully extend its storytelling past the known “Star Wars” universe on all fronts, but it also delved deeper into a wide array of new and previously known but supporting characters. As with literary short fiction, “Clone Wars” was tasked with telling a full and complex story economically, within 22 minutes, and the plots ranged from showy battles and revealing character studies, to expansion of mythology and political world-building. A stellar cast (shout-out in particular to Dee Bradley Baker who voiced all the clones) and an array of big-name guest stars breathed life into this world, and even though it ended after six seasons, its presence is still sorely missed. “Star Wars: Rebels” carries the torch on TV, but let’s not forget where it all began. The Force is strong in this one.

6. “The Girlfriend Experience”

Steven Soderbergh’s film of the same name studied the fractured psyches of those who manipulated a free enterprise economy into ruins. Examined via their healer, we watched a woman pretend to be their girlfriend; hired to stroke their egos as the world they set on fire began to burn. It was 2008. The financial crisis was underway. The film was released in 2009. We were reeling from the effects and more willing than ever to compare traders to prostitutes, if not to empathize with those who adhered to the latter’s more common meaning.

Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s adaptation doesn’t bother with period comparisons, but it dives even further into prejudicial business practices, social customs, and capitalist boundaries that always seem to find a way to screw over one gender more than another. Christine (Riley Keough) begins her journey by luxurious temptation and financial necessity, but how her role as a GFE twists and turns between danger and excitement puts her in a unique quandary; one the audience likely didn’t expect to end up in along with her. The final half-hour is an existential crisis laid bare, with no easy answers and no comfort given.

Soderbergh wouldn’t have it any other way.

5. “Parenthood”

Combine a massive ensemble cast made up of A-list TV talent and a creator coming off one of the best TV shows ever made, and you get… yet another family drama for the all-timer’s list. It’s not a tough equation to solve, but “Parenthood” did take a lot of careful planning and well-honed chemistry, resulting in a delicate balancing act. The Bravermans consisted of nearly a dozen series regulars at any given time, all colliding off each other to keep the drama pot cooking but without boiling over and ruining the smooth vibes.

By keeping itself grounded, “Parenthood” was able to engage in deeply serious storylines, including cancer scares and unexpected pregnancies that would have buried lesser shows in trite emotion or cliched results. But for the same reason it could also be playful and jokey, holding dance parties and chef competitions with much-appreciated regularity. All in all, “Parenthood” embodied its expansive title: It was all things life has to offer and always at their best.

4. “Fargo”

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Nikki Swango, Carrie Coon as Gloria Burgle

Chris Large/FX

The very concept of this anthology series is worthy of a Coen Brothers plot: A film aficionado creates a series that is done in the style of his favorite movie (“Fargo,” duh), thus making that world into a genre in and of itself. But that is exactly what Noah Hawley has done brilliantly and with note-perfect confidence in his voice and storytelling.

Even without this being the most thorough tribute to the Coens oeuvre ever, each season of the anthology series stands on its own merits. Hilarious, poignant and stomach-turningly disturbing all at once, no part of the dark comedy is accidental, even if the events may play out as coincidence. Every word builds on the strange, intersecting puzzle of humanity that is playing out onscreen.

A common man is faced with the choice to give in to deceit, corruption or greed, and how he or she reacts then follows to its logical conclusion… sometimes. “Fargo” is a quirky, wintry allegory for the human condition, tinged with colorful phrases and inhabited by even more colorful characters. It’s no wonder that big names like Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Kirsten Dunst, and Ewan McGregor clamor for a part on the show, any part, even one that requires a bald cap and fat suit. Is it all worth the hype? You betcha.

3. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

“Buffy The Vampire Slayer”

Fox Television/REX/Shutterstock

It’s probably safe to say that only Joss Whedon could’ve conceived of how big “Buffy’s” world would become. After all, he wrote the movie of the same name that took off tonally from how he had imagined. Once Whedon got his chance, though, he created the show that has had an indelible influence on all of the fantasy horror series to follow. It is the gold standard and has yet to be (and may never be) surpassed in its field.

Combining thrilling monster-of-the-week shenanigans with season-long, even multiple-season-long story arcs, “Buffy” was a storytelling machine that never lacked for anything to do. Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a slayer whose duty it is to get rid of the vampires and other creatures that belong to the night. Along with a dedicated group of friends, she fights the good fight and occasionally even dies from the effort. (Yes, there are real stakes, pun intended, on the fantasy series.)

Like any self-respecting genre universe, the Buffy-verse spun-off into another TV series (“Angel”), a comic book, and other properties. It created its own culture with the “Buffy-speak” lingo still used today, themes of good and evil that are explored in academia, and some of the strongest female characters seen in the 1990s. Despite its silly title and genre trappings, “Buffy” was far more clever and far better made than most gave it credit for, and that includes the Television Academy. It was a dense and rich and all the words that make blood so delicious and nourishing.

2. “M*A*S*H”

“M.A.S.H.” spun off from the Robert Altman film of the same name and features life in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. Its humor lay not in mocking war but instead depicting how people deal with such huge, traumatic events through laughter. While the series was undeniably political and more dove than hawk (very much target for the Vietnam War and post-war audience), it was also a madcap delight that let its incredibly talented cast — Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, Jamie Farr, Harry Morgan, and William Christopher, among others — shine with clever, quippy banter and slapstick adventures. While the mixture of comedy and heavy drama are common on TV now, many of those shows owe a debt to “M.A.S.H” in creating that precedent. It also boasts one of the best TV theme songs of all time.

1. “Friday Night Lights”

You know the sayings. Clear eyes, full hearts, and Texas, forever. You know the speeches, the schools, the number nicknames and the local businesses. “Friday Night Lights” built a world we all wanted to be a part of, and it did it after a film (and book) painted small football towns in a less than appealing light.

Because of this (and general resistance to shows perceived as sports shows), Peter Berg’s creation and Jason Katims’ series was fighting an uphill battle from the start. Just like in the show, where high pressure demands from boosters, parents, and alumni required a win from Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) every week, the series had to win fans’ hearts, in full, with a clear, winning message, every single episode. Did that lead to some stretching in Season 2? Sure, but what great series hasn’t tested the limits to become better for it?

Year in and year out, “Friday Night Lights” delivered a title to fans at home. The series always felt like it knew what it was because it knew who these characters were, but that never kept it from fighting as hard as anyone to become better. And it always did, until you felt like a part of Dillon, TX instead of just an observer. Once that happened, it simply couldn’t lose.