The early success of CBS’ new “The Big Bang Theory” prequel “Young Sheldon” is a reminder that often the most successful spin-offs look or feel completely different from their mother ship. “The Simpsons” was nothing like “The Tracey Ullman Show.” “Mork and Mindy” was set in a different time frame than “Happy Days.” And “Maude,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times” featured characters with a completely different mindset from “All in the Family’s” Archie Bunker.
Try as TV executives and creators might, it’s nearly impossible to replicate success in the same world or with many of the same characters. (Looking at you, “Joey” and “AfterMASH.”) Some of the best TV spinoffs succeed specifically because they approach a familiar template from a completely different angle. Spin-offs come in many forms: Some are continuations of series that have ended. Others follow popular characters on their own journeys. And some are simply planted into a hit show, in order to introduce characters to a wide audience before leading their own stories.
Switching up cities, transforming genres, exploring underutilized characters and even swapping heroes and villains all proved to be valuable moves as brand new shows tried to earn a second life of their own. From ambitious failures to enduring classics, we’ve gathered some of the greatest spinoff series of all time to recognize the shows that used some preexisting leverage to carve out their own special space in TV history.
Let’s just acknowledge that Robert Guillaume is a TV treasure. From his work here, on “Soap,” and in later efforts like “Sports Night,” he was always going to be a wise choice to build a show around. “Benson” saw the lightning-quick title character move from the Tate family to the governor’s mansion, working for the scatter-brained state leader Eugene Gatling (James Noble). “Benson” might not have had the same genre-bending approach to comedy that “Soap” did, but it was still an effective showcase for everything that made Mr. DuBois such a memorable character to begin with. Benson’s quick-thinking housekeeping fixes segued into an extended term in public office, even if the show ended before he was able to work his way up to becoming governor himself. The fact that “Benson” was even able to progress that far is a testament to Guillaume’s ability to make it believable at every step.
19. “The Facts of Life”
You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have… a “Diff’rent Strokes” spinoff that in some ways surpassed the original. Sure, “Diff’rent Strokes” featured very special moments: Kimberly getting kidnapped, Mr. Drummond losing his memory, Gordon Jump being creepy with Dudley and Kimberly (again!) discover her hair turning green. But things never really evolved on that show. “The Facts of Life” was all about the young women of Eastland School growing up and learning, well, the facts of life. The show’s first season started out too crowded (with original cast members including Molly Ringwald), but by Season 2, the focus had switched to the core quartet: Blair (Lisa Whelchel), Tootie (Kim Fields), Natalie (Mindy Cohn) and Jo (Nancy McKeon). Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae), previously the Drummonds’ housekeeper, was there to share sage wisdom. Eventually the action shifted, as the girls graduated, to Mrs. Garrett’s Peekskill food boutique (and later, novelty store). When Rae departed, Cloris Leachman joined the cast, which also even later included George Clooney. By the time the show ended in 1988, 209 episodes had aired — and those young women had grown up.
18. “The Lone Gunmen”
Of all the potential “X-Files” offshoots, following the trio of investigators/magazine entrepreneurs might have made the most sense. The less than enthusiastic fan reaction to “The Lone Gunmen” as a separate series was probably more a function of the overall enthusiasm for “The X-Files” in a post-Duchovny, Y2K world than the show’s quality. Bringing the focus from the extraterrestrial to the conspiracies of modern Earth, “The Lone Gunmen” made a different kind of weekly thriller that felt more immediate, even as it dealt with the sensational. D.C. murder plots, a serial bear killer, and a self-aware episode about a popular TV series gave the show the chance to blend the unsettling and the absurd, even if just for one season.
17. “Xena: Warrior Princess”
It might have been enough for “Xena” to rest on its Hercules pedigree and give viewers more of what they got with the previous show. Instead, “Xena” became an unapologetic female-led series that was still able to engage with its mythology in an interesting way. Shot on location in New Zealand, “Xena” became a bridge of sorts between the simpler fantasy series of the past and the more ambitious scope that future TV productions would take on. Initially introduced on “Hercules” as a rogue, sinister pirate, Xena’s series-long arc to redeem her past transgressions made the show more than just a monster-fighting woman in a trademark costume. Rooted in the myths of yore with sly nods to the present, it’s not hard to see why it quickly ascended to the upper ranks of syndicated favorites, enjoying a prolonged history of its own.
16. “Melrose Place”
“Melrose Place” began rather innocently: Jake (Grant Show) was a love interest of Kelly’s, and a friend of Dylan’s, on “Beverly Hills 90210.” That led to Season 1 of “Melrose,” a straight-ahead tale of pals in a West Hollywood complex striving to make their dreams of love and career come true. But that didn’t work, and by Season 2, “Melrose” had turned into a campy soap opera: Michael (Thomas Calabro) became a douchebag, while Amanda (Heather Locklear) — Alison’s (Courtney Thorne-Smith) boss at D&D Advertising — came along to wreak havoc and become the villain that everyone loved to hate. Other characters in those early years included Billy (Andrew Shue), Matt (Doug Savant) and Jo (Daphne Zuniga), but the real fun came from baddies like Kimberly (Marcia Cross) and Sydney (Laura Leighton). The backstabbing, the fights, and the affairs continued through the end, for 226 episodes. A 2009 revival only lasted one season.