15. “Boston Legal”
Not quite the product of a backdoor pilot, viewers had the chance to get to know a few of the main characters on “Boston Legal” through the eighth season of “The Practice.” In the four years it was on the air, the David E. Kelley-created series assembled an incredibly impressive cast alongside stars James Spader and William Shatner — any show that has Lake Bell, Constance Zimmer, and Taraji P. Henson is worthy of an endorsement. “Boston Legal” was even able to add a few twists to the standard lawyer drama, like having Spader’s Alan Shore hack into a rival attorney’s computer. And as Denny Crane, Shatner got a scenery-chewing buffet, turning his heroic, affable on-screen persona into one that didn’t afraid to turn villainous when the moment called for it.
14. “A Different World”
Unfortunately, the sexual assault legacy of Bill Cosby now tarnishes both “The Cosby Show” and its spinoff, “A Different World.” But setting that aside, “A Different World” remains a unique and groundbreaking sitcom, set inside a world never before mined in comedy: a fictional historically black college. “A Different World” also tackled issues that “The Cosby Show” didn’t, such as HIV/AIDS and race. The show followed Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) as she moved from New York to Virginia’s Hillman College, where her dormmates included Jaleesa (Dawnn Lewis), Whitney (Jasmine Guy) and Maggie (Marisa Tomei). Bonet left the show after Season 1 because she was pregnant, while Tomei also departed. Producer Debbie Allen refocused the show around the remaining characters (including fan favorite Dwayne Wayne, played by Kadeem Hardison), while bringing in several new ones, giving the show a much more relevant, culturally significant take. “A Different World” ended its run in 1993 after 145 episodes.
“Torchwood” deserves careful consideration on this list not just because it was able to bring a well-established TV idea to a completely different audience, but because it effectively resisted being pigeon-holed as a prequel or a sequel. With a timeline interspersed between concurrent “Doctor Who” seasons, “Torchwood” took the interstellar curiosities premise and spread its stories around a team of alien world explorers, rather than a central pair. Where “Doctor Who” had made a dimension-hopping series of adventures that most of the family could enjoy, “Torchwood” took a decidedly adult tack. The show’s effectiveness may have wavered at times, but it never lacked for ambition. If anything, it took the ideas of “Doctor Who” (not always a consequence-free joyride to begin with) and wrestled with the bleaker implications of universe where warring aliens and dying species were enough to build an entire agency around.
12. “Laverne and Shirley”
Laverne DeFazio (Penny Marshall) and Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams) were pals of Fonzie on “Happy Days,” but given their own universe in Milwaukee as two young, single roommates on “Laverne and Shirley.” The show’s theme song, “Making Our Dreams Come True,” said it all:
“There is nothing we won’t try/
Never heard the word impossible/
This time there’s no stopping us/
We’re gonna make it!”
“Laverne and Shirley” not only boasted the comedic pairing of Marshall and Williams, but also featured Michael McKean and David Lander as the infamous pals Lenny and Squiggy. Originally capitalizing on the late 1970s’ craze for everything 1950s, “Laverne and Shirley” eventually entered the 1960s, and with that, moved the show’s setting to Burbank. In the final season, with Williams gone, Marshall took over as the single star.
Like so many of the other spinoffs on this list, “Angel” approached its new spin on existing characters from a darker angle. Taking the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” mantle and making it more about investigating than hunting, “Angel” used its neo-noir setup for an edgier entry into the Joss Whedon TV canon. Anchored by David Boreanaz as the title vampire, it cleared the hurdle of not having to rely on romance to sustain Angel through his own series. Against a distinct L.A. backdrop and a revolving door of Big Bads and monsters of all kinds, “Angel” was a feather in the WB cap, even until it was unceremoniously cancelled.