‘The Big Bang Theory’ and More Popular TV Shows That Inspired Hit Spinoffs
Since the beginning of television history, networks have always loved spinoffs. While new shows present a risk, spinoffs are safer, allowing the network to tap into an existing fanbase. CBS did this recently with Young Sheldon, but spinoffs have been around for decades now. While some are flops, there are many that are so successful that people forget they weren’t the original shows.
Before The Big Bang Theory, here are some of the shows that inspired hit spinoffs.
In Season 8 of the legal drama JAG, two back-to-back episodes take a detour to focus on the Naval Criminal Investigative Service as they look into the murder of a lieutenant. That episode served as the introduction to what became a wildly popular spinoff: NCIS.
This backdoor pilot on JAG aired in April 2003, and NCIS began in September of that year. Though NCIS is its own show, a few characters who were introduced on JAG would later appear on it. Most notably, Patrick Labyorteaux’s Bud Roberts shows up in Season 1, and he later returns in Season 14. That latter episode aired over two decades after he was introduced on JAG.
NCIS ended up becoming an even bigger hit than its predecessor. It remains one of the most-watched shows on TV, regularly beating out The Voice and This Is Us. It’s currently airing its 15th season and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
Next: This sitcom spawned a spinoff that’s so popular that people sometimes forget it’s a spinoff.
2. All in the Family
Occasionally, a spinoff becomes such a hit that not everyone even realizes it originated from another show. That’s certainly the case here. All in the Family followed a middle-class white family in Queens, and the supporting characters included their black neighbors. At least, that was the case for the first few seasons. In Season 5, those neighbors moved to Manhattan and got their own show: The Jeffersons.
The Jeffersons became one of the most iconic show ever, the first major sitcom to focus on a black family. It also frequently dealt with serious issues like race relations, as was also the case with All in the Family. But while All in the Family aired for nine seasons, The Jeffersons actually overtook it with 11 seasons.
All in the Family also spawned the spinoff Maude, which focused on Edith Bunker’s cousin. Maude lasted six seasons and spawned a spinoff of its own, Good Times. The Jeffersons itself also spawned a spinoff, Checking In, although that was not very successful and only lasted four episodes.
Next: This show, considered to be one of the greatest of the 21st century, spawned a spinoff that is also critically acclaimed.
3. Breaking Bad
To AMC’s credit, the network allowed Vince Gilligan to end his critically-acclaimed drama Breaking Bad after five seasons. They obviously would have preferred it to run for much longer. But they did get more of that universe with the spinoff, Better Call Saul, which was announced the same month Breaking Bad ended.
Following the fan favorite sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, Better Call Sall premiered two years after the Breaking Bad finale. It was generally thought to be a poor idea that was doomed to live in the shadow of its predecessor. But surprisingly, Better Call Saul succeeded, primarily because it allowed itself to be different. While Breaking Bad was a crime thriller, this is much more of a character drama with a slower-paced story.
Some critics have gone as far as to say that Better Call Saul is better than Breaking Bad. That’s a statement that would have sounded crazy before the pilot aired, but now, a lot of fans agree. The show has been nominated for over 20 Emmys, and it will be entering its fourth season in 2018.
Next: This popular supernatural show spawned a spinoff that some fans re-watch concurrently with the original.
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
From the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel was introduced as a mysterious love interest for Buffy. It’s eventually revealed that he is a vampire, and he has a relationship with Buffy for some time. But he leaves at end of Season 3, moving away to Los Angeles. About half the time, a character moving away means that they got their own spinoff. Indeed, Angel began airing on The WB in 1999.
Angel is similar to Buffy in that they’re both episodic adventures dealing with supernatural creatures. But Angel takes more of a detective, almost neo-noir approach. Though it’s set in a different location than Buffy, there are a lot of crossovers between the two. Buffy and Angel occasionally pop up in one another’s shows, for instance. Some other characters also make their way from Buffy to Angel as the series progresses.
The storylines are related enough that there are viewing guides online for fans who want to watch the shows in the correct order, rotating back and forth between Angel and Buffy episodes. Unfortunately, Angel was canceled after five seasons with no proper ending, though the story was continued in a comic.
Next: This sitcom just recently spawned a prequel series on CBS.
5. The Big Bang Theory
The most recent major spinoff to hit the airwaves is Young Sheldon, a prequel to The Big Bang Theory. Rather than focusing on a breakout character, CBS decided to take the protagonist of the original series and follow him as a kid, with Iain Armitage playing the same character that Jim Parsons plays on The Big Bang Theory. In order to connect the two, Parsons serves as the narrator.
There are a lot of differences between the shows, though — many more differences than there typically are between a spinoff and the original. For one, Young Sheldon has no studio audience. It’s also a one-camera sitcom as opposed to a three-camera sitcom like The Big Bang Theory. These choices were a bit risky, but so far, they’re paying off.
After all, the pilot episode of Young Sheldon scored 17 million viewers. This means that almost everyone who watched The Big Bang Theory that night stuck around for it. Since then, the show has been averaging about 12 million viewers, almost as many as The Big Bang Theory. It’s virtually guaranteed that CBS will pick up Young Sheldon for a second season, and it could conceivably run for many more years (at least until actor Iain Armitage is no longer young enough for the title role).
Next: This Nickelodeon comedy series spawned a total of seven spinoffs.
6. All That
Nickelodeon loves spinoffs, and All That was basically a spinoff machine. The original 1990s show was essentially Saturday Night Live for kids, and it introduced audiences to Kenan Thompson, Amanda Bynes, Nick Cannon, and more. In the end, six spinoffs came out of All That. One of those was Kenan and Kel, though the only real relation to All That is that it pairs Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell together. Also considered spinoffs of All That are The Amanda Show, Kablam!, Guys Like Us, The Nick Cannon Show, and Just Jordan.
You know a spinoff is successful when it spawns spinoffs of its own, and that happened with The Amanda Show. Drake Bell and Josh Peck were so popular on The Amanda Show that they got their own series, Drake & Josh. Then, Miranda Cosgrove was so popular on Drake & Josh that she got her own series, iCarly. Finally, Jennette McCurdy was so popular on iCarly that she got her own show, Sam & Cat. Yes, that would make Sam & Cat a spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff. At Nickelodeon, the spinoff machine is never-ending.
Next: This show spawned another popular sitcom that not everyone realizes is actually a spinoff.
7. Perfect Strangers
ABC’s Perfect Strangers was a popular show in its own right and lasted for eight seasons. But it spawned an even more popular and arguably better show: Family Matters.
One of the leads of Perfect Strangers works at the Chicago Chronicle. Starting in Season 3, the audience is introduced to Harriette Winslow, an elevator operator at the Chronicle. We also meet her husband, Carl Winslow. Those two got their own spinoff about their family as Perfect Strangers was entering its fifth season.
Family Matters is a fascinating case where a show completely shifts focus during its run. Although audiences are introduced to Family Matters through the Winslows, the show became increasingly interested in their neighbor, Steve Urkel.
Next: This classic sitcom spawned a spinoff that aired immediately after the original ended and is arguably just as good.
With Cheers, we have a show where the spinoff neither eclipsed it nor failed to live up to its legacy. Instead, it carried the baton and ended up being roughly as popular. Frasier Crane started appearing in Cheers‘ third season, introduced as a psychiatrist who helps Sam and who later becomes a regular at the bar.
Cheers ended in 1993 after 11 seasons, but NBC decided to give Frasier Crane his own spinoff, Frasier. The new show starts with Frasier moving from Boston to his hometown of Seattle, where he hosts a radio show. Though Frasier is mostly its own series, there were plenty of Cheers crossovers, with many Cheers character returning at various points.
Frasier ended up lasting the exact same number of seasons as Cheers. It’s debatable which is better. In TV: The Book, a book in which critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz rank the 100 greatest shows of all time, both Cheers and Frasier make the list, with the former earning the number four spot and the latter coming in at 32.
Next: This popular sitcom spawned a spinoff based on two friends of the main characters.
9. Happy Days
Happy Days is another show that spawned multiple spinoffs, but the most popular was Laverne & Shirley. Those two characters were originally introduced as friends of Fonzie’s. But this wasn’t a case where characters on a show were so popular that they earned their own series. In fact, these two only appeared on only three episodes of Happy Days before Laverne & Shirley began.
That episode was “A Date With Fonzie,” which aired in November 1975. The plot revolves around Fonzie trying to cheer up Richie after a breakup, so he calls up his friends Laverne and Shirley so they can all go on a double date. Three months later, the first episode of Laverne & Shirley aired. Laverne & Shirley never really crossed over with Happy Days much, but the title characters did show up in two more Happy Days episodes while their own show was still on.
Happy Days lasted 11 seasons, while Laverne & Shirley got a still pretty lengthy run of eight seasons.
Next: This show spawned one of the most pointed political satires of the 21st century.
10. The Daily Show
On The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert played a foolish correspondent who generally didn’t know what he was talking about. Colbert was so funny that in 2005, Comedy Central launched a spinoff, The Colbert Report.
On his own show, Colbert’s character quickly developed into more of a right-wing blowhard modeled after anchors like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Before long, The Colbert Report grew into one of the sharpest political satires of the 2000s, with Colbert often criticizing conservative ways of thinking by having his character argue for them without seeing the gaps in his logic.
In 2014, Colbert ended The Colbert Report, having grown tired of playing this fictional character. But by that point, he had already lined up his next gig: the successor to David Letterman on The Late Show.
The Daily Show has also spawned two other spinoffs: The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore and The Opposition with Jordan Klepper.
Next: A character in this sitcom got her own spinoff set at an all-girls school.
11. Diff’rent Strokes
On NBC’s Diff’rent Strokes, a character in the first season was Mrs. Garrett, the family’s housekeeper. She also returned for the second season but left about halfway through because she got her own spinoff: The Facts of Life.
With this new show, Mrs. Garrett becomes the housemother of an all-girls school. This storyline was actually introduced in the finale of Diff’rent Strokes‘ first season, an episode called “The Girls School.” Mrs. Drummond is asked to be the housemother for the school, but decides she wants to keep working for the Drummonds. This would allow her to stay on Diff’rent Strokes if NBC didn’t decide to go ahead with the spinoff. But they did order the show, and so Mrs. Garrett leaves to work at the school, and the Garretts get a new housekeeper.
The Facts of Life ultimately became less and less focused on Mrs. Garrett, and Charlotte Rae decided to leave at the end of the seventh season. For Season 8 and Season 9, Cloris Leachman came on board to play Mrs. Garrett’s sister and serve basically the same role.
The Facts of Life had a nice long run of nine seasons — one more than Diff’rent Strokes.
Next: This animated show spawned a spinoff that takes place decades later.
12. Avatar: The Last Airbender
Most spinoffs begin either during the original series’ run or directly after it, as the network wants to immediately capitalize on the popularity. But sometimes a spinoff doesn’t air until years after the original series has ended, as is the case with the spinoff of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The popular Nickelodeon animated series concluded in 2008, but it took four years for the spinoff, The Legend of Korra, to get on the air.
Korra is a continuation of the story of the previous show, although it can also be watched as its own. Avatar took place in a world in which there is a person referred to as the “Avatar” who can bend the elements. In the original series, this Avatar is a boy named Aang, but in The Legend of Korra, the main character is Korra, the reincarnation of Aang. It takes place 70 years after the original series.
The Legend of Korra was extremely well-reviewed and was generally as beloved as the original series. Unfortunately, it was treated quite poorly by Nickelodeon, with the network not even airing the last episodes and instead just putting them up online.
Next: This show spawned another popular spinoff that takes place decades after the original.
13. Star Trek
Another spinoff/sequel that began long after the original series ended was Star Trek: The Next Generation, which aired its pilot nearly 20 years after the original Star Trek went off the air. The Next Generation picks up 70 years later, following a new crew on a new ship, but taking place in the same universe and following many of the same themes.
Although the original series ended decades earlier, the show came on the air as movies starring the cast of the original show were still coming out. History would repeat itself in 2017 when CBS began airing Star Trek: Discovery just one year after an entry in a Star Trek film series featuring a totally separate cast.
The Next Generation was a success, with the pilot being watched by 15 million people. Though the original Star Trek only lasted 79 episodes, The Next Generation aired 178 over the course of seven years. The characters then continued into feature films.
To this day, fans debate whether The Next Generation or the original Star Trek is superior. The Next Generation‘s success also inspired the creation of several other Star Trek shows, including the recent Discovery.
Next: This crime series spawned a total of five spinoffs, two of which are still on the air.
14. Law & Order
It’s easy to forget that Law & Order was once just a single show before it was a massive media franchise. The original procedural made its debut on NBC in 1990, and it ended up lasting 20 years. This makes it one of the longest-running live-action dramas of all time.
The original Law & Order ended in 2010, but by then, it had already spawned four spinoffs. The most popular, by far, is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which focuses specifically on detectives who are tasked with investigating sexually-based offenses. The show follows the same basic format as the original Law & Order, though this one doesn’t focus on the prosecution as much. Although there’s not much of an overarching storyline in any of the Law & Order shows, there have been crossovers between Special Victims Unit and its predecessor, with some characters appearing in both.
Law & Order also got four other spinoffs. Some were successful, like Criminal Intent and True Crime. But some flopped, like Trial by Jury and LA, both of which got just one season.
Next: This variety series spawned what is indisputably the most successful spinoff of all time.
15. The Tracey Ullman Show
There is no greater example of a spinoff overshadowing the original than this. In 1987, Fox began airing The Tracey Ullman Show, a variety series that featured sketches, musical performances, and, occasionally, cartoons. It would sometimes include animated shorts about an average American family, and the shorts were popular enough that they spawned a little show called The Simpsons.
These days, some of the most popular shows on the air are animated. But back then, making an entire series based on the Simpsons shorts was not a guaranteed success. After all, there hadn’t been a major animated sitcom on TV since The Flinstones in 1966. So the popularity of the cartoons on The Tracey Ullman Show is the only reason The Simpsons was able to get on the air in the first place.
“At The Tracey Ullman Show, we used to show The Simpsons back to back, the little shorts back to back, to the audience, and they laughed significantly more than they actually laughed at The Tracey Ullman Show,” Simpsons writer Jay Kogen said during a writer’s reunion. “It was clear that this had potential.”
The Tracey Ullman Show only aired for three years, whereas The Simpsons has been on for almost three decades.
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