As 'The Bionic Woman' turns 40, what shows have managed to step out of the shadows and better their originators?
We knew they could rebuild him, that they had the technology. They had already shown the capability to build the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin was that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster. And 40 years ago today, we learned that they could do it for cheaper with a woman, because building nice bionic lady parts were smaller and more cost effective.
On January 14th, 1976, Jaime Sommers, former tennis ace and one-time skydiving accident victim, made her debut as the lead of her own show. With suped up hearing, super strength in her right arm, and shapely bionic legs that could see her reach speeds of 62m/ph – at least until she jumped out of a too-high window, landed on her robotic pins, exploding them – Sommers would prove to be a global hit, with her hastily forgotten career as a school teacher making way for superspy.
Along the journey to becoming the only science-fiction show in the entire 20th century to top the ratings in the UK, Sommers would save the world for annihilation, befriend Max, the bionic German Shepherd, and fend off the feisty fembots sent at her.
Spin-offs have a chequered history in the broadcast pantheon, more often than not leaving a bad taste in viewers’ mouths, and rarely lasting more than one season. Even The Bionic Woman, with her trademarked nenneh-nenneh-nenneh leap, struggle to find a lasting audience, and hanging up her legs and arm after only three seasons.
But that’s not to say that all spin-offs are poorly received, with some of them even surpassing their original shows. Here’s our selection for the top 10 TV spin-offs of all time.
The cartoon series that spawned this was ripe for a spin-off, seeing as it dealt with a spiritual being who could master the four elements who is reincarnated whenever he or she dies. That show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, wound down in 2008, building a massive cult following among adults in the intervening years. When the creators came back with Korra, they updated the world, building on its political ideologies, working in nods to sport, entertainment, and industry, and boldly rounding off with a strongly hinted at lesbian love story.
While still a nascent show, with only 10 episodes having aired so far, things are looking promising for a series that has had some pretty big shoes to fill. Bob Odenkirk, a character actor consistently underrated, is bringing the kind of nuance and subtlety in an expanded part that the greasy ambulance-chasing lawyer Saul Goodman rarely got to show as the comic relief in Breaking Bad. It’s still early days, but a solid first season is making everyone who was hooked on the original show eager to see what more can be brought to the table.
Written by and starring Australian comedian Chris Lilley, Summer Heights High is a bitingly brilliant look at the comings and goings at a secondary school in the outer suburbs of Sydney. Playing three different characters, Lilley weaves a slyly dark tale around Ja’mie King (the private school girl who first appeared in the ABC show We can be Heroes: The Australian of the Year), Mr G (the scheming drama teacher), and Jonah Takalua (a 13-year-old boy of Tongan with learning difficulties and behavioural issues). While Ja’mie would return for another spin-off, it is arguably the Jonah arc that steals the show, written and performed in an entirely hilarious and heartfelt way.
Zack, Screech, Lisa, and Mr Belding all started out their TV school careers on the short-lived Disney show Good Morning, Miss Bliss, meant to be a starring vehicle for former child star Hayley Mills. After low ratings, NBC took over the rights, ditched half the cast, and created a teen sitcom that still maintains its cult status to this day – with an entire podcast, Go Bayside, dedicated to watching every episode.
MTV’s subversive and deadpan animated series Daria is perhaps the 90s-iest show they ever aired, with the deadpan Daria Morgendorffer offering acerbic and wry observations about the world. The story of a misanthropic school girl working her way through high school, surrounded by the cavalcade of characters you’d expect to find in that setting, Daria first appeared in Beavis and Butt-Head as a recurring character. Her caustic dismissal of consumer culture, always intended to be a spoof on American lifestyles, was an instant hit, running for five seasons and two movies.
20 years after Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking sci-fi series first aired on US television, the adventures of the Enterprise’s crew were in a sorry state. Repeat episodes of the original run were proving a ratings hit, but TV execs figured it would be more profitable to build a new series around a cast of unknown actors. Across its 178-episode run, Star Trek: TNG became known for its daring writing, garnering 18 Emmy Awards, two Hugos, and a prestigious Peabody award. Make it so.
Puppeteer and artist Jim Henson made his name as a creative force to be reckoned with on the iconic TV show Sesame Street, but wanted to produce something that could appeal to a broader audience. A canny British TV exec, who had worked on puppet animations like Thunderbirds, convinced Henson to develop a show with ITV, who then sold it around the world. It would become The Muppets, a giant media franchise with characters that are amongst the most recognisable in the world.
Steve Coogan first brought the character that made him a British comedy star to screens on the news pastiche The Day Today, itself a spin-off of a radio programme. In 1994, Coogan unleashed his light-entertainment persona on audiences, creating a cult series that remains hugely popular to this day, that has since become a media brand in his own right, spawning spin-offs, a movie, book deals, a Twitter hashtag, and a new series of Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge set to air this year.
As the psychiatrist Frasier Crane, this Kelsey Grammer star-vehicle was not the first spin-off from Cheers, with The Tortellis now just a footnote in TV history. But the Seattle-based adventures of high art-loving doctor, his lovesick brother, their salt-of-the-earth father, his British physiotherapist, and the unwelcome dog would win 35 Emmy Awards in its run, and millions of fans along the way.
After 585 episodes and 27 seasons, the show that spun off from a series of vignettes on the television variety show The Tracey Ullman Show, the series has now expanded to a media empire, with the citizens of Springfield now iconic characters in the history of television. The family and their interactions with everyone from cameoing celebrities to spoof takes on some of the world’s most famous people and pieces of pop culture is perhaps not appointment viewing anymore. But that shouldn’t take away from the show’s incredible run of first seasons, which remain benchmarks in the history of television comedy, animated or live action.
Every Thursday, James talks Sean Moncrieff through what's making waves on the small screen this week. You can listen back to the podcast below: