TV spin-offs: is it time to quit?

For every decent television spin-off there's a duffer, argues Alison Graham


Well, people, it’s been fun. Writing this column has been a breeze and a pleasure. But now we have reached a natural full stop. So I am spinning off into a new life, just like on the telly.


My new colleagues and friends have been chosen for me and I am being set up in a whole new environment: to work in a basalt mine. How do you think I will get on?

Perhaps I will fall in love with my ruggedly handsome but emotionally unavailable sidekick. Maybe I will struggle with the intricacies of the basalt crusher, crying bitter tears as my new colleagues laugh at my ineptitude with volcanic rock.

This is all rubbish, of course. Apart from the fact that this column will have to be prised out of my cold, dead hands, the point is that spin-offs are dangerous territory; removing even a character from surroundings where he/she flourishes and grafting him/her onto the arid terrain of a new series, hoping he/she will grow is chancey for both dramas and comedies.

Take The Body Farm (Tuesday BBC1). I always liked the clipped, husky Dr Eve Lockhart in Waking the Dead. As part of that particular, peculiar team (headed, lest we forget, by the deranged Detective Superintendent Boyd) she shone.

But that’s the key. As part of a team. On her own, with stereotype new subordinates, she’s a bit cold and dull. Eve’s life came from the singular people who surrounded her and reacted with her in Waking the Dead, where it wasn’t all about Eve.

Television is littered with the parched corpses of failed spin-off shows: the execrable Joey rightly died a lonely death after he was chosen to hold the flickering Friends flame. But Joey Tribbiani was great only because he worked so well alongside the other Friends.

The long-forgotten Going Straight from 1978 withered because the natural home of Norman Stanley Fletcher (Ronnie Barker) was the Slade Prison of Porridge, with Lennie, “Genial” Harry Grout and the rest of the lags. Being inside is what made him. Outside he was like everyone else.

When spin-offs work, becoming even greater than their parent series, it’s because of a happy accident, the unfathomable alchemy of great TV partnerships.

Like Frasier, which spun off from Cheers. Without Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce) Frasier probably wouldn’t have lasted. With him, one of the greatest television comedy duos (with Kelsey Grammer) was born.

That’s why Frasier fell apart when Niles and Daphne got together. She altered the brothers’ dynamic and killed the show.

Thank heavens Seinfeld never spun off. Imagining Jerry, George, Elaine or Kramer in isolation, ie without the others… well it’s impossible, and lame.

Seinfeld was brilliant because of the quartet of weirdos at its heart. Separating one from the others to go it alone after Seinfeld’s end would have been like blocking an aorta.


Of course, there have been great successes. The Mary Tyler Moore Show gave us Lou Grant and Rhoda. The Day Today presented I’m Alan Partridge to the world. That Peter Kay Thing brought about the sublime Phoenix Nights (and the less sublime Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere). Inspector Morse gave us Lewis. Doctor Who – Torchwood. Spinning off CAN work brilliantly. But the pitfalls are deep.