How Not To Make Television

Posted: March 11, 2012 by J. Marcus in Television
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I just finished watching this week’s episode of The Finder on my DVR.  I like the show a lot.  It’s about a guy who feels an obsessive need to find things for people.  So, every week, he helps someone find something or someone that has gone missing.  As with most shows, he has his friends that help him with this.  The Finder was created by Hart Hanson, who also brought us Bones (another show I truly love).

My ONLY problem with The Finder is that I almost avoided the show entirely and with full intent.  Why?  Because it dared to horn in on a FULL EPISODE of Bones.

In other words, a full episode of Bones was set aside as a pilot for The Finder.  In that episode the main characters of Bones need to enlist the help of these new characters that we’ve never seen before.  To make matters worse, the Bones characters become guest stars on their own show.  As an avid Bones fan, this was INFURIATING.  As such, I almost couldn’t bring myself to care enough to watch The Finder when it actually showed up.  Fortunately the ad campaign was too intriguing for me, so I tried the first episode.  I enjoyed it enough that I came back for a second, a third and now I am hooked.

The problem is when you back-door a pilot inside an established TV show.  It rarely works when you shoe-horn it in like this.

Few people know this, but there was a back-door pilot in an episode of the original Star Trek.  The episode “Assignment: Earth” had the crew of the Enterprise travel back to the 1960’s to observe Earth’s history.  Instead, they get tangled up with a man named Gary Seven (played by Robert Lansing) and his secretary (played by a very young Teri Garr).  The episode set the two characters up for what would hopefully become a regular series.  It didn’t go over well and no series was produced.

Knight Rider had a similar stunt where the two-part episode “Mouth of the Snake” was supposed to set up a show called “All That Glitters”.  Instead NBC rejected the idea and the character was reused in the short-lived series Code of Vengeance.

When you think about some of the most successful spin-offs in television, they almost happen by accident.  A character (either recurring or not) shows up and becomes popular with the audience.  THEN it’s decided to give them their own series.  The practical upshot of this is that because they are supporting players in an established show, their appearances DON’T OVERSHADOW the proceedings.

Think Dr. Frasier Crane from Cheers.  He only got his own show after seasons of supporting appearances on Cheers.  He was one of the gang.  Some episodes he was featured in more than others, but he didn’t detract from the overall ensemble nature of the show.  Not to mention, we got to warm up to him so that if he DID get an episode to himself, we didn’t mind as much.

Or how about Family Matters?  The show’s main character, Carl Winslow, had made NUMEROUS appearances as a supporting player on Perfect Strangers before getting his own series.  He was tried and tested before given his own show.

Then there’s Angel.  The vampire-with-a-soul had three seasons’-worth of appearances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer before striking out on his own in Los Angeles.  Imagine, if you will, that instead of it happening this way, David Boreanaz showed up in ONE episode of BTVS in the third season.  Coming out of nowhere, he and Buffy have the episode to themselves (without the Scooby gang).  We meet Angel and his sidekick Doyle who run a detective agency in LA.  By the end of the episode, and for no real reason, Cordelia decides to leave with them and go back to LA.  Then the rest of BTVS season three progresses.  A) This probably wouldn’t have had the same emotional impact and B) People would have been rightly pissed that we wasted a whole episode on this crap!

The TV world is FULL of spin-offs.  Some fail and some succeed:

Love, American Style begat Happy Days begat Laverne & Shirley, Joanie Loves Chachi and Mork & Mindy

All in the Family brought us The Jeffersons, Maude, Gloria, and Archie Bunker’s Place

The Mary Tyler Moore Show gave us Rhoda and Lou Grant

Hercules The Legendary Journeys introduced us to Xena: Warrior Princess

Doctor Who led to Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures and, unfortunately, K-9 and Company and K-9

And the list goes on.  What you’ll mostly find is that it’s the popular, recurring characters that get successful spin-offs, while the back-door pilots rarely result in anything of substance.

Mostly I think it’s because people just don’t like it when the show they love gets commandeered by random new characters with the intent on selling themselves.  Isn’t that what an ACTUAL pilot is supposed to be for?

Of course there are exceptions… but aren’t there always?

Oh, and want some more?

21 Jump Street -> Booker

Three’s Company -> The Roepers and Three’s A Crowd

The Cosby Show -> A Different World

Different Strokes -> The Facts of Life

 

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