The TV spinoff is a time-honored tradition, going back decades to a time when characters would be introduced in sketches on a variety show and then be given their own full-fledged series just months later. The right character or concept can launch a spinoff into the pop culture stratosphere, where it can both blaze its own trail with new stories and possibly even become a bigger hit than its predecessor.
Yes, the bad spinoffs might simply say "Hollywood is out of ideas!," but the best ones leave you wanting more from a growing fictional universe. In that spirit, here are some of the best TV spinoffs of all time.
1. The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968)
In 1960, Andy Griffith appeared on The Danny Thomas Show as a country sheriff named “Andy Taylor” in the fictional town of Mayberry. The character worked, and within months Griffith had his own show. After a little fine-tuning in the early seasons, a TV legend was born.
The Andy Griffith Show is still, nearly 60 years after its debut, a series synonymous with Americana and small town strangeness. And Sheriff Andy Taylor still looms large as an almost Atticus Finch-like figure. It launched a hit spinoff of its own with Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., and is still regularly cited as one of the greatest TV series of all time.
2. Green Acres (1965-1971)
The small town of Hooterville and its many quirky characters could have been enough to contain in just one show, but CBS wanted more. So, creator Jay Sommers created a companion series to the Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres was born.
The show remains a favorite that grew beyond the success of Petticoat Junction thanks in no small part to the chemistry between Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor as the two fish-out-of-water leads, but the real brilliance of Green Acres lies in the surrealist approach to life in Hooterville. The show managed to work everything from a phone atop a telephone pole to a seemingly telepathic pig into its hijinks, and it all somehow paid off.
3. The Jeffersons (1975-1985)
With All in the Family, TV legend Norman Lear and company created one of the most influential, incisive, and celebrated sitcoms ever made. Then, just four years later, they did it again. The Jeffersons, about the title family’s move from their home next door to the Bunker family in Queens to a “deluxe apartment” in Manhattan, took All in the Family’s fearless approach in taking on the social issues of its era and adding its own spin, giving us one of television’s most revered African American families and the first major TV depiction of an interracial couple.
4. Maude (1972-1978)
All in the Family was such an influential, paradigm-shifting sitcom in the 1970s that it gets two spinoffs on this list. Even before The Jeffersons hit big, Lear and company were launching spinoffs from the Bunker family. The first was Maude, a show in which Bea Arthur starred in the title role after appearing as Edith Bunker’s cousin on All in the Family. The show’s willingness to take on major issues like alcoholism and abortion made it one of the most important shows of its era, and the gutsy decision to stage multiple episodes with just two characters—Maude and her husband Walter (Bill Macy)—made it a comedy acting masterclass.
5. Happy Days (1974-1984)
Happy Days began life as a failed pilot that hoped to capture 1950s nostalgia, and wound up airing on the anthology series Love, American Style. The success of ‘50s nostalgia hits like Grease and American Graffiti, though, led ABC to reconsider the series, which meant that by the time Happy Days actually made it to air as its own show, it was officially a spinoff. Eleven seasons and more than 250 episodes later, it was also an American icon. Few shows have ever made quite the same impact as this ‘70s-made, ‘50s-set story about necking in cars, dancing at Al’s, and hanging out with Fonzie. It was so successful that it became a spinoff machine in its own right, which we’ll get to shortly.
6. Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983)
Happy Days was such a television powerhouse that it spawned no less than seven spinoff series, two of which were animated, and that’s not even counting the pilots that didn’t get picked up. While Mork & Mindy is still well-known for its introduction of Robin Williams to a national audience, the biggest success story to come out of the wider Happy Days family is without question Laverne & Shirley.
The show succeeds thanks to an excellent cast led by Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, but also because of its willingness to become the anti-Happy Days in many ways. While that show was anchored in a sense of suburban comfort and carefree nights out with high school friends, Laverne & Shirley centered itself in a grungy apartment, and told the story of two struggling single women who were going to make their dreams come true. It altered the formula while never giving up the sense of joy, and became a hit in its own right. It also gave the world the unforgettable combination that is Laverne’s favorite drink: Milk and Pepsi. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.
7. The Simpsons (1989-present)
In 1987, a series of odd but funny animated short films began airing on The Tracey Ullman Show. Two years later, the same characters debuted in a half-hour sitcom on FOX, and promptly became the most popular thing on planet Earth.
The Simpsons, which will debut its 31st season in September, is the most successful animated series of all time, but it has long-since transcended animation. The show’s early seasons and their wickedly incisive satire of American life gave birth to countless new animated shows hoping to reach a more grown-up audience, a wave that gave us future hits like South Park and Family Guy. The Simpsons is so successful that it stopped being a TV series and started being a multimedia empire before many of its current fans were even born.
8. Frasier (1993-2004)
Cheers ran for 11 seasons and was one of the defining sitcoms of the 1980s. Frasier, starring Kelsey Grammar as the titular psychiatrist-turned-radio-host who traded Boston for Seattle, somehow managed to at least equal, if not surpass, its parent series in terms of sheer pop culture influence. Frasier won five consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series, tied Cheers’s run of 11 seasons, and remains a syndication staple thanks to unforgettable performances from its ensemble cast.
9. Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001)
In 1995, the syndicated fantasy series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys introduced a warrior princess named Xena, played by a then-unknown actress named Lucy Lawless. Later that same year, Xena got her own fantasy series set in a fictionalized version of Ancient Greece, and rapidly outpaced her parent series.
Today, while Hercules still has its fans, Xena is remembered as a cultural phenomenon that catapulted Lawless to stardom and inspired dreams of a particular kind of badass woman in the hearts of ‘90s kids everywhere. To this day Xena: Warrior Princess remains one of the most important genre works of its era, and the Xena cosplayers are still out in full force.
10. Daria (1997-2001)
A recurring character from Beavis and Butt-head lands her own sitcom in which she analyzes high school life and her suburban surroundings through bespectacled eyes and a trademark monotone, and an unofficial mascot for Generation X is born. Daria remains one of the most specific and brilliantly constructed animated series to emerge from the adult-leaning animation wave of the 1990s, and remains such a touchstone that a spinoff, Jodie, is now on the way.
11. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-Present)
In theory, Dick Wolf’s Law & Order franchise could launch an infinite number of interconnected spinoff series, and so far Wolf and company have been keen to test that theory with five spinoffs and counting, not to mention the interconnected One Chicago universe. With the right subtitle hook and the right cast, you could conceivably churn out hit after hit.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit—technically a spinoff of both Law & Order and Homicide: Life on the Street—turned out to be something special, though, as evidenced by its upcoming, record-breaking 21st season on NBC. Its cast, led by Mariska Hargitay (though Richard Belzer’s Detective John Munch is technically the connecting spinoff character here), is endlessly compelling to audiences, and the presence of Ice-T has helped it become a meme magnet, thanks in no small part to John Mulaney.
12. Angel (1999-2004)
A Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff seemed like a no-brainer in 1999 when the series was one of the hottest things on TV, but Angel was not necessarily the safest choice. The decision to center a show around the brooding vampire with a soul (David Boreanaz) as he moved to Los Angeles and began helping people while atoning for his own past sins required a darker touch while still maintaining the wit and pacing of the Whedonverse, and somehow the show pulled it off. Angel moves between monster-hunting fun and tortured soul morality play with ease, and to this day its series finale remains one of the greatest mic drops in TV history.
13. NCIS (2003-Present)
A spinoff of JAG, NCIS emerged in the early 2000s as another tech-heavy procedural series at a time when CSI ruled the broadcast airwaves. Since then, it has grown into one of the most enduringly popular broadcast series of the 21st century, made Mark Harmon a sex symbol all over again, and launched two spinoff series of its own. As its 17th season looms, NCIS has long-since outgrown the show that spawned it and has grown into a syndication staple.
14. The Colbert Report (2005-2015)
It’s sometimes hard to describe to someone who didn’t get to see it in real time just how potent and influential The Daily Show with Jon Stewart became in the early 2000s. The show’s blend of irreverence and searing commentary made it must-watch TV, and while numerous imitators have since been launched, so far the only one that’s come close to having the same impact is The Colbert Report.
The Report, starring Stephen Colbert as his version of a pompous conservative commentator named “Stephen Colbert,” blended a caricature of right wing media with a tireless sense of empathy and joy that made it a hit across the political spectrum, and earned the acclaim of everyone from the Emmys to the Peabody Awards. Even as the fictionalized version of himself, “Stephen Colbert” was so likable that he was entrusted to take over The Late Show after David Letterman’s retirement.
15. Better Call Saul (2015-present)
A spinoff of any beloved TV show is a gutsy call, but a spinoff of one of the most beloved and acclaimed series of the 21st century, one that’s already been counted among the greatest shows in the history of the medium? That’s something few creators would ever have the nerve to tackle. Thankfully, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan saw something more in the store of how Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) became Saul Goodman, and the result is a show that lives up to its predecessors darkly funny, often nerve-shattering storytelling.