For all its reputation as the crassly opportunistic refuge of the creatively bankrupt, the spin-off actually holds an esteemed place in TV history. Many shows now considered classics in their own right—The Simpsons, Laverne & Shirley, Frasier, The Colbert Report, etc.—began life on other shows, until producers recognized that a breakout character was popular enough to sustain their own series, then set about creating one that was... well, crassly opportunistic, but also pretty good.

In fact, the failed spin-off is somewhat rarer than you’d expect: Even the Barney Miller satellite Fish—so often used as a punchline in discussions like these—might have run for several seasons had Abe Vigoda not demanded more money, while the Alice spin-off, Flo (where Polly Holliday’s sassy waitress took over a roadhouse), was actually a Top 20 hit in the less-discerning ’80s. But the below shows are the exceptions. All of them took beloved characters who’d already endeared themselves on their parent series, then shuttled them off into their own stories that, whoops, it turns out no one was interested in. Let us remember some of these misbegotten orphans.


1. The Tortellis (1987)

Dan Hedaya’s shameless lout Nick Tortelli, along with his ditzy blond bride Loretta (Jean Kasem), were always good for a quick laugh on Cheers, where they’d drop by to absorb a few potshots from Nick’s ex-wife, Carla (Rhea Perlman), before sleazing out the door. Yet even on a show that Shelley Long left at its peak, the decision to base an entire spin-off around them ranks as some incredible hubris. The Tortellis found the off-putting couple suddenly relocated to Las Vegas, where Nick ostensibly attempts to change his con artist ways by going legit as a TV repairman. They’re inexplicably joined by two of Nick and Carla’s teen kids, as well as Loretta’s never-before-mentioned divorced sister and her adorable young son, all of them living under one roof. Despite the show’s pedigree, as well as some begrudging guest appearances from Perlman, George Wendt, and John Ratzenberger, The Tortellis lasted just 13 episodes, with both Nick and Loretta eventually slinking back to Boston. It would be six years before NBC would attempt another Cheers spin-off; fortunately, it proved far more successful. [Sean O’Neal]


2. Beverly Hills Buntz (1987)

With his loud ties and even louder mouth, Dennis Franz’s Lt. Norman Buntz was brought in to shake up Hill Street Blues in its final two seasons, adding a dose of bullying, but-he-gets-results antics to the increasingly staid cop dramedy. Franz, who’d already played the much less likable Bad Sal Benedetto in the third season, quickly became a fan favorite even as the show itself was waning, enough so that NBC quickly gave him his own spin-off. This time, Buntz’s pugnaciousness was played for straighter, half-hour comedy laughs, picking up with him after he’d decked his Hill Street commanding officer and quit the force to move to L.A., where he started a private eye business with his old consort, Sid The Snitch (Peter Jurasik). Of the 13 episodes filmed—including a pilot by director Hal Ashby, of all people—only nine would air, but Franz would eventually hit more lasting pay-dirt as another hard-assed (and occasionally bare-assed) detective on NYPD Blue. [Sean O’Neal]

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3. Time Of Your Life (1999)

Party Of Five was never a ratings powerhouse, but it garnered enough critical praise early on to get producers Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman thinking about a spin-off. Realizing it would be too cruel to break up the orphaned Salinger family even further, they looked to Jennifer Love Hewitt, who’d quickly won viewers over after joining the cast in season two. As Bailey’s girlfriend, Sarah, Hewitt was lovely and relatable—the perfect girl next door—and like her co-star Neve Campbell, Hewitt had also recently segued into films via a popular horror franchise. Premiering in 1999, Time Of Your Life saw Sarah decamp to New York in search of her biological dad, along with whatever else twentysomethings look for in the Big Apple. Despite having a winning star and a popular companion series—Fox sought to maximize the girl power by pairing it with Ally McBeal—Time Of Your Life faltered immediately. The pilot was rewritten and reshot, and the premise made more grounded. Sarah became grittier—that is, a tad less cuddly—in order to hang out with a pre-Alias Jennifer Garner and a post-That Thing You Do! Johnathon Schaech. When viewership remained low, Fox put Time Of Your Life on ice for five months before returning with a customized promotional campaign (“Summer Of Love”) in 2000. But the ratings were still abysmal, and the show was canceled; its final seven episodes didn’t air until six years later, this time on TBS. [Danette Chavez]


4. Ozzie’s Girls (1973)

After so many decades in show business—from bandleader and singer to America’s first favorite TV father—no one would have blamed Ozzie Nelson and wife Harriet for wanting to take it easy in their golden years. Instead, the hard-working pair embarked on an ill-advised 1973 spin-off of their classic white-picket-fence sitcom, The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet. With sons David and Ricky long out of the house, Ozzie’s Girls found the empty-nester Nelsons taking in a couple of college girls as boarders: the politically active Susie and Brenda. It’s hard to think of a duo less-equipped to adapt to the post-hippie era than the Nelsons, but writer-director Ozzie was apparently determined, even as it meant adopting his agreeably corny dad jokes and songs to regrettably timely scripts where he’s accused of being a swinger. Even the laugh track sounded less than entertained. Ozzie’s Girls mercifully only lasted one season. [Gwen Ihnat]


5. Booker (1989)

In a greedy effort to double 21 Jump Street’s popularity with teen girls—and hedge its bets against Johnny Depp’s rapidly rising star—Fox brought in another heartthrob to play high-school detective in season three. Richard Grieco’s Dennis Booker was an even looser cannon than Depp’s Tom Hanson, rocking extra-rebellious leather jackets and regularly getting in everyone’s face, particularly Depp’s. That friction extended off screen, creating what Grieco called a “serious rivalry” that briefly intensified when Booker got his very own spin-off at the start of the fourth season. Still, even after taking over 21 Jump Street’s plum Sunday night time slot, Grieco’s fashion-model-biker looks weren’t enough of a Depp-defeating draw on their own—particularly when put in service of a storyline about Booker leaving police work to investigate insurance claims for a Japanese corporation, a premise that made 21 Jump Street look downright vérité. Not even some midseason spunk in the form of Lori Petty could save Booker, which was soon bumped from its primetime hour on its way to swift cancellation. Considering Depp left during Jump Street’s fourth year, anyway, no doubt both Grieco and Fox wished they’d just stayed put. [Sean O’Neal]

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6. The Ropers (1979)

Like the British series it’s based on, Man About The House, Three’s Company spawned two similarly structured spin-offs: Three’s A Crowd followed the continued romantic pratfalls of John Ritter’s Jack Tripper, while the equally short-lived The Ropers gave Norman Fell and Audra Lindley’s nosy landlords their very own TV real estate. ABC’s Fred Silverman had proposed a Ropers spin-off almost immediately after Three’s Company became a hit, pursuing the idea across three seasons before Fell finally, reluctantly gave in. Fell was right to worry. The show—which found Stanley and Helen Roper relocating to a tony suburb and clashing with their new neighbors, especially Jeffrey Tambor’s snooty realtor—did great at first, when it was still safely ensconced in ABC’s popular Tuesday night lineup. But the minute ABC banished it to Saturdays (right up against CHiPs), the ratings tanked. Meanwhile, everything else Fell had feared came true, as Three’s Company quickly replaced the Ropers with the equally popular—if not more so—Mr. Furley (Don Knotts), meaning the network saw no need to bring them back. In the end, The Ropers barely lasted a year, while Fell and Lindley got only a token, conciliatory goodbye episode near the end of Three’s Company’s fifth season. [Sean O’Neal]


7. Checking In (1981)

The bickering give-and-take between George (Sherman Hemsley) and housekeeper Florence (Marla Gibbs) was one of the core delights of The Jeffersons, so in its seventh season, CBS decided it was high time to wreck it. You could probably chalk it up to arrogance—after all, The Jeffersons itself grew out of All In The Family—but it took only four abysmally rated episodes before CBS realized it had made a huge mistake by having Florence quit her job to become the head of housekeeping at a fancy Manhattan hotel. Fortunately, the savvy Gibbs saw it much earlier: She put a stipulation in her contract guaranteeing she’d be able to return to The Jeffersons if her spin-off tanked. In the end, Gibbs missed just five episodes, with Florence popping back up to offer the appropriately blasé explanation that her hotel full of colorful characters no one cared about had just burned down. [Sean O’Neal]


8. Mrs. Columbo (1979)

Mrs. Columbo—usually referred to as just “my wife” or “the Mrs.”—was one of TV’s great unseen characters, popping up solely in the rambling monologues of Peter Falk’s rumpled detective Columbo. She was a beloved running joke of a character who, while never glimpsed, still loomed large in fans’ imagination. So naturally, Fred Silverman (at NBC this time) figured, why not ruin it? Columbo producers Richard Levinson and William Link protested, while Falk himself decried it as “disgraceful,” yet Silverman—eager to milk more out of the recently ended detective series—pressed on alone. He cast future Star Trek: Voyager captain Kate Mulgrew as Columbo’s newly named, inexplicably 24-year-old wife, Kate, who balanced cleaning up her husband’s cigar butts and taking care of their basset hound with a part-time news reporter job, one that frequently ensnared her in a bit of crime-solving of her own. The utter illogic of the show (to make its timeline work, Kate would have had to marry Columbo when she was all of 13) and its embarrassing ratings quickly got to Mrs. Columbo, which attempted to save itself by dropping the Columbo connection via off-screen divorce, then renaming itself—first as Kate The Detective, then Kate Loves A Mystery. It was a wild, ultimately pointless ride, and it lasted just 13 episodes. In the final insult, when Columbo was revived in 1989, the show once again completely ignored Mrs. Columbo, reinstating her as a happily married woman—and blessedly invisible. [Sean O’Neal]

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9. Grady (1975)

In 1974, a contract dispute saw Redd Foxx walk away from Sanford And Son for a stretch of nine episodes, a problem the show solved by having Fred Sanford go to St. Louis for an especially long funeral, and leaving his best friend—the affable, addled Grady (Whitman Mayo)—in charge of the salvage yard. Briefly making Grady the hit sitcom’s central character proved to be a decent stopgap solution; in fact, its ratings were higher than ever that year. So of course, producers decided to give Mayo his own shot. Grady debuted the very next year, finding the lovable widower packing his bags and goofy catchphrases to move to upscale Westwood and live with his daughter’s family. Even with the obligatory pop-in from Foxx, however, viewers didn’t have much interest in seeing Grady play out his get-rich-slowly schemes and geriatric bumbling against a boilerplate family sitcom backdrop, and the show was canceled after just 10 episodes. Mayo soon returned to Sanford And Son—and he even went on to appear in both the Foxx-less continuation series, Sanford Arms, and guest star in the Demond Wilson-less revival Sanford, making Grady the unlikely nexus of the entire franchise. (It’s no wonder Conan O’Brien devoted so much time trying to track him down.) [Sean O’Neal]


10. Joanie Loves Chachi (1982)

If there were one Happy Days character fans wanted to spend more time with, no question it was The Fonz...’s cousin. Or so Miller-Boyett Productions gambled when it created a spin-off around burgeoning teen idol Scott Baio and his character Chachi, whose sweet romance with Joanie Cunningham (Erin Moran) formed the backbone of several Happy Days episodes—and garnered Baio thousands of fan letters per week. Ultimately, though, giving them their own series panned out about as well as Chachi’s would-be bandana-tourniquet fad: Joanie Loves Chachi lasted just 17 episodes, with viewers initially turning in to see the young couple try to realize their musical ambitions in Chicago, then tuning right back out once they realized every episode would find them actually singing to each other. There were other factors, to be sure: Baio would later blame its failure on being abandoned by the Happy Days writers and (ever classy) his late co-star’s “chemical issues.” Whatever the reason, audiences clearly decreed that, at best, they only kinda liked Chachi. [Sean O’Neal]


11. Models Inc. (1995)

Aaron Spelling’s spin-off of a spin-off centered on modeling agent Hillary Michaels (Linda Gray), who’d first appeared on Melrose Place—a show that had, itself, grown out of Beverly Hills, 90210. While Hillary’s daughter, Amanda Woodward (Heather Locklear), ruled over that apartment complex’s sexy morons, Hillary’s agency employed a pair of sisters, a beautiful rube, and a young Carrie-Anne Moss. Despite Spelling’s backing and Gray’s own pedigree—she’d previously earned an Emmy nomination as Dallas’ Sue Ellen Ewing—Models Inc. stumbled as it hit the catwalk. The show’s storytelling was more baroque than breezy, the majority of the cast personable but dull. Creators Charles Pratt Jr. and Frank South had planned to explore Hillary and Amanda’s contentious relationship in the second season, but they never got the chance—nor the ratings boost a Locklear guest appearance might have provided. Adding Dynasty vet Emma Samms as an even more ruthless executive proved to be a desperately batshit, midseason turn and it failed. Models Inc. was canceled after just one season. [Danette Chavez]

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12. Gloria (1982)

All In The Family was responsible for a multitude of spin-offs—The Jeffersons, Maude, Archie Bunker’s Place, Good Times, 704 Hauser—of varying degrees of success. Near the bottom of that scale would be 1982’s Gloria, which revolved around the least interesting member of the Bunker family, Sally Struthers’ Gloria Stivic, daughter to Archie and Edith and newly abandoned wife of Meathead. As the pilot explained, Rob Reiner’s Meathead/Mike had run off to a commune with one of his students, leaving Gloria and her young son Joey (future Aquabats frontman Christian Jacobs) to soldier on alone, with Gloria finding work as the assistant to a kindly old veterinarian played by Burgess Meredith. With zero involvement from All In The Family creator Norman Lear, and without appearances from Carroll O’Connor’s Archie—who, as Struthers later explained, felt shut out after the show relocated to a new production studio, and vaguely insulted after it added a dog named “Archie”—Gloria couldn’t make it on her own, after all. The show ended after just one season. [Gwen Ihnat]


13. The Pebbles And Bamm-Bamm Show (1971)

The third season of The Flintstones made two important additions to its modern Stone Age family: its catchy theme song and Pebbles Flintstone (who was almost born Fred Jr., before marketing considerations came into play.) Barney and Betty’s little Bamm-Bamm Rubble arrived one season later, and six years after The Flintstones left primetime, these first kids of Bedrock staged a comeback on Saturday morning. Preverbal infants tend to be a tough sell as television leads, of course, so the stars of The Pebbles And Bamm-Bamm Show grew up into teens—an act of classic, Hanna-Barbera self-plagiarism that put them in the same age bracket as the Scooby-Doo gang and Josie And The Pussycats. As voiced by Sally Struthers, Pebbles had a catchphrase to match her dad’s—an epiphanic “Yabba-Dabba-Doozy” signaled by a Bewitched-like jingle—and she and her barrel-chested beau were teamed with a gaggle of obnoxious peers: sing-song-y astrology nut Wiggy; bespectacled teen inventor Moonrock; and Velma surrogate Penny. After its lone season, The Pebbles And Bamm-Bamm Show lived on as a recurring segment in subsequent spin-offs The Flintstone Comedy Hour and Fred Flintstone And Friend, but like a lot of short-lived Hanna-Barbera products, the show’s most memorable facet is a catchy opening theme. This one ends with a reassurance to its cereal-munching audience, “You’ll see Fred and Barney, too”—more or less openly apologizing for not focusing on the characters everybody actually likes. [Erik Adams]


14. Phyllis (1975)

The opening title sequence for Phyllis combines a wickedly withering punchline—“Who charms the crabs of Fisherman’s Wharf right out of their shells? / Who lights the lamps of Chinatown just by walking in view? / Who? / Phyllis / Phyllis / Phyllis / It sure isn’t you”—with a theatricality that’s so vintage, it begins with a glance of singers in blackface. What could go wrong? James L. Brooks and Allan Burns were understandably leery about spinning off Cloris Leachman’s prickly Mary Tyler Moore Show landlady, but MTM Enterprises was also worried about losing the Oscar- and Emmy-winning star to another production house. (Similar concerns about Valerie Harper had factored into the creation of Rhoda.) And so Phyllis lost her never-seen-anyway husband, Lars, said goodbye to Mary Richards, and went to live the life of a working widow in San Francisco. “Having killed off poor Lars, I will be more sympathetic and vulnerable and people will worry more about me,” Leachman said in a CBS promo, but it never quite worked out that way. In fact, Phyllis wound up being upstaged by a character who was even more caustic: Her late husband’s grandmother, played by 86-year-old Judith Lowry, who died shortly after her character’s big wedding episode. In fact, Phyllis was plagued by cast deaths—three episodes in, co-star Barbara Colby was murdered—and after constant retooling (a change of workplace, a renewed focus on Phyllis’ daughter), CBS declared that its next hit sure wasn’t Phyllis. It was canceled after two incredibly rocky seasons in 1977, soon followed by Rhoda and The Mary Tyler Moore Show itself. [Erik Adams]

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15. A Man Called Hawk (1989)

As the mononymous enforcer Hawk on ABC’s Spenser: For Hire, Avery Brooks was everything you’d want in a breakout character. He cut a suave figure with his long gun and even longer coats, conducting his business according to a complex moral code and from behind a signature pair of shades. Brooks imbued Hawk with fiery intensity, but most of his appeal, Brooks himself admitted, lay in his mystique. “To lose the enigma would be, in some ways, to destroy the character,” Brooks said in advance of the premiere of A Man Called Hawk, which sent Hawk back to his native Washington, D.C., gave him a mentor known only as Old Man (Tony nominee Moses Gunn), and assigned him a case load that put Hawk in contact with guest stars like Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, and Angela Bassett. Although the show earned some accolades for boasting a black lead—a rarity in its era—the slow tease of Hawk’s back-story and some uninspired action (“A flock of cliches grounds Hawk,” read one typical review) meant viewers weren’t interested in exploring that mystery any further. Hawk lasted just 13 episodes before the character retreated to the shadows, reemerging for a string of Spenser TV movies that re-teamed Brooks with Robert Urich. (Not that Brooks needed the work: By then, he’d found a far more compelling character in Deep Space Nine’s Benjamin Sisko.) [Erik Adams]


16. Cory In The House (2007)

Disney Channel’s hit kid-com That’s So Raven completely overhauled the cable channel’s approach to original programming, becoming the first in a wave of garishly colored, loudly acted multi-camera comedies that spawned The Suite Life Of Zack & Cody, Hannah Montana, Wizards Of Waverly Place, and years of braying afternoon fillers. It succeeded by, in part, being Disney’s first series to self-replicate: After the end of Raven-Symoné’s slapstick escapades as San Francisco clairvoyant Raven Baxter, Raven’s younger brother, Cory (Kyle Massey), and their father, Victor (Rondell Sheridan), were sent packing for Washington D.C., where Victor booked a plush gig as White House head chef. The move prompted a significant personality shift for Cory—a pint-sized nuisance on the original series who grew into an everyman teen protagonist, albeit one still obsessed with get-rich-quick schemes. Cory In The House extended the Raven brand for a couple more years, but Massey and his pretend classmates failed to spark the camaraderie and chemistry that carried their parent show to the 100-episode mark (and not a half-hour further). As is the curse of all post-millennial children’s entertainment, Cory In The House now lives a second life largely in meme form, as the subject of running Reddit and 4chan jokes that insist the live-action series is actually an anime. [Erik Adams]


17. The Law And Harry McGraw (1987)

Gruff, slovenly private investigator Harry McGraw (Jerry Orbach) often teamed up with author-turned-amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher to solve Murder, She Wrote mysteries, and that odd-couple dynamic carried over to The Law And Harry McGraw, which paired Harry with Ellie Maginnis (Barbara Babcock), an attorney running the family firm in the office across the hall. Theirs was a mutually beneficial arrangement: She sends Harry work, he helps out on her cases, and they keep one another company as the platonic, Tracy-and-Hepburn of Boston crime solvers. But despite Murder, She Wrote’s ratings clout and Babcock’s lengthy run on the recently wrapped Hill Street Blues, The Law And Harry McGraw failed to make any headway in The Case of The Missing Nielsen Households. Premiering in September of 1987, it was yanked from the schedule that November; the L.A. Times later reported that Murder, She Wrote’s producers had petitioned for a stay of execution, but one that only ran as far as February. Harry returned to Murder She, Wrote a few times after his own series ended, until Orbach moved on to representing the people again as one of two separate, yet equally important groups on Law & Order. [Erik Adams]

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18. The Lone Gunmen (2001)

It should have been a no-brainer: Take three of the most entertaining minor characters from one of the most enduring mainstays of ’90s TV, turn them loose to dive into the less depressing aspects of the series’ sprawling mythos, and let the conspiracy theory fun begin. But while The X-Files had long proven its ability to occasionally do comedy (usually under the watchful eye of writer-producer Darin Morgan), The Lone Gunmen made it clear that consistently pulling it off was something Chris Carter and his team—which included co-creator Vince Gilligan—were a lot less adept at. Still, the series’ real problem wasn’t that it wasn’t funny. (Or rather, it wasn’t just that.) It was that the Gunmen were sidekicks by nature, and without Fox Mulder to serve as foils to—or Dana Scully to creepily hit on—there just wasn’t enough there there to keep the show going past its strangely prescient pilot, which, in a bit of coincidental weirdness the Gunmen themselves would have appreciated, concerned a plot to fly a commercial airliner into the World Trade Center, six months before 9/11. The Lone Gunmen ended after just 13 episodes; as an added insult, the Gunmen themselves were dispatched a year later, in a controversial, weirdly maudlin episode of their parent show. [William Hughes]


19. Joey (2004)

When massively popular TV shows end their runs, it makes sense that their producers want to keep the money coming with a spin-off. It’s unusual, then, that Friends co-creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane opted out having anything to do with Joey, which took hunky dimwit Joey Tribbiani (Matt Leblanc) from NYC to L.A. to live with his sister, Gina (Drea De Matteo) and her son, with only Friends co-creator Kevin Bright shepherding the move. Joey smartly debuted a mere five months after the Friends finale and attracted 52.5 million viewers, but tellingly, it drew a then-disappointing 18.5 million for its series premiere. Ratings remained middling for its time—although, Joey’s lowest ebb is about what the top-rated Big Bang Theory averaged last fall—so NBC moved it to Tuesdays for a season two suicide mission: going up against American Idol. Unsurprisingly, Joey continued to falter; after a brief hiatus, NBC canceled it in May 2006. Adding to the indignity, the network never even aired the six remaining episodes it had in the can. The experience put Leblanc off acting for years, but as he later told The Guardian, “I made a fucking shitload of money, so call it a failure all you want.” [Kyle Ryan]