Clerks: The Animated Series

Two years ago, the A.V. Club offered a list of TV shows better than the movies that inspired them. In the time since, more stellar small-screen series have been made from big-screen stories, further shattering the conventional wisdom that cinema doesn’t translate well to episodic television. In honor of these new triumphs of adaptation—and to make note of the older ones not mentioned before—we’ve drawn up a kind of spiritual sequel to that Inventory. Few of the shows listed below actually surpass the quality of their inspiration, à la Buffy or Friday Night Lights, both of which made the earlier list and hence aren’t included on this new one. But all of them do justice to their filmic predecessors, regardless of how many seasons they lasted.

1. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-09)

The abiding problem with the Terminator film franchise has been that the movies keep coming back to the same story: time travel, killer robots, efforts to kill off future human leader John Connor and preserve a nightmare future run by the murderous artificial intelligence Skynet. So how do writers keep the story fresh when it keeps looping back in time to the same points over and over? With the two-season Fox series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, starring future Game Of Thrones villain-queen Lena Headey in the title role, series creator Josh Friedman came up with a couple of twists. First, a Terminator named Cameron (played by Whedon favorite Summer Glau), sent back in time and assigned to protect teenage Connor from further assassination attempts. Second, a series of missions larger than just “survive and terminate the latest Terminator,” as the Connors try to predict what software will become Skynet, and stop it before it starts. Third, a larger story that encompassed other characters, trying to understand the Terminator threat and help or hinder the Connor family. The series had its rote returns to flee-from-robot sequences and fight-robot-with-improvised-weapon sequences, but it also expanded the story past the tiny boundaries that had always contained it, bringing in themes like improvised family and the fundamental human needs that reach past survival. And occasionally, it pulled out a really stylish sequence that turned the franchise’s fundamentals into something poetic. [Tasha Robinson]

2. Fargo (2014-)

On paper, it sounded like the worst Coen-related remake since The Ladykillers: Two decades after the fact, FX attempts to recycle and serialize the dark, self-contained pleasures of Joel and Ethan’s Oscar-winning crime caper. Was there really any clamoring to see someone other than Frances McDormand play Marge Gunderson? And who could possibly stage that famous wood-chipper scene better than the Coens themselves? But therein lies the key to Fargo’s successful transition from the big screen to the small one: Rather than simply stretch out the plot of the 1996 movie, casting new actors in all the old roles, series creator Noah Hawley cooked up a new one—a kind of loosely connected sequel, set in the same wintry backstretch of Minnesota and featuring characters both similar to and crucially different from their cinematic counterparts. The resulting 10-episode saga was thrilling not just for the way it wove in elements of the original—including that iconic score, beautifully deconstructed—but for how it built a new world within the Coens’ unmistakable moral universe. Are we excited for season two, starring a whole different ensemble of heavily accented murderers and screw-ups? You betcha. [A.A. Dowd]

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3. Clerks: The Animated Series (2000)

Back in 2000, it seemed like director Kevin Smith had nowhere to go but up: Chasing Amy had earned him critical acclaim for its frank depiction of romantic and sexual relationships, while his follow-up, Dogma, hinted at a deft ability to balance expertly aimed vulgarity with real theological depth. So when Smith, his production partner Scott Mosier, and former Seinfeld writer David Mandel approached ABC with an animated adaptation of the director’s low-budget, cult hit debut Clerks, the network bit—and then immediately spat the project out, canceling it after airing a mere two episodes. (And airing them out of order, at that). While that decision is easy to understand—the show’s voice acting, from stars Jeff Anderson and Brian O’Halloran, can be borderline unpleasant, and its premise and style clashed nastily with a prime time network time slot—it also proved to be a damn shame, because Clerks: The Animated Series had a lot more going for it than mere slacker name recognition. This is, after all, a series that devoted its second episode to a retrospective clip show celebrating its first, and constructed its series finale as an elaborate, 30-minute “screw you” to disappointed fans of the original film. That stylistic playfulness appealed to members of the then-nascent DVD market, and Clerks: The Animated Series became one of the first success stories of the TV-to-DVD era. Based on the strength of those sales, the entire series eventually aired in a more fitting time slot on Comedy Central, finally letting cable watchers enjoy Smith’s first venture into TV entertainment in all its weird, fitfully hilarious glory. [William Hughes]

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4. Gidget (1965-66)

The Gidget franchise launched in 1957, when transplanted Austrian screenwriter Frederick Kohner wrote a bestselling novel about Malibu surf culture, from the perspective a slangy teenage girl striving to be taken seriously by the dudes. The book became a very good movie in 1959—one of the first of the “beach pictures,” and an inspiration to wannabe surfers around the world—and an even better TV series in 1965, with the sunny Sally Field in the title role. ABC and Screen Gems may have wanted a simple youthsploitation cash-in, but Gidget’s writers (especially the veteran Ruth Brooks Flippen) delivered a nuanced show about the relationship between the smart, headstrong young Gidget and her widowed college professor dad. Though it was cancelled after one season, Gidget has played in syndication ever since, because it ignored the dated silliness of the Frankie and Annette beach party movies and the faddishness of surf-rock, and instead matched the film and the book’s more universal and timeless expression of how it feels to be young and full of hope. [Noel Murray]

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5. Parenthood (2010-15)

Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel conceived of Parenthood as they were all commiserating about how becoming fathers affected them more than they ever expected. The resulting 1989 movie, with Gil Buchman (Steve Martin) raising his rapidly expanding clan, also branched off into the families of Gil’s own siblings: a struggling single mother, an overachieving younger sister, and a black-sheep younger brother. A 1990 TV version failed to take off, but a 2010 one took hold. Coming off of the similarly family-friendly Friday Night Lights, producer Jason Katims wisely used his cinematic source material as a foundation to build from. So black-sheep brother Crosby (Dax Shepard) gained more redeeming factors and single mom Sarah (Lauren Graham) gained more strength than sob stories. But the most valuable element of both the movie and its successful TV offspring is the ability to depict just how tough the titular gig is. In both versions, Parenthood’s realism was a refreshing break from idyllic cinematic or TV families: Your kid may just decide to throw up on you after a baseball game or throw their retainer away in the trash. And yet, few parents would trade that job for any other, and TV’s Parenthood expanded past the movie to show us why for six seasons. [Gwen Ihnat]

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6. In The Heat Of The Night (1988-94)

It’s depressing to think that Norman Jewison’s 1967 film about a black police detective dealing with racism in a small Mississippi town was still relevant enough in 1988 that NBC could adapt it into a weekly series. But not only did the show find enough fans to keep it on the air for seven seasons, it even survived a jump between networks, hopping to CBS at the beginning of its sixth season. It certainly didn’t hurt that In The Heat Of The Night was able to secure a cast that featured a bona fide TV icon, with Carroll O’Connor stepping into Rod Steiger’s shoes as Police Chief Bill Gillespie, while the part of Virgil Tibbs, originally played by Sidney Poitier, was taken by Howard Rollins, who not only had an Academy Award nomination to his credit (for Ragtime) but had also earned critical acclaim for his work in A Soldier’s Story, which was—to bring things full circle—directed by Norman Jewison. [Will Harris]

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7. Bates Motel (2013-)

Talk about setting the bar high: A&E’s prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho not only immediately invited comparisons to one of the most famous films of all time, but it did so while asking us to develop a bond with one of cinema’s great monsters, Norman Bates. While the show started off on uneven footing, it quickly found its tone, a smart balance of creepy and campy, paired with twisting plots and exciting storytelling. The secret weapon here is Vera Farmiga. The actress is the living embodiment of superlative, nailing the show’s odd vibe right out of the gate and slowly pulling everyone and everything in the series up to her level. Freddie Highmore has finally made Norman Bates his own, à la Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter, but Farmiga has made all of Bates Motel her own. Her truckload of Emmys is presumably forthcoming. [Alex McCown]

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8. McCloud (1970-77)

Though writer-producer Herman Miller never wrote a word of NBC’s 1970s detective series McCloud, he’s still credited as its creator, because in all but name, McCloud is a TV version of the Miller-penned 1968 movie Coogan’s Bluff. The film—produced and directed by Don Siegel—stars Clint Eastwood as a Western lawman who follows a case from Arizona to a blighted late 1960s New York City, where he rubs the local cops the wrong way with his cowboy hat and cocky attitude. On television, Dennis Weaver plays a New Mexico marshal who gets assigned to help out an understaffed NYPD, though the Chief he reports to (played by J.D. Cannon) gets easily riled by McCloud’s tendency to squander expensive resources while pursuing slender leads. A sturdy spoke in NBC’s rotating mystery “wheel” (initially alongside Columbo and McMillan & Wife), McCloud followed the example of Coogan’s Bluff, picking up most of its kick from the contrast between its laid-back, ever-eager hero and the squalor and decadence of the city. [Noel Murray]

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9. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2003-2005, 2008-2014)

There’s endless room for story amid the holes left by George Lucas’ fast-moving Star Wars prequel trilogy, as a republic crumbles, a major interstellar war is fought, an empire rises, and a little kid who yells “Yippee!” when pleased abruptly grows up into a glowering child-murderer, all mostly offscreen. Star Wars: The Clone Wars—initially a 2003 Genndy Tartakovsky-helmed Cartoon Network series, then a full-fledged, six-season Lucasfilm series—fills in some of the blanks, and stretches out comfortably where Attack Of The Clones rushed. In the process, it doesn’t just patch over the empty spaces, it realizes some of the films’ latent potential. The Star Wars setting has always been larger than Lucas’ cinematic ambitions. The Clone Wars realized some of those ambitions by focusing on long arcs, character development (particularly Anakin Skywalker’s), and new characters who flesh out the film’s expanded universe. The stylized animation takes some getting used to, especially when dealing with familiar characters, but the storytelling just improved over the series’ run, until by the end, it was arguably more emotionally sophisticated than the films that inspired it. [Tasha Robinson]

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10. The Returned (2012)

French-language program The Returned (Les Revenants in its country of origin) shares a basic concept and sense of atmosphere with its source material, but that’s about it. As in They Came Back (also Les Revenants to Francophones), the dead mysteriously spring to life in The Returned, unaware of their demise and stubbornly reluctant to feast on human flesh—though they do have a general hunger that can’t be satisfied. The TV version tells its story on a much smaller scale, focusing on the living dead’s impact on a small French village, where the residents still mourn those they lost in a bus crash four years prior. With a tighter focus and an extended running time, The Returned’s mysteries seep out ever so slowly, playing to a suspenseful patience that’s difficult to calibrate on the big screen. There’s no pressure to answer every question about this mass resurrection, with Fabrice Gobert and company leaving themselves plenty of mysteries to solve (or not solve) during The Returned’s hotly anticipated second season. [Erik Adams]

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11. Teen Wolf (2011-)

Teen Wolf the MTV show had a few strikes against it going in. First off, lacrosse instead of basketball? Talk about an affront to sports fiction. Then, how could the kid from Maid In Manhattan possibly live up to Michael J. Fox’s lycanthropic legacy? Or even Jason Bateman’s? There were also some criticisms about the lack of van surfing and girls named Boof. Basically, it was all the criticism you’d expect from people over-blowing the quality of a goofy ’80s movie with questionable messages at the news of it being adapted as an hour-long teen horror show on MTV, of all networks. Instead of using teen lycanthropy as an excuse for popularity, MTV’s Teen Wolf chose to tell the story of an average kid as he transitions into a superhero—an epic story of good versus evil (and men versus T-shirts), constantly introducing more supernatural lore to its own rich, complex mythology. Recently, that complex mythology has worked against Teen Wolf, but the first two seasons put the series in the same supernatural conversation as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Vampire Diaries. Not bad for a show without any van surfing. [LaToya Ferguson]

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12. Nikita (2010-13)

The clone of a clone is supposed to show conspicuous signs of degeneration. Apparently no one mentioned that to Craig Silverstein, who developed The CW’s Nikita as a reboot of the popular USA series La Femme Nikita, the first serial adaptation of the 1990 film written and directed by Luc Besson. Silverstein’s Nikita didn’t stay in production as long as the first series, which premiered in 1997 with 24 co-creator Joel Surnow at the helm. But while Surnow’s show boasts the longer run—five seasons to four—Silverstein created the better Nikita by more accurately interpreting the source material. Both series bastardize Besson’s story, about a troubled young woman who, after murdering a cop, is forced into contract killing by a ruthless organization. But the shows sanitize the title character differently: In the first series, Nikita (Peta Wilson) is framed for the cop’s murder and avoids force wherever possible. But Silverstein’s Nikita (Maggie Q) has blood dripping off her hands. The latter series gets the audience behind Nikita by infusing the premise of Alias, reframing Nikita’s tragic arc as mythology and rooting the current story in her desire to exact revenge on the cabal that ruined her life. Neither show is a faithful adaptation, but the latter series excelled by staying truer to Besson’s themes and emphasis on tense action sequences. [Joshua Alston]

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13. Beetlejuice (1989-91)

In a perfect world, this list would be full of animated adaptations of Tim Burton’s movies, overflowing with the director’s cartoonish characters, outlandish plots, and delightfully lurid color schemes—a vibrant, gleefully violent animated version of Mars Attacks!, for example, would be a thing of beauty. Sadly, though, this early ’90s ABC cartoon, based on Burton’s 1988 supernatural blockbuster, is the only one there is. But while Beetlejuice committed several potential adaptational sins on its way to TV—replacing the film’s nightmarish, bureaucratic afterlife with a monster-filled version of suburbia, for example, or filing all the rough edges off its titular ghost to make him into a kid-friendly protagonist—it succeeded by holding on to Burton’s manic energy, transforming its animated hero into a shape-shifting, anarchistic force, playing to the strengths of his new animated home. [William Hughes]

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14. 12 Monkeys (2015-)

A television version of 12 Monkeys should not work. Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film is a story of a broken man’s increasing insanity as he (possibly) travels through time to stop a virus that destroys the world. It’s a bleak film, dystopian through and through, even when ocupying the world pre-virus. Instead of trying to replicate such a rigidly cinematic concept in the TV format, Syfy’s 12 Monkeys tells its own story, one of the paradoxes of time travel and the inherent optimism of changing the future. It also provides a saner version of the protagonist James Cole (Bruce Willis in the film, Aaron Stanford in the show), as he is tasked with trying to stop the possibly inevitable. In just 13 episodes so far, 12 Monkeys became one of the best new science-fiction shows in years, and it did so while seeing the hope for a better future, even when everything goes to shit. Plus, Emily Hampshire is simply a revelation as Jennifer Goines, the female version of Brad Pitt’s 12 Monkeys movie character. [LaToya Ferguson]

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15. Highlander: The Series (1992-98)

The film version of Highlander may not have been a giant hit when it was released in 1986, but its popularity grew after its initial release, spawning a TV show in 1992 that ran for six seasons. Original star Christopher Lambert, who played immortal Connor MacLeod was kind enough to return to the franchise to hand it over to series star Adrian Paul, who played Duncan, another member of Clan MacLeod, facilitated by a re-imagining of the original film’s ending. The series itself was mainly based on the relationships that Duncan formed while living as an in-the-closet immortal, shifting focus from the Game—the epic fight between good and evil that dominates much of the film version. Making the show more about the people in Duncan’s life was a smart move, meaning that he was not constantly evading Quickenings—or beheadings —and instead was interacting with both mortals and immortals, to more dramatically satisfying ends. [Molly Eichel]

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16. The Pink Panther Show (1969-1980)

Blake Edwards’ 1963 live-action feature The Pink Panther isn’t about a panther, pink or otherwise: It’s about bumbling French police inspector Jacques Clouseau (played by Peter Sellers) and a famous gemstone with a panther-shaped flaw. But the movie’s animated opening credits, produced by David H. DePatie and Friz Freleng, featured a languid, sleepy-eyed, cool cat playing with the titles and slinking around to Henry Mancini’s famous theme, and the character was an instant hit. The next year, MGM and DePatie-Freleng’s production company started making Pink Panther theatrical shorts, and by 1969, the character had his own show—an echo of Jay Ward’s anarchic Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends, which launched a decade earlier. Like Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Pink Panther Show was an anthology of unrelated cartoons, some featuring the Pink Panther—a lanky, eternally silent galoot who frequently pulled surreal tricks on a short-tempered foil called the Little Man, or Big Nose—and others focusing on a clear Clouseau take-off called The Inspector. Later iterations of the show added an aardvark based on comedian Jackie Mason chasing an ant modeled after Dean Martin, and a pair of toads from Tijuana. All these cartoons had the same sort of low-key, antic feel and minimalist but stylish DePatie-Freleng visuals, a sort of antidote to the minimalist and generic Hanna-Barbera cartoons and the mania of Looney Tunes animation. There was always a genial, in-jokey feel about the Pink Panther cartoons, and a Little Tramp feel to the character himself: Frequently broke and down on his luck, but endlessly genial and creative in finding solutions, the Pink Panther carved out a distinctive niche among other surreal troublemakers largely by being a calm adult figure amid chaos, instead of a wisecracking eternal kid. [Tasha Robinson]