Your spin-off for 10…
From The Colbys to Joey, TV is known for its dodgy spin-offs. Now even a quiz show is spawning new versions.
Your starter for 10: are television spin-offs clever or not?
Are they proof that TV executives and scriptwriters are capable of developing a narrative based on the foundations of a well-loved TV series, and continuing an original story and transforming it into something that is both familiar and slightly novel?
Or is the phenomenon of the TV spin-off an example of a lack of imagination, of the bigwigs simply trying to milk proven cash cows, expecting the audience to swallow the conceit that the protagonists inhabit the same imagined universe as the programme that spawned them?
The spin-off is to TV what the sequel is to cinema: an often impossibly daunting challenge to continue and improve on the original.
The spin-off has long been witnessed in the field of comedies and soap operas, and with mixed results. Frasier is an example of the spin-off at its best. Starring Kelsey Grammer as Dr Frasier Crane, it was a spin-off of Cheers – but where that 1980s show was cosy, chummy and amusing, Frasier proved to be more genuinely funny and cerebral. It also had the kind of pathos and depth that its predecessor lacked, being founded on the ambivalent, fractured, yet loving relationship between Frasier Crane, his brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and their father Martin (John Mahoney), and also on Niles’ long-time unreciprocated love for housekeeper Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves).
Over here in the UK, the hospital drama Casualty also spawned a superior spin-off in 1999, in the guise of Holby City, set in the same hospital. I remember reading some critic arguing that Holby City was ‘boring’ in comparison to the show that inspired it, because where Casualty was set in an A&E department Holby City concentrated on the surgeons upstairs performing routine operations. But that, I think, was the strength of Holby City. Casualty might be compared to a Jean-Claude Van Damme or early Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, in that it relies on gory action shots and thus doesn’t have to bother much with storylines. Holby City, on the other hand, doesn’t have the crutch of multiple car crashes, kids foolishly jumping fences to get into electricity sub-stations to retrieve footballs, or complete idiots walking near low-lying electricity pylons with their fishing rods erect. Thus Holby City has to make an effort to produce a storyline, rather than relying on screen violence to tantalise viewers.
The spin-off can be disastrous, of course. The makers of Friends thought they could do for Joey Tribbiani what Cheers had done for Frasier Craine, but in the end nobody was impressed with the outcome, Joey; the show was cancelled. Dynasty was ridiculous in the first place, so it was no surprise that The Colbys was even more absurd. Hollyoaks in the City is quite embarrassing. Perhaps the actors who have progressed to it from the original soap, Hollyoaks, thought it would give them a bit of kudos. After all, Hollyoaks in the City has naughty words, and scenes of hanky-panky, and most of all it is set in Liverpool, which is an obviously ‘edgy’ and ‘dangerous’ city, unlike Chester, where Hollyoaks is set, and which most people know as a place where you merely change trains to get to somewhere more interesting.
Then there is the spin-off that defies definition: Mork and Mindy. The show is often described as a spin-off of Happy Days, and to this day I have no clue as to what a series about a motormouth alien has to do with a 1970s comedy depicting life in a 1950s café in mid-West America. Mork and Mindy may have been great, but to describe it as a ‘spin-off’ seems ludicrous.
So this phenomenon is common to comedy and soaps; but it appears now that the spin-off is emerging in a new and curious television milieu: quiz shows. First we had Junior Mastermind, the son of Mastermind, and, as the title suggests, designed for children. Now, this week, BBC 2 has been bringing us its new series, Are You an Egghead?
The programme is a spin-off of one of BBC 2’s most popular shows of recent years, Eggheads, which first appeared on our screens in 2003. It featured a panel of five famous television quiz winners – the eponymous ‘eggheads’ – who in each episode faced a team of five members drawn from the general public. Each member of the challengers takes on an ‘egghead’ on a different specialist subject: history, sport, entertainment, science, film and TV, and so on (the subject matters are rotated). It concludes with a general knowledge round. If the challengers beat the eggheads (which they seldom do), they win a bundle of cash; all the eggheads can win is their honour (1).
Now, however, the panel of expert ‘eggheads’ is to be expanded to six, which explains the existence of Are You an Egghead? The programme, broadcast daily, prior to Eggheads proper later in the day, pits competing potential ‘eggheads’ against the ‘eggheads’ proper, and these potentials can win the ultimate prize of joining the ‘eggheads’ in the next series.
I think this is a good idea, if slightly odd. Spin-offs in the world of comedy and soap, no matter how dreadful they can be, at least make sense. The creators of these shows have fashioned their own fictional universes, and so when Norm or Cliff or Sam made an appearance in Frasier, there was a sense of continuity. It was like seeing the return of old friends in the mental world you had created for yourself while watching Cheers in the 1980s.
But a TV quiz spin-off? Surely this is just cashing in on a reliable format? And there could be something alarming in the fact that not only have the makers of Eggheads ripped off the spin-off phenomenon – they have simultaneously embraced the notion that TV stars should be made instantly on TV, as with The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, rather than endeavouring behind the scenes to achieve success.
However, I think the latter charge is unfounded. As the contestants on Are You an Egghead? have so far displayed, they are genuinely brainy. Unlike the contestants on Britain’s Got Talent, these Britons do have talent. And I approve of quizzes (I spent six months last year setting the weekly pub quiz at my local in West London, so perhaps I am biased). I do accept the accusation that people who are good at quizzes may know a lot of trivia, but don’t know what any of it actually means; they often resemble autistic trainspotters rather than true intellectuals who have the capacity to contextualise information. But, in the end, what’s wrong with dumbing up?
Know-it-alls can be insufferable bores, I concede. Which is why it is strangely appropriate that we are now witnessing the extension of the TV spin-off to the quiz. After all, Cliff from Cheers always began his tedious, all-knowing monologues with the ominous refrain: ‘It’s a little-known fact…’