It's one of the oldest adages in Hollywood: If at first you do succeed, try and try again... to replicate that hit. Just as the movie business remains entrenched in sequel mania (Scary Movie 5, anyone?), almost every broadcast network has a spinoff of a popular series in the works for next season.
ABC is looking to expand its Once Upon A Time universe with the Alice-centric Once: Wonderland. The CW is building The Originals around The Vampire Diaries baddie Klaus (Joseph Morgan). NBC will explore Chicago law enforcement in producer Dick Wolf's untitled Chicago Fire offshoot.
And CBS has in the works what might be the ultimate brand extension: A spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff. You may recall that JAG led to NCIS, which spawned NCIS: Los Angeles, which in turn was the incubator last month for NCIS: Red, starring Kim Raver and John Corbett (the characters were featured in a two-part episode).
Insiders at the network say they're looking forward to cross-pollinating NCIS: LA and NCIS: Red — and perhaps even developing a relationship between Raver and NCIS: LA's Chris O'Donnell. When three days of DVR usage is included, the two-part NCIS: LA arc featuring the new Red team averaged 17.7 million viewers, great exposure for a potential new show.
Why are so many spinoffs in the works now? In an age when scores of new shows on broadcast and cable fight for attention, a spinoff comes with built-in audience awareness. Viewers are already familiar with the characters, and the new series are usually similar in tone to that of the shows viewers already love.
In the case of The Originals, Thom Sherman, The CW's executive vice president of development, says the network had been kicking around ideas for a Vampire Diaries spinoff since Season 2, and the timing finally felt right this year. "You want to catch it at a time when creatively the show you're spinning out of is still really strong," he says, "and even continuing to rise."
Sherman and Vampire Diaries executive producer Julie Plec say they're invigorated by the idea of putting a villain at the new series' core. "There's something so wonderfully damaged about [Klaus]," Sherman says. "Something about getting to the heart of his pain and the depths of what that is, which he barely reveals in The Vampire Diaries. The story of The Originals, I'm not sure that anyone knows what is coming."
The Originals pilot will air as an episode of The Vampire Diaries on April 25; the spinoff follows Klaus and his family of vampires as he moves back to New Orleans — a city he helped create centuries ago. Adds Sherman: "It completely sets their world on a completely different axis. It's a whole new mythology. The Originals has to stand on its own."
As More Networks Develop Series, Is There Too Much TV?
Most of this year's contenders are so-called backdoor pilots, which double as episodes of the shows from which they've originated. That allows networks and studios to spend less on pilot costs while also getting an early peak at how audiences react. "It's a cheap way to do a pilot," says one studio executive. "You're essentially paying for a few more days of shooting, but it's not the cost of a full blown pilot. And then you're planting it within something that's already beloved."
But it's still not easy: NCIS: Red is a planted spinoff — a show with brand-new characters that are introduced on a hit show for the sole purpose of spinning them off. That required cramming six new characters into NCIS: LA, which already has six characters.
The Originals is more of a traditional spinoff, where an established character on a hit show moves on to a new series — that's how The Mary Tyler Moore Show beget Rhoda and Phyllis, or more recently, how Private Practice centered on Grey's Anatomy's Dr. Addison Montgomery and The Cleveland Show followed Family Guy's Cleveland Brown.
Another kind of spinoff is the continuation of a retiring show, like Frasier (which launched after Cheers ended) or Joey (the Friends spinoff that quickly fizzled). This winter, NBC had hoped to keep the legacy of The Office going next year via Rainn Wilson's Dwight-centric The Farm, but it ultimately didn't pass muster. AMC is currently mulling keeping the legacy of Breaking Bad alive via a show starring Bob Odenkirk, who plays sleazy attorney Saul Goodman on the cable drama (which wraps up this summer).
But the most successful spinoffs of the past decade have been franchise spinoffs — extensions of shows like Law & Order, CSI and NCIS. At one point, Law & Order aired four different versions at once: Original recipe, Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent and Crime and Punishment. Wolf has compared his string of shows to Campbell's soup. "If you're in the mood for soup, they're all going to be good," he has said.
Wolf is now looking to replicate that formula with his Chicago Fire offshoot, which would star Scott Eastwood, Tania Raymonde and possibly Jon Seda (who has a recurring role on the NBC drama). Eastwood and Raymonde will appear in the May 15 Fire finale, which will serve as a backdoor pilot.
Will too many spinoffs fuel critics who charge that the networks have run out of good ideas? Spinoffs may have a leg up when it comes to series orders — troubling news for writers with other shows in contention for a coveted primetime slot. While developing spinoffs, the studio exec weighs concerns that producers may stretch themselves too thin and damage the original show. "You have to have the visionaries in place that can keep their eye on the ball and do more than one thing," he said. "That's rare."
That's why not all spinoffs make it. In recent years, potential spinoffs of Gossip Girl, Glee, Californication and Heroes were scrapped.
"The challenge for a creator is, how do I keep elements of the original that draw the big audience, yet make it distinct enough that people don't feel they're watching a derivative show?" says the studio exec. "It's difficult to do."
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- Vampire Diaries
- The Originals