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Monday, 27 April 2015

How to master the perfect spin-off

Today sees the DVD release of short lived US series The Finder. I wouldn't be surprised if the series utterly passed you by. I'm not even sure if it aired in the UK, and it was axed by the Fox Network after one series, sorry season! The drama was a spin-off from popular Fox series Bones and was loosely based on The Locator series of two books by Richard Greener. It also marked the final TV performance from Green Mile star Michael Clarke Duncan who died of a heart attack after the series ended.

If you were a fan of Bones then The Finder sits nicely along side it, but it never captured its audience in the same way.

So, what does it take to have a success with a spin-off?  First of all the successful ones are the shows that take the characters but put them in their own situations, meaning that that the creators can't just try and recreate what made the original show such a success. It could be said that Life on Mars spin-off Ashes to Ashes took the characters and central theme of the original and changed the era, but by the end the show lasted longer than Life on Mars and gave fans the ending that had been craving.

Another hugely successful recent spin-off was AMC's Better Call Saul. The idea of trying to capitalise on the Breaking Bad phenomenon seemed utterly bonkers. The original series was pretty much perfection. Surely the sensible thing to for creator Vince Gilligan to do would be to walk away from his hit and create something entirely new. In a way he did. Better Call Saul maybe the ultimate spin-off in as much as it quickly established itself as a drama of its own merits. With nods to Breaking Bad to keep fans happy, Saul was a very different show exploring new and old characters with a new depth and intensity. If there were a step by step guide for mastering a successful spin-off then Vince Gilligan will most likely have written it.

A comedy spin-off appears a harder thing to master. You perhaps can't blame the creators of Friends for presuming that giving their lovable 'friend' Joey his own series would be an instant hit. Instead the show was an almost instant flop, exposing what a weak character Joey was without the support of the rest of the cast. Even John Sullivan's attempt at prolonging the legacy of the BBC's Only Fools & Horses failed to recapture any of the magic of the BBC institution. The Green Green Grass, which saw Boyce and Marlene relocate to the country felt like the poor relation of Only Fools and never really became the hit the BBC were hoping for. If mega-hits like Friends and Only Fools can't muster a good spin-off what chance do other shows have?

Ignoring  Frasier which for most is the ultimate comedy spin-off, there are only two other comedies that spring to mind. 2004's Max and Paddy's Road to Nowhere which saw the stars of Phoenix Nights on the run, and more recently the BBC's Twenty Twelve spin-off W1A.

The genius behind W1A is the fact that it throws Ian Fletcher and Siobhan Sharpe into an entirely new uncomfortable situation. It might also help that whilst Twenty Twelve was a hit it wasn't perhaps the juggernaut that Friends or Fools was, so it means that audiences can enjoy W1A on its own. It manages to feel least like a spin-off than all the other shows I've mentioned. Ultimately I'm often wary of the spin-off as I see them as an excuse for channels not to let go of their big hitters, but when they work and serve as a compliment to the original series you get the best of both worlds!

The Finder is now available on DVD.

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