T5F: Spin-Offs

5. The Facts of Life

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If you grew up in the ’80s, you either fell right into the Diff’rent Strokes sweet spot or Facts of Life. I was definitely in the Facts of Life camp. And let’s be honest, the premise for Facts of Life seems a bit safer than its predecessor- a rich, old white guy adopting two young black kids from Harlem might raise a few eyebrows today (what you talkin’ about Willis, indeed…) I don’t know what network exec recognized the warm, comedic presence of Charlotte Rae and said, “Let’s give the maid her own show!” but bless them.

4. A Different World

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Look at these faces! Look at them! Aren’t you charmed by the fact that I picked a S1 photo? Lisa Bonet and Marisa Tomei (huh. Never realized how clearly their names rhymed…) were not long for the show, which is surprising considering that Bonet’s Denise Huxtable is the person who brought us to this different world in the first place, all the way from The Cosby Show (RIP our fond remembrances of a show that we can no longer love or appreciate without needing to take a dozen Silkwood showers). It turns out that A Different World worked without Bonet’s breezy, let’s all sit in a field and smoke a little weed and look gorgeous demeanor, when she was forced by Bill Cosby (hiss) to leave the show because she was pregnant with Lenny Kravitz’s baby. All you needed was quirky Dwayne, confident Jaleesa, spoiled Whitley Gilbert, and sweet, earnest Kimberly. And a host of other characters at Hillman College. Oh, and Sinbad, of course.

3. Law & Order: SVU

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The only Law & Order, amirite? SVU is such a monster hit that it remains on air even as its anchor Law & Order, an NBC mainstay for twenty years, bit the dust in 2010. Is it the salaciousness of the crimes? The chemistry between Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Christopher Meloni come baaaaaack)? Ice T’s impeccable line readings? The mind-boggling list of special guest stars? (Honestly, I don’t remember what I had for lunch on Monday but I do remember how it felt to watch Ludacris blow the roof off the place, in his first episode of SVU.) That’s the thing with SVU – the outstanding moments will stick with you, no matter how many episodes you accidentally end up watching on a random Saturday because there’s a “Stabler loses control!” marathon on USA. And please, please, please if you have never seen the very first episodes of the show, run and don’t walk to wherever you can find them. In the pilot, it was clear that Dick Wolf and company didn’t have a clear grasp on the tone of the show so they went with… glib. That’s right- smirking humor. Just what you want on a show that routinely deals with horrific sexual assault cases, pedophilia and incest. It is incredibly bizarre for the show and worth a watch. (But if you read this absolutely riveting story about the real life SVU from last year, it’s actually kind of on point.) Bong bong.

2. The Simpsons

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The Simpsons has been on television for so long that whole generations of people have literally grown up with the show. That’s right- there are people I work with who have never known a time when The Simpsons wasn’t on the air. It may never leave us, truly. To say The Simpsons surpassed its original home, as a recurring segment on The Tracy Ullman Show, is an understatement (the twenty-somethings I work with just said, “Who?”) (Shame on you, Tracy Ullman is a treasure!) It’s a cultural touchstone for the ’90s. Homer may be the best character on the show, and get all the best lines, but Bart Simpson is indisputably the icon. Years from now, there will be walls in Germany spray-painted with Bart’s image, t-shirts bearing his face in India.

1. Frasier

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All hail the king.

Cheers – it’s one of the best sitcoms of all time, on the Top 10 of any respectable critic’s list. And many would argue, myself included, that its spin-off Frasier is just as good. Like a cabernet or the opera or, I don’t know, reading a newspaper, Frasier is something that you appreciate with age. As a kid, I dismissed it. I did not get it. I heard Kelsey Grammer’s dulcet tones and assumed the show was boring; kids are dumb and I was no exception. But what a joy to discover it as an adult. The set-up is genius- urbane, stuffy Frasier forced to live with his grumpy, down-to-earth ex-cop father. His brother Niles and his invisible wafer-thin wife Maris, ridiculous Daphne, acerbic Roz (the rozziest!). The scrapes and misunderstandings in this show are, as my actress friend Jessica would say, “classic farce at its best.” It’s not a sitcom as much as it’s a classic play, every episode.

Only a show as confident and sophisticated as Frasier can pull off a 5 minute opus almost entirely without dialogue and have it be this funny (when Niles walks with the scissors…):

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