The dreamy gaze of a young Scott Baio could melt the sturdiest of Trapper Keepers in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, America had watched Erin Moran bloom from Ron Howard’s little television sister on “Happy Days” into a woman who could fill out a sweater like a young Annette Funicello.
Therefore, a “Happy Days” spinoff highlighting the passionate, yet chaste, desires between Chachi Arcola (Baio) and Joanie Cunningham (Moran) was as inevitable as Fonzie telling Potsie to sit on it. In March 1982, Chachi sat at a piano, serenaded Joanie with a syrupy pop ballad, and “Joanie Loves Chachi” made its debut. The complete series is released Tuesday on DVD.
But there was little love for “Joanie Loves Chachi.” Viewers tuned in for those first few episodes, then quickly jumped ship during the second season. Eventually Moran and Baio’s characters returned to “Happy Days” and married in the show’s finale.
This was the perilous fate of television characters in the golden age of spinoffs. Counting a live musical and several animated series, “Happy Days” — itself a spinoff from “Love, American Style” — produced more than 10 different shows. Some were huge hits (“Laverne & Shirley,” “Mork & Mindy”) and others are now answers to obscure trivia questions. Anyone remember “Blansky’s Beauties”? “Out of the Blue”?
It’s easy to look back and chortle at these desperate attempts to stretch a successful series into a TV franchise. But with the forthcoming “Breaking Bad” spinoff, “Better Call Saul,” the “How I Met Your Mother” spinoff, “How I Met Your Dad,” plus the continued success of any show that starts with “NCIS” (spun off from “JAG”), our appetite remains ravenous.
The spinoff universe of the 1970s and ’80s is a fascinating study in what happens when TV executives spot a winning formula, and then wring it until it’s dry as a molted snakeskin. “All in the Family,” characters Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) and George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) were plucked from the show and awarded their own series: “Maude” and “The Jeffersons.” Those shows produced the spinoffs “Good Times” (“Maude”) and “Checking In” (“The Jeffersons”). “All in the Family” then morphed into “Archie Bunker’s Place,” then “Gloria,” and ultimately “704 Hauser.”
Sometimes these sitcom family trees turned into confusing shrubs that needed a good pruning. To this day, questions remain about how Maude’s housekeeper in Tuckahoe, N.Y., ended up living in a low-income housing project in Chicago. And why was she married to Gordy, the weatherman from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”?
For every successful spinoff (“Frasier”), there’s a clunker (“The Tortellis”). Despite the risks, the results can be deliciously enticing. Viewers are already connected with the characters and curious to see their fate. The nation eagerly tuned in to watch its beloved Rhoda Morgenstern get married on “Rhoda.” Until her divorce two seasons later.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” may not have been the most prolific show in the 1970s spinoff-a-thon, but its track record was more solid than its competitors’. In addition to the highly-rated “Rhoda” (1974–1978), there was “Phyllis” (1975–1977), and the drama “Lou Grant” (1977–1982). The truncated run of “Phyllis” was likely a result of the real-life deaths of several actors on the show.
The formula ebbed, but refused to retreat. The 1980s brought “The Facts of Life,” which bested its originator, “Diff’rent Strokes.” “Empty Nest” branched off from “The Golden Girls” which then became “The Golden Palace,” and “A Different World” found Cosby kid Lisa Bonet at college, albeit briefly. Those shows are just the skin of the pudding.
The 1990s were no less prolific for spinoffs, but thankfully the tendrils of “Beverly Hills, 90210” (which begat “Melrose Place” and “Models Inc.”) never stretched as far as those of “All in the Family.”
With the benefit of time, the failed spinoffs can be as entertaining as the successes — with the exception of “The Ropers.” “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour,” a horrifying, sequin-encrusted resuscitation of “The Brady Bunch,” made a minor dent in pop culture. When Eve Plumb opted out of the campy 1977 show (a very smart decision), the role of Jan Brady was filled by Geri Reischl, creating the “Fake Jan” phenomenon.
“The Simpsons” (a spinoff of “The Tracey Ullman Show”) parodied the genre so smartly that it should have served as a warning to the hazards of the genre. In the episode “The Simpson Spin-Off Showcase,” Troy McClure (“You may know me from such spinoffs as ‘Son of Sanford and Son’) introduces pilots for “Chief Wiggum, P.I.,” “The Love-matic Grampa,” and “The Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour.” It’s “The Variety Hour” that takes direct aim at the Brady Bunch, down to the fake Lisa.
In the episode, McClure, voiced by the late Phil Hartman, cheekily asks, “Spinoff. Is there any word more thrilling to the human soul?” It’s a rhetorical jab, but in those rare cases where our favorite characters find a satisfying new life in a successful spinoff, it can be a thrill. At worst, we get the nostalgic camp of “Joanie Loves Chachi.”