Amongst talk of how the wacky character (cough, cough, Dwight Schrute) is almost never the right character to spin off, and how it’s the relatively calm characters who can serve as the, well, calm centers of their own shows, I remembered a thought I had a few years back when NBC tried to spin Joey, from Friends, into his own show.
As everyone knows, Joey failed. And while one could peg that on Joey’s status as one of the more exaggerated Friends, I’d argue that by the show’s end he had become pretty nuanced and “calm,” and that from that criteria he could have anchored a spin-off fine.
No, what I think sunk Joey was the simple notion that for 11 or so years, viewers had followed these six friends, and fallen in love with them as a unit. And that what made the Joey spin-off unpalatable was that viewers did not want to visit a world where the gang had been broken up. We still wanted to believe that these six friends hung out all the time, having more adventures, just with kids getting more and more in the way. Not that one of the gang was an entire country away not seeing Ross or Rachel or Chandler or Phoebe or Monica all the time.
It’s my contention that a spin-off can’t work unless the character being spun off is a character we don’t mind the original gang losing. So Cheers fans may have loved Frasier, but within the world of that show Frasier leaving the bar was a natural development. Had they tried a Norm spin-off, I bet it would have failed horribly. We wouldn't have wanted to see Norm away from the bar.
How can we apply this theory to today’s sitcom hits?
· How I Met Your Mother – None of the core gang of five could be spun off.
· Parks and Recreation – We wouldn’t want to see Ron leave, but April and Andy? It’s not that Leslie and the gang don’t love them, but they also could let them go. Whereas, again, the Friends gang was a very decisive set of six.
· The Office – Given the structure of the show, we could see any of the employees leave and be OK with it. It’s a job. People leave.
· Modern Family, The Middle, Raising Hope – The families have been set up as too close-knit. Would have to be a periphery character (families are harder to spin off members from that workplaces, but not impossible. Depends on how much the show has set them up as a single, close unit).
· Curb Your Enthusiasm, Two and a Half Men – Anyone. These people all hate each other.
· Big Bang Theory – A trickier one. I would argue that they haven’t painted the trio of friends as too co-dependent. A spin-off could work. I think, though, that Penny and Leonard would be hard though. As lackluster as some of found that romance, I think the audience would object to a Penny spin off without Leonard.
Note that in the above scenarios, I don’t literally mean any character could be spun off from, say, The Office – other factors, including the wacky factor the PCHH gang expounded on, would come into play. But purely on “the audience doesn’t want to see people leave the group factor, I think I’m close.