May 20, 2022


Undiminished by Decadence (Kevin Mims, 20 May 2022, Quillette)

Let's take a quick look at some of the top-rated American TV programs of the 1974-5 season. The highest rated program, All in the Family, was an American remake of a British program called Till Death Do Us Part. The second-highest rated program, Sanford and Son, was a remake of a British series called Steptoe and Son. At number three was Chico and the Man, which was inspired by a comedy bit performed by Cheech and Chong and also bore a strong resemblance to Sanford and Son. In fourth place came The Jeffersons, a spinoff of All in the Family. In fifth place we have M*A*S*H, which was a spinoff of a Robert Altman film, which was itself based on a Richard Hooker novel. In sixth place comes Rhoda, a spinoff of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In seventh place is Good Times, a spinoff of Maude, which was itself a spinoff of All in the Family (which, of course, was based on a British series). In eighth place comes The Waltons, a spinoff of a 1963 film called Spencer's Mountain, which was based on a 1961 novel by Earl Hamner, Jr. In ninth place comes the aforementioned Maude. Not until we come to the tenth-highest rated program, Hawaii 5-0, do we arrive at a wholly original piece of intellectual property.

The next few years would bring us hit series like Laverne & Shirley (a spinoff of Happy Days), Mork & Mindy (ditto), The Ropers (a spinoff of Three's Company, which was a remake of the British program Man About The House), Alice (a sitcom based on Martin Scorsese's 1974 film Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More), The Dukes of Hazzard (a spinoff of the 1975 film Moonrunners), Lou Grant (a Mary Tyler Moore spinoff), Phyllis (ditto), Flo (a spinoff of Alice), Archie Bunker's Place (a re-working of All in the Family), House Calls (based on a 1978 film of the same name), Trapper John, M.D. (a spinoff of M*A*S*H), Benson (a spinoff of Soap)--

I could go on like this for another couple of pages, but you get the point. Almost all of the shows I've just mentioned were official spinoffs, reboots, or reworkings of an existing show. Others were outright rip-offs. The master of this dubious craft was producer Glen A. Larson, whom Harlan Ellison once dubbed Glen A. Larceny, because so many of the series he created and/or produced plundered somebody else's work. Larson's Alias Smith & Jones was a rip-off of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It Takes a Thief, which Larson produced, was a variation on Hitchcock's film To Catch a Thief. Battlestar Galactica was a rip-off of Star Wars (which was a loose remake of Akira Kurosawa's samurai classic The Hidden Fortress). BJ and the Bear was a mash-up of films like White Line Fever, Smokey and the Bandit, and Any Which Way but Loose (and inspired its own spinoff, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo). Switch was a mash-up of the film The Sting and The Rockford Files. Automan was a rip-off of the film Tron.

To be a TV junkie in the 1960s and '70s was to live in a permanent state of déjà vu. Dusty's Trail, a sitcom that aired in 1973 and 1974, was created by Sherwood Schwartz, who created Gilligan's Island, both of which starred Bob Denver. The former was essentially a rip-off of the latter, but set on the Oregon Trail rather than a desert isle. The Munsters, a sitcom featuring tropes from horror fiction but set in American suburbia, debuted on CBS on September 24th, 1964, just six days after the debut of ABC-TV's The Addams Family, a show with a nearly identical premise. As Allan Burns, co-creator of The Munsters, later noted, "We sort of stole the idea from Charles Addams and his New Yorker cartoons." Likewise, The Big Valley was just Bonanza with a female lead. And The Jetsons was just The Flintstones set in the future rather than the past.

An industry practice known as script recycling was rampant in the 1960s and '70s. I was a television super-fan in the 1970s, and I corresponded with many of the most successful TV writers of the era including Alvin Sapinsley, Stirling Silliphant, and Roland Kibbee. I read the writing credits of every TV show I watched. I kept track of episode titles. And I frequently saw writers recycling virtually the same script over and over again for different TV series. This was much easier to get away with back before home entertainment made it possible to review TV episodes over and over again.

Posted by at May 20, 2022 12:00 AM