If the massive success of the Marvel movies is anything to go by, expanding a fictional universe is a way to print so much money you can swim around in it, Scrooge McDuck-style. But that doesn't seem to work as well on television. In fact, sometimes TV crossovers and spinoffs not only suck, they do it so hard they retroactively ruin the original. Like ...
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Frasier, your mom's favorite excuse to drink wine on a weeknight, ended with Frasier leaving Seattle to follow a woman he'd fallen in love with. It's an optimistic ending ... that's doomed to failure thanks to a Cheers episode that aired 13 years earlier.
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In "I'm Okay, You're Defective," Frasier's then-wife Lilith pressures him to write a will for the sake of her and their infant son, Frederick. The episode ends with a flash-forward to an elderly Lilith having what's supposed to be her husband's will read to her, although it actually ends up being a report on Sam Malone's sperm count thanks to sitcom shenanigans.
But the point is that, while Frasier may have divorced his wife, moved to another city, pursued a new career, made amends with his long-estranged family, and had numerous new relationships as he looked for love, in the end it's all irrelevant. That one throwaway joke means Frasier is destined to return to Boston and get back together with his ex-wife. It's like a sitcom version of Final Destination, only instead of death, it's an unhappy marriage that you can never escape.
In the Transformers episode "Only Human," one of the lame, non-robot villains hires a mysterious figure named Old Snake to help him defeat the Autobots. After their plan inevitably fails, Old Snake strolls off while muttering, "They don't make terrorists like they used to." He then reveals himself to be G.I. Joe's Cobra Commander, the kid-friendly Osama bin Laden of the 1980s.
To a kid, that's like the ending of The Usual Suspects. But to our cynical adult minds, his appearance raises a lot of questions about how the timeless battle between Joes and Cobras ended. We're supposed to assume that the Joes destroyed Cobra, because their leader wouldn't be filing a terrorist-1099 if he still had a steady gig. But what was the fate of the Joe team? Giant robots are rampaging across the Earth, and humanity's greatest warriors are nowhere to be seen. Cobra Commander may be an old man with no followers, but he's still active and causing trouble. Did the Joes win their battle, or did the two sides mutually assure their own destruction with Cobra Commander the only man left standing?
These answers and more can possibly be found in the new G.I. Joe films, but we literally can't pay somebody enough to watch them.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer featured, among others, a colorful character/sex-beast named Spike. Introduced as a brash vampire out to destroy the world, he's slowly revealed to be a poet with insecurity issues (so, a poet). After dozens of terrible things happen to him, he finally realizes that being a hero is preferable to being a monster. He joins the good guys and even sacrifices his life in the finale to save the world. Buffy also gets a solid ending: With the First Evil defeated and dozens of girls around the world gaining her powers, she can finally kick back for a little R&R. At least until the fifth season of the spinoff, Angel, rolled around and rendered all of her and Spike's accomplishments pointless.
The exhausted Buffy doesn't get her hard-earned vacation -- not only is she still a slayer, she has to lead an army of teenage girls as well. If you've ever met a teenage girl, picture all the drama and maintenance times an army. And then there's poor Spike, who's brought back to life, thus rendering his heroic sacrifice moot. Not only that, his big moment is treated like a punchline, mocked by the other characters. But the real kicker comes at Angel's finale: The series ends with the rising armies of Hell rendering every previous attempt to save the world pointless. While we don't see the conclusion of the final fight, there's an implication that every single hero goes down in a blaze of glory.
So, after they save the world, Buffy and the gang get like a year of exhausting, humiliating adventures before they all die anyway. It would be like if the new Star Wars films showed Luke immediately contracting terminal cancer from all the asbestos in the Death Star explosion while Han dies of a space-heroin overdose in the dumpster behind the Mos Eisley Cantina.
NBC created a Columbo spinoff all about Columbo's wife, a running joke of a character who was constantly referenced but never actually seen or heard. So it was like making a sequel to Waiting For Godot called Go, Go, Godot! Of course NBC insisted that Columbo's wife be young and gorgeous, so they cast 24-year-old Kate Mulgrew, back before she gave us all confusing thoughts about duo-chromatic unitards.
Unfortunately for NBC, they forgot that their viewers were capable of doing basic arithmetic. Fans figured out that when Columbo first describes his wife in an early episode she would have only been 13, making him the Jerry Lee Lewis of the gumshoe set. Columbo's accidental pedophilia caused such a problem that the new show was eventually renamed Kate Columbo, and all connections to the original show were dropped. Then it was renamed Kate The Detective. And then Kate Loves A Mystery. And then Oh God, Please Watch Our Show, We Swear It's Not About Child Molestation. And then it was canceled after 13 episodes. Only 13? That show was so young, NBC ...
Dharma & Greg was about a straight-laced guy who married a kooky girl, and the conflicts that emerged from their wacky relationship. In the 2002 finale, Flower Child and Lawyer Man are trapped in a snowstorm. The final scenes consist of them coming to terms with their separate outlooks on life, in what's as close to heartfelt as you can get in a show created by television supervillain Chuck Lorre. They put aside their differences, love triumphs, and they plan their future together.
But in 2011, Two And A Half Men decided that it hadn't defiled the concept of situation comedy hard enough yet, so they brought D&G back. While viewing a home for sale, we see that the two are no longer naive lovebirds who gently poke fun at each other. They're now an unhappy couple who argue bitterly. In less than a minute, Greg complains about having to bust his ass for 80 hours a week to provide for his free-spirited wife, jokes about divorce, and then mimes suicide as he exits.
We have no idea what prompted Chuck Lorre to casually destroy one of his most successful creations, but he had just gone through his second divorce, so maybe that was a dark time for him.
Sony Pictures Television
Diff'rent Strokes was canceled midway through its eighth season when the prospect of a middle-aged Gary Coleman still unable to comprehend what Willis was saying started to make us all a little sad. Almost a decade later, as The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air was nearing its conclusion, show creator and Diff'rent Strokes fan Quincy Jones took the opportunity to give us closure on both the Banks family and the long forgotten Drummond family. But what was supposed to be a loving check-in with a sitcom family we adored turned into a sad reminder that most sitcom characters are hideously ill-prepared to live in the real world.
If you need a refresher, Fresh Prince ends with the Banks family selling their California home. And who should come check it out but Arnold and Mr. Drummond? It's meant to be cute -- still together after all these years! -- but then slowly you realize Arnold must be pushing 30 and still living with his adopted father. Every life lesson Arnold learned in the original show is rendered moot by the fact that he refused to grow up and apply them. Every family has that one sad man that still lives in the basement, swearing he'll put down the Xbox controller and go look for a job any day now, and that man is Arnold.
Sony Pictures Television
After Coleman is bribed into saying his catchphrase by a large sack of money dangling just off-screen, the two head off to continue their search for a pad. But before disappearing they take the time to complain that their shenanigans just aren't as cute as they were 10 years ago. Sadly, we know exactly what they're talkin' 'bout.
Scott E. Baird can be found on Twitter gushing about how Highlander 2 is the best film. J.M. McNab co-hosts the pop-culture nostalgia podcast Rewatchability, which can also be found on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter.
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