Nets dizzy with spinoffs

Hope springs eternal as the webs plan to extend skeins

When it comes to hit series, net execs can never quite let go: Problem is their salvage attempts rarely pay off.

“Friends” may be going away, but NBC is anxious to keep the show’s spirit alive with a spinoff revolving around Matt LeBlanc’s character, Joey Tribbiani.

The spinoff will not include any other “Friends” cast members but will boast the services of Kevin Bright, one of the trio of “Friends” creators. Show will premier in the fall of 2004, probably in the Thursday 8 p.m. time slot.

And if Ray Romano bows out of “Everybody Loves Raymond” after this season, CBS topper Leslie Moonves says the show could live on –as a vehicle, perhaps, for Brad Garrett’s beleaguered character, Robert Barone.

You can’t blame the nets for wanting to hold on for dear life to whatever remnants they can of shows that gave them ratings and economic glory. But most of the time, those series are better off dead.

When net execs in denial try to squeeze new life out of retiring shows, they usually come up with duds such as “M*A*S*H” spinoff “AfterMASH,” “Three’s Company” spawn “Three’s A Crowd” and “Golden Girls” progeny “The Golden Palace.”

As a matter of fact, of all the spinoffs that have risen from the ashes of retiring hit series, only two — “Frasier” and “Lou Grant” — were successful in their own right.

Here’s the secret: Both spinoffs took unlikely characters and spun them into entirely new worlds, where the shows were able to survive on their own merits rather than live in the shadow of their predecessors.

When “Frasier” first bowed in fall 1993, star Kelsey Grammer even referred to the show as a “methadone clinic” for grieving “Cheers” fans. (He might have added, “and NBC execs.”)

“Lou Grant,” an hourlong Ed Asner starrer set in the newspaper world, couldn’t have been more different than the comedy high jinks of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

And “Frasier” took an underdeveloped, secondary character from “Cheers,” moved him from Boston to Seattle and gave him an entirely new job — putting as much distance as possible from the show it replaced.

Ten years later, the Kelsey Grammer vehicle has garnered almost as much critical acclaim — and Emmys — as the show it replaced.

“I think for the audience, what we didn’t offer with ‘Frasier’ was ‘Cheers’-lite,” says former NBC Entertainment prexy Warren Littlefield. “It really was about forming a new chapter in the character’s life.”

“Frasier” exec producer Chris Lloyd said series creators David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee were able to turn Grammer’s character into a leading role and bring in satellite characters that filled the role that Frasier Crane did on “Cheers.”

The producers also took pains to sparingly revisit characters from “Cheers,” such as Ted Danson’s Sam Malone or Bebe Neuwirth’s Lilith, in order to forge a separate identity for “Frasier.”

“The Frasier character hadn’t been mined on the show; we didn’t know that much about him,” Lloyd says. “Frasier was more dimensional than he was allowed to be on ‘Cheers.’ And don’t underestimate the importance of having Kelsey there.”

The key to these post-show spinoffs, Lloyd says, is the ability to find new elements of a character you haven’t seen already, by doing things like putting a character into a new environment, moving them back to their hometown or getting them married.

And, most importantly, “you don’t want to assume the audience will follow that one character no matter what,” he says. “A lot of really smart choices were made (in ‘Frasier’s’ case).”

Lloyd and Littlefield say it may be harder to pursue a “Joey” spinoff from “Friends,” given how much viewers already know about the character.

“It’s going to be tough on them, although that isn’t to say it can’t be done,” Lloyd says. “There was an advantage we had (in mining the obscure Frasier character) that they don’t have.”

Adds Littlefield: “You need to point Joey in the next phase of his life. It’s so scary to let go of what’s been successful, but that’s the key to making it work.”

The other post-series farewell spinoffs mentioned above all relied too much on elements from the previous series.

“Golden Palace” essentially tried to be “Golden Girls,” but without Bea Arthur. John Ritter reprised his Jack Tripper role for “Three’s A Crowd,” but viewers were left waiting for him to move back in with Janet and Teri.

Then there was “AfterMASH.” Boasting three characters from the recently retired classic “M*A*S*H,” CBS’ fall 1983 spinoff “AfterMASH” was a sure thing. Until it actually premiered.

The show attempted to be like “M*A*S*H” — but set in a Veteran’s Administration hospital in Missouri. It didn’t help that viewers were reminded in the show’s title that this wasn’t “M*A*S*H.”

In some cases, network execs have been able to show a great deal of spinoff restraint through the years.

Peacock let series like “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties” have a proper burial.

And the network even avoided the obvious temptation of putting Michael Richards, Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Jason Alexander into a “Seinfeld” spinoff.

“Ultimately we looked at ‘Seinfeld’ and decided we couldn’t do part of the ensemble,” Littlefield says. “It was painful, but we knew it was the right thing. If Jerry was going to go off, there wasn’t a reason to continue.”

That’s not to say other character spinoffs weren’t considered.

The most serious conversations between NBC and “Seinfeld” creator Larry David revolved around spinning off a vehicle for Jackie Chiles, the Johnnie Cochran-like attorney played by Phil Morris.

“Larry thought Jackie Chiles could be a spinoff, and that wouldn’t have been ‘AfterSeinfeld,'” Littlefield says.

“This was a wonderfully larger-than-life character that Larry had an affinity for. We said go ahead and write it, because we had a sense, ‘Hey, we could have some fun with this.'”

Morris appeared as Chiles in two Honda commercials, but the spinoff idea was eventually shelved.

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