First the term “reboot” took over the way we talk about movies, and now it seems to be happening with TV: there are rumours that The Office will be retooled for its next season, but it’s being referred to as a “reboot,” thereby making it sound like a new concept. The plan doesn’t sound very new, though. Artistic considerations aside, The Office needs to stay around for at least one more year, maybe more, because it’s still the most popular comedy NBC has. It isn’t really working without Steve Carell (I think it can still be funny; it’s just sometimes hard to see what the show is supposed to be about now), and next year most of the remaining actors are going to need some time off for other projects. So the basic approach for the post-Carell years – try and shift the focus to the popular ensemble of supporting characters – may not even be sustainable for the next season. It may need an old-fashioned full-fledged re-tool, which means not only adding new characters but finding a new theme for the whole show.
Probably more interesting than what’s going to happen to The Office (which is not likely to get back to the level of seasons 2-5) is the question of what’s going to happen with that Dwight spin-off they’re planning: will it be the show’s Frasier, or the show’s Joey? Whatever happens, I sometimes think networks haven’t been aggressive enough in spinning off their popular comedies. Dramas are “franchised” all the time, but comedies try their damnedest to keep every character on the show for as long as possible. What we haven’t seen in a long time is what was known as the Fred Silverman approach: identify some popular supporting characters the show could get along without – Rhoda, Phyllis, The Jeffersons, Florida, Fish, Mrs. Garrett – and give them their own shows, which can be promoted via crossovers with the parent show.
This isn’t done much now, and it certainly makes sense that it isn’t done much: nobody wants to risk wrecking a show by taking a popular supporting character away. (Back when hit shows had bigger audiences, the risk may not have been as great. Even if Rhoda’s departure lost Mary Tyler Moore a few ratings points – and it did lose a few, maybe not necessarily because Rhoda was gone – it was still huge. Today, for even popular shows, there aren’t that many points separating them from a failure; they need to keep all the ratings they can.) But it’s so hard to create a popular comedy that the advantages of spinning off a character might outweigh the disadvantages at this point.
The time to do it, though, is when the parent show is still big. So the appropriate time for an Office spinoff was probably a few years ago, when the network asked for one, but the producers were unable to find a spinoff idea, creating the original Parks & Recreation instead. We benefited from that decision, but it was sensible of the network to ask for a spinoff when the show was at its peak. And I think it might make sense for other shows.
So what are some current comedies that you think should (or at least could) spin off some supporting characters into their own shows without ruining the original show? My suggestion a few weeks ago was Big Bang Theory‘s Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch. They’re popular, they already have a lot of scenes together, and since they joined the show in mid-run, there’s no question that it could go on without them. The network has never been able to come up with a decent time slot companion for that show, so why not pull a Silverman? (Silverman himself once said something to the effect that if he were still running ABC, he’d have spun off Cam and Mitchell from Modern Family.)