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Friday Five: 5 Genre TV Shows That Are Better Than The Movies That Spawned Them

This week's host is Rob Berg of, Rob Will Review... and the (sadly complete) "My Year of Disney" guest posts. Fortunately, even if he's done with singing princesses (for now), he's still got some recommendations to share...

Common sense generally dictates that the original of something is usually best. The book/play is better than the movie. The original movie is better than the TV spin-off that was clearly just made as a cash-grab by the studio to milk more dollars out of a recognizable title. But what about when the opposite is true?

Thinking over my list of favorite TV shows, I realized that quite a significant number of them were actually spawned from feature films, all dramatically transcending their source material in practically every way, taking what could’ve been a cynical marketing tie-in and creating a far richer story out of the original’s base elements.

These are five of my favorite genre shows that did just that:

BuffyBuffy the Vampire Slayer

This one is the most obvious, but no list of TV series spun-off from films that wants to be taken even semi-seriously can ignore it. What began as a silly, campy, disposable B-movie teen comedy about a dumb blonde with a destiny turned into a complex, enduring saga that used the literal monsters its titular heroine and her friends battled nightly as metaphors for the everyday struggles of life that people face, not only in high school but beyond it. An at-the-time unique fusion of teen drama, urban fantasy, and mythology, Buffy paved the way for countless kickass heroines who fight the undead.

Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis

Stargate, the movie, has one thing going for it: a very cool concept. Archaeologists in Egypt in 1928 unearth a circular object, covered with hieroglyphs, that eventually proves to be a wormhole generator that sends the modern-day US military to another planet, where descendents of the ancient Egyptians are still being subjugated by an alien posing as the god, Ra. Unfortunately, it also has leaden pacing, wooden performances galore, and a complete lack of humor.

Luckily, MacGyver is here to save the day! In the first show, SG1, Richard Dean Anderson brought a funny, self-deprecating edge to the part that Kurt Russell sleepwalked through, and furthermore, the writers expanded the film mythology into a rich saga that finally took full advantage of the neato idea behind the whole thing (the one Egyptian “god” became a race of parasitic aliens, enslaving humans on various planets across the galaxy, and representing lots of different pantheons), and even managed a spin-off, Atlantis, that was at least as fun as the parent series.

Although the characters themselves changed little over the course of both series’ combined 15 (!!) seasons, they were all incredibly well-defined, and the writers kept coming up with increasingly impressive ways to raise the stakes while letting the characters eventually succeed by utilizing knowledge they gained from earlier episodes in intelligent ways. Not deep sci-fi, but one of the most successful and entertaining space operas in TV history.

180px-Batman_btasBatman: The Animated Series

A lot of people today seem to forget that the iconic Batman: TAS actually began as a spin-off series to the Tim Burton film, even using the Danny Elfman theme from the movie as its theme. Unlike the two preceding ones on this list, Tim Burton’s Batman isn’t a bad film, and yet the noir-infused, complex, gritty, psychologically compelling show transcends it in every way (along with nearly every other film or TV depiction of Batman). No screen Batman has come close to replicating Kevin Conroy’s brilliant voicework as both his Dark Knight and Bruce Wayne guises, and nowhere are the villains more compelling. If the brilliant, lyrical, heartbreaking first Mr. Freeze episode, “Heart of Ice” were the only Batman story to survive an apocalypse, it would be enough.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

The Star Wars prequels faced a lot of negative reactions from fans. A lot of those very same fans, however, loved this 5-season-long CGI-animated Cartoon Network series, which managed the impressive task of filling in all of the narrative gaps and questions that so frustrated prequel viewers, and even smoothing over character motivation and development to the point that it actually strengthens the entire saga.

Rather than sweeping the prequels under the rug, Dave Filoni and the rest of the writing team worked with them, weaving elements from both trilogies, as well as the Extended Universe, together into what might be the most mythic, complex, and definitive story the franchise has ever produced. Elegantly balancing foreshadowing, dramatic irony, the fairy tale sweep of the original trilogy, the politics of the prequels, the epic, and the intimate (hell, it even makes Padme/Anakin scenes something to look forward to), The Clone Wars finally provides us with a fully convincing arc and explanation for Anakin Skywalker’s gradual descent to the Dark Side. It even fleshes out numerous other Jedi and many of the Clone troopers, no longer just a faceless, seemingly mindless army. Fun fact: David Tennant won an Emmy for his voicework in one of the arcs.

[Shameless self-promotion #1: I’m currently reviewing the entire series, episode by episode, over here.]

Lena-headey-sarah-connor-chronicles-4Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Terminator and particularly Terminator 2 are great, classic films--action time travel sci-fi with a heart and a conscience, featuring an iconic performance by Linda Hamilton as the mother of the future savior of mankind, who grows from an “everyday” waitress to a tough-as-nails warrior over the course of the two films. That’s why it’s so shocking that this TV spin-off on FOX was able to so deftly transcend both of them.

Using the filmic, visual language and mythology of the Terminator series as reference points, Sarah Connor took the questions of free will vs destiny that ran throughout the films and explored them on a much deeper level than they ever accomplished, and perhaps most impressively, used the time travel paradox of how John Connor came to be as a central metaphor for this discussion. Starring Game of Thrones’ own Cersei Lannister, Lena Headey, in a quiet yet gripping performance that both redefines Sarah Connor while making her an even more fascinating character than ever before, The Sarah Connor Chronicles was, by turns, hopeful, grim, thoughtful, imaginative, character-driven sci-fi that elevated the Terminator series into a masterpiece.

[Shameless self-promotion #2: I like this show a whole lot. I wrote a ridiculously long (10,000+ word!) review/analysis of the entire series over here. Beware of major spoilers.]

And that’s all she wrote.

What are some of your favorite film-to-TV genre adaptations?