Treme, the quietly brilliant HBO musical drama that examines New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, debuts this week on DVD and Blu-ray, and if you haven’t seen it, you should rent or buy it post haste. (If there is one takeaway from this post, that’s it.) The series was co-created by David Simon, the journalist-turned-TV genius behind the show that launched a thousand blog posts, the late, great The Wire . And in addition to the many things that are somewhat miraculous about Treme, there is this: It is a rare case of a follow-up television show that measures up to its iconic predecessor.
TV is a tricky business, and more often than not, the creator or primary creative force behind a big hit will go into their next series, guns a-blazing, only to find that television audiences are more fickle than they thought. Steven Bochco followed Hill Street Blues with Bay City Blues; Garry Marshall and Thomas L. Miller followed The Odd Couple with Me and the Chimp; West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin’s next show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was a costly one-season flop for NBC; M*A*S*H show runners Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart’s Karen folded after five months; Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls follow-up The Return of Jezebel James lasted a mere three episodes; and Mitchell Hurwitz’s Running Wilde reunited him with Arrested Development stars Will Arnett and David Cross but ran only spottily on Fox last fall before disappearing altogether. However, there are occasions when a TV series manages to equal (or even surpass) the critical and popular success of its predecessor. Join us after the jump for a look at ten television shows where lightning struck twice.
Greg Daniels has a long and impressive resume as a TV writer: He’s scribbled for Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and King of the Hill. But he is perhaps best known for successfully developing the American version of the British hit The Office — a task that, lest we forget, few thought could be done before that show premiered in spring of 2005. The original Gervais/Merchant version was so distinctive (and already quietly popular in the US, thanks to its DVD releases) that trying to adapt it for American audiences seemed a fool’s errand. Seven seasons in, it’s clear Daniels did something right. He left the show late in 2008 to develop another series for NBC’s Thursday night comedy line-up, this one a vehicle for departing SNL star Amy Poehler. Originally rumored to be an Office spin-off, Parks and Recreation borrowed that show’s mockumentary style and one of its actors (Rashida Jones), and the first few episodes struggled to find their own style. But just as The Office needed its first, abbreviated six-episode season to fumble its way out of imitating the original British show, Parks and Rec needed those first six episodes to find its own style and voice. When it returned in fall of 2009, it was a faster, stronger, jazzier show, with characters more firmly established and a nifty supporting cast learning each other’s rhythms. These days, Daniels’s second Thursday night comedy is frequently funnier and sharper than his first.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus ran for four seasons on the BBC, but John Cleese — who was, thanks to his appearances on The Frost Report, the best-known member of the Python troupe when the show premiered — bowed out after Season 3, citing fears that the show was running out of ideas (and frustration with the increasing unreliability of his writing partner Graham Chapman). Though he collaborated with the Pythons on three more feature film projects, Cleese was anxious to try his hand at a new, non-Python project. So he and then-wife Connie Booth created Fawlty Towers, a BBC sitcom that ran for two six-episode series (one in 1975, one in 1979). Cleese starred as Basil Fawlty, hen-pecked husband and perpetually irritated proprietor of the titular hotel. Booth, Prunella Scales, Andrews Sachs, and Ballard Berkeley rounded out the cast. Though conventional in structure, Fawlty Towers was a delightfully subversive comedy, and Basil Fawlty became one of the most memorable sitcom characters of all time. The uproariously funny show is still singled out as one of the finest TV comedies ever made.
J.J. Abrams’s sexy, action-packed, delightfully silly James-Bond-as-a-hot-girl show Alias ran for five seasons on ABC, beginning in 2001. It was, for about three seasons, a truly great show, but it went off the rails in season four, which found protagonist Sidney Bristow inexplicably working again for her nemesis Arvin Sloane. Abrams, however, was long gone by the time that season began in spring of 2005; he had left to start up the most talked-about show of the season. Lost, which premiered in fall of 2004 and ran a total of six seasons, took Alias’s strengths — maddening suspense, serialized action, dense internal mythology, and pretty people in trouble — and turned them into one of television’s biggest hits.
Norman Lear’s All in the Family was one of the most popular sitcoms in TV history — it was the #1 show in the country for five straight seasons, a feat matched only twice since (by The Cosby Show and American Idol). Adapted from the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, Lear’s edgy, frequently controversial series put the culture wars into prime time, with Nixon Republican Archie Bunker battling liberal son-in-law “Meathead” Stivic and taking on several hot-button issues in the process. When NBC asked Lear to develop a new show for them, he didn’t stray from the formula that worked for him: He found another popular British comedy, Steptoe and Son, and transformed it into a vehicle for nightclub comic Redd Foxx, set in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Sanford and Son ran six seasons, and was the #2 show in the country for three of them — right behind All in Family. Lear, meanwhile, continued one of the most impressive hot streaks in TV history, developing Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times, One Day at a Time, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
Alan Ball was a newly minted Oscar winner (for the American Beauty screenplay) when HBO picked up his proposed series Six Feet Under. The show, which ran from 2001 to 2005, was frequently overshadowed by its better-known channelmate The Sopranos, but it was a tough, heartbreaking, terrific series. When it ended, Ball signed a new development deal with HBO. The first project he brought to the network was a series adapted from Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mystery books. Ball adapted the novels into True Blood, a bloody, sexy series that plays like Twilight for grown-ups; it is such deliciously dirty, ballsy, operatic fun that it would be easy to confuse it with great television. It’s not, but it doesn’t really want to be, it seems — unlike the best HBO genre shows, it doesn’t transcend its roots because it’s having too much fun rolling around in them. Trashy, hot fun, the show has run three seasons and will be back for a fourth in June.
The Simpsons originated not as the half-hour cartoon comedy we’ve all grown to love and reference endlessly, but as a series of brief “bumpers” (used to go in and out of commercials and separate sketches) on The Tracy Ullman Show, one of the very first series to air on the fledgling Fox network. But when the Simpson family became more popular than the show surrounding them, creator Matt Groening developed The Simpsons into Fox’s biggest hit (and the longest running entertainment show in network television history). Groening has only created one show since: Futurama, a science fiction comedy set in the 31st century, which he developed with David X. Cohen. The show ran four seasons on Fox and never quite came into its own, partially due to the long shadow of The Simpsons, partially due to Fox’s less-than-stellar history for handling unique television. But it became a huge postmortem hit on DVD, prompting a series of straight-to-DVD follow-up movies and, taking a cue from Family Guy, a resurrection, with new episodes airing on Comedy Central and continuing production for the foreseeable future.
Treme/The Wire co-creator David Simon’s first encounter with series television was Homicide: Life on the Street, the critically-acclaimed, long-running cop show based on his nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Though it originated with Simon’s reportage and credited pilot episode writer Paul Attanasio as creator, many involved consider writer/producer Tom Fontana to be the creative force behind the show. In 1997, Fontana created a new series for HBO (their first original dramatic show): Oz, a dark, forceful series set inside a maximum-security prison. Taking full advantage of the premium network’s limited (that is to say, non-existent) rules on language, violence, and subject matter, Fontana wrote or co-wrote all 56 episodes of the show’s six-season run, which garnered numerous awards and high praise from countless critics.
Garry Shandling’s first cable comedy, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, ran on Showtime (with reruns on Fox) for four seasons, toppling the conventions of the modern sitcom with its genre-bending, fourth-wall breaking, subversive brilliance. While it may not have been the most widely seen comedy of the time, it was certainly the most influential. Two years after it ended, co-creator/star Shandling debuted the droll, sophisticated, mercilessly funny Larry Sanders Show on HBO. Set on stage and behind the scenes at a fictional late-night talk show, Sanders remains one of television’s most entertaining examples of artists ruthlessly biting the hand that feeds them, with scathing satire written from the inside out. But it is also a classically constructed workplace comedy, in the best tradition of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Office, filled with memorable characters, ingenious situations, and endlessly quotable dialogue. There were plenty of great television comedies in the 1990s. This was the best.
One of the many comedies clearly inspired by both of Shandling’s series was Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David’s follow-up to Seinfeld (which he co-created with that show’s star). Spun off from an HBO special, Curb was done in a loose, improvisational style, and with fewer concerns about alienating viewers with socially questionable behavior. Playing himself (or, one would hope, a marginally exaggerated version of himself), David is the unhidden Id — swimming through the pretty but shallow pool of Hollywood, offering up his unsolicited opinions and tactless reactions. It’s not that Larry doesn’t know how he’s supposed to act; he just doesn’t care, and his immense wealth and independence have allowed him the freedom to be exactly who the hell he wants to be. He’s perpetually put upon, but he brings so much of it on himself, he’s both the victim and the perpetrator. The resulting show may not be as wildly popular as Seinfeld (and it’s a helluva lot more divisive), but in its own, quiet way, it’s just as revolutionary.
We’re breaking the rules a bit with our last entry, since Firefly ran a mere 14 episodes in 2002 — hardly the kind of popular success this list promised. But it wouldn’t be fair to leave off Joss Whedon’s wonderful follow-up to Buffy the Vampire Slayer just because Fox is terrible. Whedon’s sci-fi/Western hybrid was one of the most unique and enjoyable shows in recent memory — wickedly funny, breathlessly exciting, and entertaining to the nth degree. Fans had to search the schedule to watch it and re-order the episodes in their minds since Fox insisted on airing them out of sequence, but the show’s fan community was vociferous enough to get a feature film follow-up, Serenity, into theaters three years later.