TV's Most Egregious Rip-Offs

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As we may have mentioned a time or twelve, we’re less than pleased that we had to go an entire summer without a new season of Mad Men. While we’re waiting for its postponed winter season premiere, however, the fine folks at NBC and ABC have been kind enough to offer up some alternatives — and hey, look at that, they just so happen to each have a show set in the early ‘60s, all full of vintage styles and attitudes! ABC’s Pan Am (starring Christina Ricci) focuses on a group of stewardesses and pilots working for the titular airline; executive producer/director Thomas Schlamme (who, in all fairness, has done a lot of good television) says — insists — “It’s not the time period it takes place in, it’s not the characters. It has nothing to do with Mad Men.” Uh huh. NBC, meanwhile, is offering up The Playboy Club (“Basically, it’s Mad Men with boobs,” said Joel McHale at a press event), focusing on the staff at the famed nightclub — where, huh, Mad Men’s Lane Price had a membership and a girlfriend last season. What a coincidence!

Television is a business, of course, so it would stand to reason that networks would want to hedge their bets by giving viewers more of a good thing they like. More often than not, however, TV’s copycats fail — because viewers see right through the ruse, and because the reason they liked the trendsetters was that they were new and unique, unlike the other stuff on the tube. After the jump, we’ll take a look at some of the most blatant Xeroxes in TV history.

Friends: Partners/Can’t Hurry Love/Caroline in the City

Friends wasn’t exactly the most innovative program of all time — its similarities to Seinfeld were lost on no one, including Seinfeld’s creators — but when it became the runaway sitcom hit of the 1994-1995 season, suddenly everybody wanted a “hip, attractive young friends hanging out and being funny” ensemble sitcom of their own. The most obvious duplicate was Fox’s Partners, created by Friends executive producers Jeff Greenstein and Jeff Strauss, who even got Jennifer Aniston to do a guest appearance during the show’s first (and only) season. (It probably didn’t hurt that she was dating series star Tate Donovan, who later did an arc as “Joshua” in the fourth season of Friends.) CBS’s entry was Can’t Hurry Love, which starred Nancy McKeon (The Facts of Life) as a New York City career woman looking for Mr. Right with the help of her friends (including Mariska Hartigay); it, too, was gone by the following spring. NBC, not about to get beaten at its own game, added Caroline in the City to the Thursday night “Must See TV” sitcom block that Friends led off — they even had Caroline (Lea Thompson) do a crossover appearance on Friends that November, and had Matthew Perry return the favor. Friends fever was so rampant that it was even attributed to shows that didn’t really fit; in their fall preview, the Baltimore Sun called ABC’s The Drew Carey Show “a blue-collar Friends set in Cleveland.”

Sex and the City: Lipstick Jungle/Cashmere Mafia

When Sex and the City finished its HBO run in 2004, a giant vacuum was left in the television vortex: where would viewers go for vapid, shopping-and-sex-based romantic ensemble comedy? It took four years to summon up an answer: the networks! Yes, not one, but two broadcast entities decided that the thematic and linguistic freedom of pay cable had nothing to do with the enormous success of Sex and the City, and launched competing SATC knock-offs. NBC snapped up Lipstick Jungle, another novel by SATC author Candace Bushnell (who also exec-produced), while ABC prepped Cashmere Mafia, which counted SATC show-runner Darren Starr among its executive producers. Both shows were slated for midseason premieres in January of 2008. Alas, lightning didn’t strike twice (er, three times); Cashmere Mafia was out after only seven airings, while Lipstick Jungle made it to the midway point of a second season before the plug was pulled after 20 episodes total.

The West Wing: Commander in Chief

The success of NBC’s The West Wing came as a bit of a surprise — in the midst of the reality TV revolution, here was a fast, smart, political show that didn’t talk down to its audience, and people were tuning in. Critics raved and Emmys were won, but The West Wing was near the end of its run by the time ABC got its rather obvious imitator on the air: Commander in Chief, an hour-long political drama concerning the administration of the first female president (Geena Davis). Created by Rod Lurie (who had, a few years earlier, directed the political drama The Contender), the show at first looked to duplicate West Wing’s success, generating big ratings in its initial airings. But creator/show-runner Lurie left the series just a few episodes in, following a dispute with the network; they put the show on a three-month hiatus and brought in Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues) to retool it. When Commander in Chief returned, the viewers didn’t; it was cancelled at the end of its inaugural season.

Batman: The Green Hornet

The whiz-bang, high-camp, prime-time ABC version of Batman was another unexpected hit when it premiered in January of 1966; airing twice a week, it was an immediate pop culture sensation, and the network quickly started looking for a companion show. They found it in George W. Trendle and Fran Striker’s The Green Hornet, which had originated as a radio show; like Bruce Wayne, newspaper publisher Britt Reid (Van Williams) was a millionaire who moonlighted as a crime-fighter. The show only lasted one season, but it was the big American break for co-star Bruce Lee, who played Reid’s faithful sidekick Kato.

Diff’rent Strokes: Webster

The central premise of Diff’rent Strokes was so strange (and borderline distasteful) that it still seems peculiar that anyone tried to replicate it. But replicate they did — Webster is the story of a pint-sized black kid (Emmanuel Lewis) who is a adopted by a wealthy white family, the Papadopouloses (played by real-life husband and wife Alex Karras and Susan Clark). Sometimes imitation works; Lewis became a star, and the show lasted for six full seasons (the final two in first-run syndication).

CBS’s crime procedural series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was an immediate hit when it premiered in October of 2000, hitting #10 in its first year and vaulting up to #2 by season two. And then came the imitators. In fact, seldom has a network television show produced the sheer volume of copycats as CSI — most of them concentrated on that show’s own network, CBS, which became a kind of “all crime, all the time” channel. There were the official spinoffs (CSI: Miami in 2002, CSI: NY in 2004); there was NCIS, initially a spin-off of JAG but clearly conceived, when it premiered in 2003, as CSI in the Navy; and then NCIS got its own spin-off, NCIS: Los Angeles. (CBS, your home for letters followed by cities.) Without a Trace, a CSI-style look at the FBI’s missing persons unit, premiered in 2002 — and did a “crossover” episode with CSI in 2007, meaning (in TV terms) that they are part of the same “universe.” Same goes for Cold Case, the 2003-2010 cop show that crossed over to CSI: NY in 2007. Good god, you need a flow chart to keep track of this stuff.

The Apprentice: The Rebel Billionaire

The success of The Apprentice continues to confound us — seriously, we can’t imagine who wants to turn over an hour of their week to an insipid blowhard turd like Donald Trump, much less why we should care which moronic ladder-climber (or “celebrity”) wants to work for him. But hits is hits, and The Apprentice was one, so Fox tried to get in on the action with the 2004 knock-off The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best. They certainly had a more charismatic figure to focus on — Richard Branson, founder of Virgin worldwide — but the premise was such a transparent duplicate of The Apprentice (Branson is looking for a protégé, gives his contestants weekly challenges, tosses one at the end of each episode) that it didn’t last beyond its first season.

Survivor (Celebrity): I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!

When a hit show prompts a copycat, most networks grumble, but don’t do much more than that. CBS broke the mold in 2002, when they took ABC to court to keep an American version of the UK series I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! off the air, claiming it was nakedly derivative of their current hit Survivor (Celebrity), which stranded celebs in a jungle without luxuries and presented them with competition challenges. A US District judge refused to grant the injunction, however, and the show went on the air in 2003. It only lasted one season on ABC; then, weirdly, NBC picked it up six years later for a single summer season in 2009. One lawsuit was never filed, however: the viewers surprisingly chose not to sue the networks for claiming that Robin Leach, Cris Judd, Sanjaya Malaker, and Patti Blagojevich were “celebrities.”

American Idol: Rock Star/Nashville Star/The One/America’s Got Talent/The Sing-Off/The Voice

American Idol’s premise is simple: for all intents and purposes, it’s a talent show, presided over by a panel of judges with varying levels of bitterness and wit. That’s it, that’s the show. But that magic elixir is one that every network worth its salt has tried to replicate since Idol became a smash in 2002. When Idol hit, many compared it to the long-running Star Search, so that show was quickly revived for CBS, with Arsenio Hall hosting (it lasted two seasons). Rock Star, CBS’s attempt (from Survivor creator Mark Burnett — who’s being derivative now, Mark?), also lasted two seasons; Nashville Star lasted five seasons on USA before a brief run on NBC; ABC’s The One lasted all of two weeks in summer 2006. Idol mastermind Simon Cowell got into the act in 2006 by creating America’s Got Talent (a spinoff, as Idol was, of a UK series), a talent show with an Idol­-style panel of judges, including Piers Morgan in Cowell’s “snide Brit” role; it just wrapped up its sixth year. NBC has also found success with its “a capella Idol” series The Sing-Off (three seasons and counting), and the blatantly derivative The Voice, which is set to return to the network in February. We’re sure there’s a couple we missed –keeping track of the Idol rip-offs is exhausting.

The Simpsons: Family Guy/American Dad

From The Simpsons, season 17, episode 8. ‘Nuff said.