1. What’s Happening!! (1976-79)
In the hierarchy of entertainment, television adaptations are generally considered poor relations of the films that spawned them. Oftentimes adaptations of films never make it past the pilot stage, like an ill-fated 1997 television version of Fargo starring Edie Falco. Even when television adaptations do make it onto a network schedule, they seldom make it past a single season. But every once in a while, a television adaptation—official, loose, or otherwise—usurps its big-screen version in the public’s imagination. That’s what happened to What’s Happening!!, a ’70s black sitcom loosely inspired by the classic coming-of-age comedy Cooley High. What’s Happening!! traded in the grittiness of Cooley High for a lighter, goofier approach as it chronicled the growing pains of brainy teenager Ernest Thomas, his family, and his pals, most notably a rotund beret enthusiast with incongruously smooth dance moves played by Fred Berry, who quickly emerged as the show’s breakout star, along with a sassy waitress played by Shirley Hemphill. Like Good Times, which aired around the same time, What’s Happening!! was plagued by allegations of stereotyping and wracked with production problems, but it was nevertheless a modest hit, landing in the top 30 two of the three seasons it ran on ABC. As befits a program whose most popular character is nicknamed “Rerun,” the show took off in syndication. Old episodes of the show proved so popular that the show was resurrected in 1985 as What’s Happening Now!! and ran for three seasons in syndication with much of the original cast in tow, along with newcomers like a young Martin Lawrence.
2. Alien Nation (1989-90)
Alien Nation has all the cornerstones of a television adaptation fated to usurp its big-screen inspiration. The 1988 film version of Alien Nation, a science-fiction buddy-cop movie about a human cop (James Caan) partnered with an alien (Mandy Patinkin) was a solid success but not exactly a zeitgeist-capturing blockbuster, and the premise of aliens living and working in the United States as another class of immigrants is rich and open-ended enough to lend itself to weekly television more than a standalone film. Sure enough, the television version of Alien Nation, with Gary Graham and Eric Pierpoint in the roles originated by Caan and Patinkin respectively, garnered good reviews and quickly attracted a serious cult following that was drawn to its metaphorically rich take on racism and the immigrant experience. But the struggling Fox network canceled all of its drama series in the 1990-1991 season in spite of the fact that the first season of Alien Nation ended on a clear cliffhanger. Cultists were unwilling to give up on Alien Nation so easily, however, and the show was brought back for five television movies featuring the original cast, as well as a series of novels and comic-book adaptations.
3. Mr. Belvedere (1985-90)
Mr. Belvedere belongs to a curious subsection of prominent television adaptations many fans didn’t even realize were adaptations. The story of a dapper English butler who comes to America to clean up the manners and fix the lives of a crass American family originated in Gwen Davenport’s 1947 novel Belvedere, which was adapted to cinema the following year in Sitting Pretty, with Clifton Webb in the role of the freakishly efficient butler. Webb scored an Oscar nomination for his lead performance, and the film was such a smash it inspired two sequels. But multiple generations know Belvedere not as Webb, but as Christopher Hewitt of The Producers fame, who played the wry super-servant in an ’80s sitcom adaptation that paired him with baseball announcer, beer pitchman, author, retired catcher, and all-around character Bob Uecker as the head of a rambunctious American clan. Though never a ratings titan, Mr. Belvedere proved strangely resilient and enduring, lasting six seasons and 117 episodes and inspiring a classic Saturday Night Live sketch in “The Guy Who Plays Mr. Belvedere Fan Club.” For many Gen-Xers who grew up on Mr. Belvedere reruns, merely hearing the opening strains of Leon Redbone’s iconic theme song, “According To Our New Arrivals,” is enough to engender intense nostalgia.
4. Peyton Place (1964-69)
Grace Metalious’ 1956 novel Peyton Place spawned a hit movie, a book sequel, a movie sequel, and controversy across the country from those who found Metalious’ frank description of small-town vice—from child sexual abuse to abortion to rampant adultery—a bit too spicy for the Eisenhower era. By the time Peyton Place became a prime-time soap in 1964, the title alone had entered the pop-culture lexicon as shorthand for “shocking.” And while the TV series was relatively tame—keeping the routine adultery but losing the more extreme perversion—it had an intense, potboiler quality that makes it compelling even now. (It helps that the show features a young Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow, as teenage lovers torn apart by parental pressure and a chain of circumstance.) Peyton Place aired multiple times a week and never repeated, so by the time it ended its run in 1969, 514 half-hour episodes had been completed. The show looks like a 1964 TV series—all backlot-y and Main Street idyllic—except that the characters are all sleeping around and trying to kill each other. It’s like the dark side of Mayberry.
5. The Paper Chase (1978-79, 1983-86)
John Jay Osborn Jr.’s autobiographical novel The Paper Chase and its 1973 big-screen adaptation both follow a group of first-year law students as they deal with impossible workloads, cutthroat competition, and the rigorous demands of a hard-ass contracts professor. John Houseman plays the prof in both the movie and its award-winning TV version, the latter of which ran for one season on CBS in 1978-79, then subsequently moved to Showtime for three more seasons. Each TV Paper Chase episode would introduce (and, somewhat implausibly, resolve) a conflict involving ripped-from-the-headlines issues like affirmative action, academic dishonesty, sexual harassment, and gambling addiction. The movie was about law school in general; the show was more involved with the difficult choices of its blank-slate chief protagonist: a gawky, overeager farm boy played by James Stephens, who wrestled with his conscience while preparing for a powerful career.
6. The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father (1969-72)
Both TV and the movies developed a fascination with broken families in the ’60s, exploring the effects of divorce, widowhood, and remarriage. Mark Toby’s novel The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father was adapted into a big-screen melodrama by producer Joe Pasternak, director Vincente Minnelli, and screenwriter John Gay in 1963, with Glenn Ford playing the widowed father of Ron Howard. But because the movie comes to an inevitable endpoint—with Ford finding a woman Howard approves of—it doesn’t get to spend enough time dealing with the most important relationship, between father and son. The James Komack-produced TV series starred Bill Bixby as the dad and Brandon Cruz as the kid, and featured guest shots from up-and-comers like Jodie Foster, Willie Aames, and Sally Struthers; but mostly it was about Bixby trying to answer Cruz’s questions about life and love. The appeal of the show is encapsulated in its opening, with Bixby and Cruz goofing around and philosophizing on the beach, while Harry Nilsson’s playfully martial theme song “Best Friend” plays.
7. The Odd Couple (1970-1975)
It’s hard to know for certain whether people’s image of Oscar Madison and Felix Unger was cemented by the original five-year ABC run of The Odd Couple, based on Neil Simon's hit play and equally hit 1968 movie (though Simon himself was uninvolved with the series). It likely wasn’t, given the show’s low ratings; it was on the verge of cancellation every year it was on. But after three and a half decades of syndicated reruns, it’s hard to think of anyone but Jack Klugman and Tony Randall playing those iconic characters. It’s more than just a matter of repetition, though; as good as Walter Matthau (as Oscar) Jack Lemmon (as Felix) were in their roles in the film, they were a bit one-dimensional. Matthau was grumpy, and Lemmon was fussy and shrill. Klugman gave Oscar more of a put-upon everyman persona, and Randall made Felix into a vulnerable soul who knew that he was a pest, but could do little to stop himself. The chemistry between the two actors was so undeniable, that the two of them would inevitably be called upon to play the roles in revivals of Simon’s play and in a reunion TV movie.
8. M*A*S*H (1972-83)
Robert Altman’s 1970 movie MASH was a caustic commentary against the ravages of war, using the Korean conflict as a backdrop, even though it was more about the escalating ugliness of the U.S.’ expanding involvement in Vietnam. Altman’s movie used rapid-fire one-liners, sight gags, and the story of an inter-camp Olympics-like competition to pin down that commentary. During the first years of the long-running CBS series, Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds kept up Altman’s gag-a-minute pace, but they managed to show the sadness and sense of futility that was building in their show's characters, especially Alan Alda’s version of the authority-bucking surgeon Hawkeye Pierce. By the time Gelbart left the show after its fourth season, its humanist soul was permanently in place, even if the crackling dialogue had been replaced by something slower but just as funny. Even though people criticized the show for hanging on too long and getting too preachy as Alda’s influence grew, there’s a reason why the series finale was seen by more people than any other scripted show ever, and certainly many more people than originally saw Altman’s movie: People got to know and rooted for everyone at the MASH 4077th, a feeling the movie never got the chance to establish.
For a middling science-fiction film full of pulp and plot holes, 1994’s Stargate did surprisingly well at the box office, setting up director Roland Emmerich for a long run of blockbuster action. From there, it would have been common sense to launch a big-screen franchise on the back of its success. Instead, it went to TV, and that was a smart move. The movie’s premise—an ancient yet futuristic artifact acts as a portal between worlds—had no way of being exploited to its full potential in a two-hour tale. But when the first TV show, the prequel Stargate SG-1, debuted, it quickly became clear that having a hole through which random aliens might fall could prove to be an endless source of stories. And endless it has become. Following the excellently cast, universe-expanding SG-1—with Richard Dean Anderson ably taking over the lead role from the film’s Kurt Russell—the source material’s rich mythology grew over the years to encompass three TV series, an animated series, and three TV films. At this point, Emmerich’s original feels more like a tangent to the sprawling franchise than a point of genesis.
10. The Dukes Of Hazzard (1979-85)
Long before redneck outlaws became complicated and elevated on excellent shows like Justified and Sons Of Anarchy, The Dukes Of Hazzard glorified the rebellious, shit-kicking adventures of backwoods rebels in a dumb, fun way. Before that, though, The Dukes Of Hazzard was a movie called Moonrunners. Written and directed by Gy Waldron, who created The Dukes Of Hazzard four years later, the 1975 film shares many of the core concepts and characters as its successor, including the rural Georgia setting and using Waylon Jennings as a the twangy narrator. Some of the names are different, such as those of the heroic, bootlegging cousins; instead of Bo and Luke Duke, they’re known as Bobby Lee and Grady Hagg (the surname being recycled as Hogg for Dukes’ main villain Boss Hogg). But the series’ more cartoonish, family-friendly quality—relatively speaking; these are still moonshine runners—wound up turning Dukes into a long-running institution. And Moonrunners into a footnote.
11. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1996-2003)
“It didn’t turn out to be the movie that I had written,” said Joss Whedon of 1992’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer. “They never do, but that was my first lesson in that.” Then in his late 20s, with only a handful of television scripts to his credit, Whedon was on set during the production of his first screenplay and got a humbling lesson in what happens when the wrong cast and the wrong director get their hands on good material. The simple difference between the film and the funny, insightful seven-season TV show: Whedon actually took the concept seriously. Where the film seemed to think it clever enough to imbue a Valley Girl-cheerleader type with a mythical power, the show found endless ways to express the trials of adolescence (and beyond) through Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friends keeping the demons at bay. It also brought viewers the Whedon voice unfiltered: The quick wit, the pop-culture savvy, and, perhaps most importantly of all, a genuine emotional investment in characters the film would have chuckled off as silly.
12. Friday Night Lights (2006-11)
For his seminal sports book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team And A Dream, Buzz Bissinger moved his family to Odessa, Texas, where he took up residence during Permian High School’s dramatic 1988 football season. The key phrase there—and the one that represents the biggest difference between the 2004 film adaptation and the TV series that followed—is “took up residence.” The film version of Friday Night Lights tells the story through a coach (Billy Bob Thornton) who has to deal with the constant scrutiny and second-guessing of a nowhere town that lives for high-school football. The series, on the other hand, had the luxury of making the town itself the star, and raising the stakes for those Friday night games by spending time with the key players and their families, as well as the coach (Kyle Chandler) and his wife (Connie Britton), whose marriage is as touchingly real as any in television history. The relationship between the events in Bissinger’s book and those in the TV show may be casual at best, but as a sympathetic portrait of small-town Texas, the show is equally resonant.
13. Alice (1976-1985)
Some of the TV shows on this list fully deserve to have eclipsed their filmic predecessors in the popular consciousness, but Alice is emphatically not one of them. Martin Scorsese’s 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore may not sound that far removed from a sitcom about a middle-aged woman who takes a humbling waitress job, but Scorsese was only a year off of directing Mean Streets, and the film has a tough streak that starts with an embattled, profane dreamer of a lead character (played by Ellen Burstyn) determined to make it on her own. Running for nine seasons and 202 excruciating episodes from 1976 to 1985, the sitcom has the same premise—single mother seeks a fresh start with her son, finds a job working at Mel’s Diner—but it goes absolutely nowhere. For 10 years, Americans listened to Flo (Polly Holliday) say “Kiss my grits” and Mel (Vic Tayback) bully his staff from behind the counter, and they were apparently happy with it. Memorable theme song, though.
14. Fame (1982-87)
Alan Parker’s 1980 film Fame, a slice-of-life collection of vignettes about the lives of various teenagers at a performing-arts school, was an unquestioned hit: It was a well-reviewed box-office success that won two Oscars (for Best Original Score and Best Original Song) and was nominated for four more, including Best Screenplay and Best Editing. But the real measure of its success was the fact that it immediately spawned a TV series, which became the Glee of its day: a soap opera for teenagers, about teenagers, with a hefty sideline in spin-off hit albums and live cast performances. Where Parker’s Fame was R-rated (the New York school board refused to let him shoot in an actual school because the film featured teenagers experimenting with sex and drugs), the show made the same central concept more accessible to its target audience. The ratings were shaky, but the series ran for six years and 136 episodes, raking in Emmys, Golden Globes, and critical acclaim along the way. For the generation that grew up with it, the series is the real Fame, and the film is just a couple of hours of singing and dancing that kicked it all off.