News & Politics

5 Infuriating Copycat TV Shows

Why do television writers insist on blatantly ripping off our favorite shows, and foisting inferior versions down our throats?

Photo Credit: Pop Culture Geek at Flickr

With the return of "Mad Men" last weekend, suddenly the copycat filler on television meant to whet fans’ ‘60s fetish looks acutely bad. It did then, too, of course—”The Playboy Club,” with a Draper-style lead and a philandering plotline ripped from the “Mad Men” playbook, was canceled after only three pathetic episodes.

But in retrospect, even well-received “Mad Men” mimeographs like “Pan Am” look ridiculous when comparing the former’s super-subtle approach to the latter’s espionage-in-the-air conceits. (I mean, stewardesses working as spies during the Cold War, romantically involved with pilots and double agents? Appreciate the female leads, but give us some credit.) So as “Mad Men” finally ends what felt like an eternal hiatus, shouldn’t “Pan Am” take its nostalgia-baiting premise and, simply, pack it in?

Lo, if it were so simple! Clearly television networks and screenwriters will bite any style that’s proven itself lucrative, even if their products are glaringly inferior and infuriatingly stupid compared to the originals. It’s happened before, it’s happening now, and it will happen in the future. (Though if anyone tries to rip off “The New Girl” aka “Perfect Strangers” we might have to end it all now.) “Mad Men” is just a touchstone for the dark, sad history of wack copycat shows that take a strong, beloved formula, and water it down to the point of soullessness. Let’s take a look at this painful legacy.

1. “Sex and the City” -- “Lipstick Jungle”

Whatever our lingering problems with “Sex and the City” (arch whiteness, unrealistic/fantastical salary-to-purchases ratio), it’s undeniable that it had a huge effect on American culture, as well as the fabric of New York City itself. (Witness the transformation of Manhattan’s meatpacking district from leather bar-and-drag queen utopia to upper-crust club haven for international creepozoids, which many directly attribute to the show’s fixation on the area.) Meanwhile, the popularity of plucky Carrie Bradshaw (played by West Village fixture Sarah Jessica Parker) and her band of merry sex-positive power-players equalled massive paydirt: in 2010, Forbes reported Parker was still raking in $25 million a year from the franchise.

So after the series ended in 2004, there were a couple followers waiting to nip at its Manolos: 2008’s “Cashmere Mafia” starred the awesome Lucy Liu and made some corrections on its predecessor’s formula, including a more explicit feminist bent (the characters were all top executives who were navigating overwhelmingly male-dominated worlds) and a more diverse, realistic-looking New York. Unfortunately, for some reason that show was canned after seven episodes, while a far inferior program prevailed: the horrible “Lipstick Jungle,” which was created by “Sex and the City” scribe Candice Bushnell, but dumbed down all her archetypal characters even though they, too, were meant to be powerful players in a top-tier NYC. Add show star Brooke Shields at her most cloying and Miranda-aping, and the year that “Lipstick” lasted was a year too much.

This month, another show premieres with shades of “Sex and the City”: the forthcoming, much-ballyhooed “Girls,” written by New York wunderkind/phenom Lena Dunham about being a disaffected 20something in a shit world after her parents cut her off from their coffers. (#privilegedkidproblems.) Of course, the nascent New Yorker sans job prospects archetype doesn’t follow the opulent lives of SATC and its copycats, but it will be interesting to see how much the show uses SATC as a template for the buddy-quartet TV show. Judging from the trailer, it's already got the revisionist white New York formula down pat. (Seriously, where are these imaginary all-white neighborhoods in Manhattan? Do they think we're not going to notice? Do they care?)

2. “Medium” -- “Ghost Whisperer”

The tale of Allison Dubois, psychic investigator working for the Phoenix police department, is based on a real-life person of the same name, so it’s already got something going for it: whether you believe in supernatural abilities or not, rare is the TV show based on actual, living people that hasn’t just opted for the “reality” format. But this show held a special appeal: despite its psychic premise, it was one of the few shows on television showing an American nuclear family that was extra-normal, almost to the point of drollness. The Dubois crew—Allison, her husband Joe, and three daughters—had the most standard problems amid the excitement of murder-solving and astral projection-dreams, including financial issues, medical problems, and kids fighting at the dinner table. Certainly the normalcy was a writer’s device to keep the storyline from drifting too far outside the realm of believability, but that plus the connection viewers felt to Allison Dubois, portrayed by a warm Patricia Arquette, also fostered a fan fondness for the show that kept it going for a good seven seasons strong.

But around eight months after “Medium” debuted on NBC, CBS presented its own competing series. “Ghost Whisperer” starred Jennifer Love Hewitt as her own type of medium, who generally tried to help the spirits she was dealing with transform, cross over, or like, cope with their issues, but without the added appeal of a police procedural, the show ended up being fairly one-note. Also: even longtime Hewitt fans had to admit that compared to Arquette’s layered, complex and concerned portrayal of Dubois, Hewitt’s delivery was roughly akin to a cardboard approximation. Still, CBS being a pretty consistently inferior channel to its network peers, “Ghost Whisperer” got a five-year run, and now Jennifer Love Hewitt is doing stints on Lifetime.

3. “Charmed” & “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” -- “Supernatural” -- “Grimm”

This is a melange of copycat threads entangled within each other, but first we must address a pressing issue: Is it fair to add to this list a television show (“Charmed”) that very clearly ripped off a film (The Craft)? Alas, though, the TV jaunt began in 1998 and starred some of the best small-screen actors of their generation: Rose McGowan! Shannen Doherty! Alyssa Milano! Cast as a family of witches whose job and birthright is to constantly fend off evil covens from the Underworld, the show was a perfect combination of light humor and deep fantasy, of goth aspirations and mythological drama.

It lasted eight seasons, but went into deep syndication as a cult classic, particularly because, you know, Rose McGowan! Shannen Doherty! Alyssa Milano! And they’re cast as the most powerful witches in the world. Irresistable. Meanwhile, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which ran from ‘97-’03, remains one of the most obsessively beloved television shows of all time (and that’s not hyperbolic bloviating, that’s empirical wisdom: “Buffy” fans will cut you if you speak upon it derisively). Featuring a fierce and plucky Sarah Michelle Gellar in the title role, she was descended from a long line of Slayers whose job and birthright is to constantly fend off evil vampires and demons, and to protect the forces of good from those who yearn for destruction.

Contrast those tales with the CW’s low-rent concept for “Supernatural,” in which two brothers named Sam and Dean (in an homage to Kerouac's On the Road, a defining characteristic of all things corny) who consider it their job and birthright to constantly fend off evil devils, demons and beings, after their mother is murdered by a creature of the underworld. And if that weren’t enough? “Grimm,” a series that debuted on NBC last year, is about cop Nick Burkhardt, whose job and birthright it is to fend off... you get the drift. After “Buffy,” frankly any television show working off this rubric declined sharply in quality, and even its peer “Charmed” is slightly weak in light of that show’s greatness. “Supernatural” has had its moments, though at some point after the first season its writers seemed to believe the only way to sustain its longevity is by adding a convoluted deal-with-the-devil plot twist that required the actors to behave as cornily as their name origins.

But “Grimm” is the nadir of the cheesiest of the cheese—in case you couldn’t figure it out, the Grimm of the title refers to the tales of the Brothers Grimm, who in the show were not a pair of dark-minded Germans spinning yarns but actually real-life demon-slayers, whose stories refer to actual creatures that Burkhardt and his ilk must eliminate. While it could have been a cool concept, the actor who plays Burkhardt does so in a bumbling nice-guy fashion (plenty of raised eyebrows in his repertoire), and it’s hard to imagine him slaying anything, much less ogres and harpies, plus the writing is dismal. Perhaps “Grimm” should have ripped off “Buffy” more, instead of less.

4. “West Wing” -- “Commander in Chief”

“West Wing” was something of a feat for American television, and was one of its most important embodiments of the boob tube as escapist medium: in a dark era in which the leaders of the United States were a bumbling trust-fund kid and his Shadow President, Darth Vader, the parallel universe of politics and a president we could send to other countries and not worry that he would embroil us in another illegal war was a welcome reprieve from the Dubya years. Written by Aaron Sorkin, who is a fast-chatting genius when it comes to smart dialogue, and the show was packed with mega-talent: Martin Sheen as the Prez (obviously), Stockard Channing as the First Lady (wonderful), Rob Lowe and Alison Janney and Kristen Chenowith as members of his staff. Also, Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits! The casting director needed an award!

Characterized by its realistic approach to governing in America, it managed to make legislating sexy while humanizing it at the same time—no small feat. And because it required a keen eye for the actual developments in the real world, able to turn on a dime when necessary—including indirectly addressing the September 11 attacks in an episode crafted and aired two weeks after they occurred, and utilizing the plotline to caution Americans from anti-Muslim jingoism, when most of the rest of the country was in the throes of it. That episode alone is indicative as to why “The West Wing” is widely seen as one of the best American dramas of all time.

So when it came time to wrap it up, entering its final season in 2006, ABC decided it wanted a little piece of the action, introducing “Commander in Chief” and featuring Geena Davis as a president who’d been VP but assumed the role when the male pres died. While its plot devise of casting Davis as the first female president was intriguing, and Geena Davis is a perennial hero, it simply didn’t have the screenwriting genius of Sorkin on its side—and maybe Americans stuck in a country run by George W. Bush didn’t need that much reminding about how much better it could be. Plagued by low ratings and general disinterest, the show flopped after only one season.

5. “Diff’rent Strokes” -- “Webster”

So obviously “Diff’rent Strokes” had its problems—er, rich white savior Mr. Drummond adopts Arnold and Willis Jackson, two young black brothers from Harlem after their mother (his former maid!!) passes away, and gets cheap laughs off young Arnold’s (Gary Coleman) very not-Park Avenue vernacular. (“Whatchu taumbout, Willis?”) But the show did make an effort to delve into important issues, not least of which was racism; it also tackled drug abuse and child abuse, which at the time—late-‘70s to mid-‘80s—were rare and rather anomalous on the tube.

But after “Diff’rent Strokes” went off the air in 1986, there was apparently a void for “young black child saved by white people” shows. Fortunately, “Webster” had taken the torch and run with it. Starring Emmanuel Lewis, who happened to have the same height challenge as Gary Coleman that kept them both looking perpetually 12, “Webster” xeroxed the “Diff’rent Strokes” but revised it for a fancy apartment in Chicago, where his rich white adoptive parents (who knew his birth parents before they died in a car crash) could raise him high above the streets. Perfect for the bloated Reagan era! “Webster” relied on the cuteness of Lewis as much as “Diff’rent Strokes” did upon Coleman, but in the new show it seemed to be more of a central issue—a necessary aspect for the show to function upon, rather than a character quirk that could exist or not exist and the show would still continue on.

“Webster”’s only real redeeming quality was that it cast Ben Vereen as Webster’s still-living uncle who wanted him to come live with him, rather than being shacked up with some white dude who used to work with his dad. And, you know, it was a great point! Why wouldn’t he go live with his blood relative? Did the show’s writers ever actually question themselves on that point, or did they write in Vereen as a tension device? Guess it wouldn’t have been a white savior show if they’d considered it more clearly. Still... you kind of have to admit, this is pretty cute.

 

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.