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5 Infuriating Copycat TV Shows

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