What Happens When Happy Shows Turn All X-Files on You?
From The Brady Bunch to M*A*S*H, what do we do when our favorite TV shows spawn shockingly dark offspring?
The Next Reel explores the tapestry of the world of film and uncovers the links between films that are often just under the surface. From hidden sequels to twin films to unofficial clone films to the antecedents that built big franchises, I’ve covered them all.
What is television, then, chopped liver?
TV shows are known for their surprising crossovers and even sequels and remakes and all kinds of other bizarre combinations worthy of a Next Reel column all their own. However, occasionally even the most beloved TV shows are reinvented as dark, frightening parodies of themselves that keep us awake at night and terrify us every time we walk near a cathode ray tube (plasma screens we're cool with).
You know what? I love it! Yes, Yes, folks, and that's why I proudly present these shockingly dark spinoffs of classic TV shows...
The Bradys: the soul-crushing and childhood–destroying dramatic saga.
Unless you're a strange visitor from another planet who lacks the technology of "rabbit ears", have been living under a rock that would give Mount Rushmore stone envy or have been living a life so sheltered that Mitt Romney defines "edgy" to you, you know all about the man named Brady, who was bringing up three very permed boys and the blonde haired sisterhood they spent the next five seasons surrounded by. If you grew up around the time I did, The Brady Bunch (1969 – 1974) flowed all over the airwaves like so much of Mrs. Brady’s own Wesson Oil. (Rest In Peace, Florence Henderson.)
In that I wasn’t actually born until 1974, it’s plain to see that the adventure didn't stop with those five years (much to Robert "Mr. Brady" Reed's often constipated consternation). No, much like the less-funny and more colorful bastard step-cousin of Star Trek, The Brady Bunch did so incredibly well in the syndicated market (becoming every young lady's after-school viewing choice and every young laddie's primary wardrobe advisor) that sequels and spinoffs were as in-demand as fur blankets in an igloo, man!
And spinoffs and sequels they got in spades, dudes and chicks, from the ridiculous cartoon The Brady Kids (1972) to the inexplicable, uncalled for 1976 variety show The Brady Bunch Hour (which was just about 59 minutes too long in most episodes), to the faux mini-series The Brady Girls get Married (1981), which, in turn, spun-off the ten-episode tie-dyed explosion on the senses known as The Brady Brides. (Also 1981, because I know I couldn't get enough... how could anyone?)
Sadly, those attempts and the TV movie A Very Brady Christmas (1988) failed to capture the zeitgeist in any meaningful way (aside from those of you out there with Davy Jones chest tattoos). Thus, creator Sherwood Schwartz decided to try a different angle. After all, the only real "unanswered question" from these repeated attempts at Brady gold was why in the name of all we hold holy Robert Reed (who reportedly hated the increasingly silly show) agreed to appear in almost every one of these, while Cindy, Jan and Marcia had to be repeatedly recast for the sake of their actress' integrity.
Hence was born The Bradys (1990) and here's where things got shockingly dark for "the lovely lady", "the man named Brady" and most everyone else who came into contact with their newly disturbing lives of misfortune.
"Not Pictured: The Cruel Hand of Fate!"
Gone were the pastel colors, the goofy music, the poofy hair, the plaid pants and even the cries of "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!" See, figuring they had gone as far to the Candyland realm as possible with his earlier attempts, The Brady mythos went all the way into the shadows of nighttime soap operas with the same intrigue, backstabbing and real-world pain we saw in such shows as Dallas, Knots Landing, The Jay Leno Show and Dynasty. We're talking way, way, way darker than those "Evil Hawaiian Idol" episodes from the classic series!
Reportedly, Robert Reed was, at long last, all over this incarnation like a butterfly collar sale at Sears!
How dark could it be, though? We're talking The Brady Bunch here, right? Well, this isn’t the Brady Bunch you remember. In fact, flipping through the channels and coming across The Bradys was a little like walking by Huey Lewis in the mall. You stare for a moment because something seems familiar, but pretty soon you get embarrassed and move on.
In the very first episode, in what is either the best or the most horrifying idea ever to slam into the Brady household, youngest son Bobby (now a racecar driver) has an accident and becomes a paraplegic.
Uh-huh! Yeah. Bobby, the cute little kid with the corny one-liners, is stuck in a wheelchair for life in the first episode. This is the Brady spinoff, not Game of Thrones.
But is the darkness localized to Bobby? Aw, hell naw!
Over the subsequent five episodes little Cindy gets involved in a torrid and tawdry affair with her much older boss (and gets a promotion out of it); Mike becomes a politician and gets blackmailed while trying to save the iconic Brady house from being razed; Peter almost dies in a choking accident (and, presumably, must now become Greg's "Servant for Life"); Marcia hits the bottle and becomes an unemployed, self-pitying alcoholic and Jan... well, Jan is even more despondent than ever, discovering she is as biologically infertile as she is creatively infertile.
Well, okay, I know I’m sad now. You?
And that's just the first six episodes. So, did they finally get their footing and turn things around or did things get even darker until they resembled the fifth ring of Dante's Inferno? Thing is we will never, ever actually know! The show only lasted six agony-centric episodes before being canceled.
Yeah, it turns out that turning America's most skittles-colored, happy family into a train-wreck of depression, injury, addiction, political corruption and cradle-robbing was just a little bit harder for audiences to warm-up to than switching Darrens on Bewitched.
That means all of their stories ended right there, somewhere in Mordor. So, next time you feel like dismissing those spoof Brady Bunch movies, remember this: without them, the legacy of The Brady Bunch would be Bobby stuck forever in a wheelchair, Cindy learning the sex ropes from some old guy (and probably being told "this is your Job we're talking about, here!"), Marcia, who hasn't recovered from her alcoholism, is pulling a recovery-free Betty Ford and Mike right in line to become leader of the free world with access to "The Button". Woe to thee who enter here!
One must wonder how "Cousin Oliver" fared in this bleak new apocalyptic future of The Brady Bunch. Sigh.
Galactica 1980 reintroduces your favorite character from the original show and then abandons him to the elements forever.
No, no, no, I’m not confusing the darker, grittier '00s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica with this short-lived and somewhat silly sequel series called Galactica 1980 (1980, natch). My head is indeed screwed on right when I identify this strange spinoff in which the intrepid (insipid?) crew finally finds its way to Earth (albeit way too late for the absent Apollo to finally sample a slice of deep dish) as "shockingly dark".
I am, after all, the self-same writer who boldly asked the question "What does Tom Petty think of Cylons?" and used scenes from this very show to answer that question. In short, I know what I’m talking about, kids.
But, hey, you've seen some episodes of this thing, right? It's basically as campy, cheesy and light-hearted as the main show, it's hardly as dark as, say Twin Peaks or, hell, The Bradys, right?
Well, that's pretty much true... until you get to the final episode, teasingly called "The Return of Starbuck". In this shockingly dark entry in the saga, the star of the previous Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) series (Dirk Benedict’s Starbuck, of course) crash lands on a deserted planet where he enters into an unhealthy relationship with a Cylon who goes from mortal enemy to bosom buddy in the time it takes to tell one of the coffee namesake's anticlimactic anecdotes.
Don't worry, it happens to LOTS of Cylons!
Yep, sci-fi fans are sure to enjoy the fun of discovering that Commander Adama is really the grandfather of the hero from Farscape (it's true, kind of, look it up) and those who were dying to find out what the hell happened to everybody's favorite Han Solo rip off from the main series are about to have their dreams come true.
That is until those dreams turn to nightmares and the episode takes a turn for the bleak, weird, crazy and shockingly dark.
If it isn't weird enough that Starbuck's new robotic friend "Cy" (really) stops speaking in that electronic Cylon drone and starts speaking in the voice of Gary Owens (voice of the Blue Falcon -- really), Cy, Starbuck and a surprise mystery lady soon enter into a bizarre love triangle. The whole thing culminates in a weird Western-style gunfight with some actually bad Cylons followed by a daring escape.
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But not for Starbuck who, title-be-damned never, ever, ever returns. Yeah, boys and girls. As far as we know the poor swashbuckler is now a skeleton, desperately reaching for a rusted blaster on some desolate desert planet nobody has ever visited where it never rains and there is, quite simply, nothing to eat. The planet is so empty (save for its now sole inhabitant) that Starbuck can’t even go to a Starbucks to survive.
Now that’s irony.
That's how the hero went out, man... probably starving to death with his only friends having either abandoned or forgotten him. What little boy my age wouldn’t be depressed?
And that's the final legacy and the end of the story of Battlestar Galactica's action hero, because before creator Glen A. Larson could come up with his planned Starbuck-resurrecting sequel (before he could even finish producing the very next episode) the damned show was cancelled. Most sci-fi fans would call that a mercy for everybody, except Starbuck, that is.
And that's the legacy of Battlestar Galactica's action hero!
Greg the Bunny devolves into a world of addiction, bestiality and murder.
Look, I realize that, minor cult appeal aside, Greg the Bunny hardly qualifies as a "Classic Series" but for a short-lived TV Sitcom, it sure as hell has its fair share of Spinoffs, all of which are shockingly dark.
While the Fox TV sitcom Greg the Bunny (2002), about a sarcastic, drinking, living puppet, could be considered a "dark spinoff" all its own having been spawned from the IFC series The Greg the Bunny Show (which in turn was inspired by the public access program Junktape) what came after made the Fox show look like Sweetknuckle Junction by comparison.
After the cancellation of The Greg the Bunny in real life, MTV produced a spinoff called Warren the Ape (2010) featuring supporting character Warren DeMontague trying to get his life back together amid addictions to drugs, alcohol and sex, not to mention a short-lived career in porn! Mercifully the show was canceled in less than three months. My guess is that there was too much music in Warren's show to qualify for exposition on this current excuse for "MTV".
Before waiting to see if the whole MTV thing would work out, Greg and Warren headed back to The Independent Film Channel where the new show became a series of short movie spoofs lasting from 2005 to 2006). For example, "Bunny Hall" (the spoof of Annie Hall) features cute little Greg murdering a Cabbage Patch Doll he was dating then entering into a sexual relationship with a Lobster.
Don't worry, this happens to LOTS of Lobsters!
To think we once watched Greg with the kids! To be both fair and honest, "Bunny Hall" is one of the most innocuous of the spoofs with even more shocking crap hitting the fan in parodies of Fargo, Natural Born Killers and... oh no... even Pulp Fiction.
The "Gimp" scene was too disturbing even for me.
Torchwood discovers the secret to immortality and manages to make even that horrifying.
Doctor Who is the longest running sci-fi show in history partially because of its succession of dashing, oddball leading men taking on the role of "The Doctor", partially because of its unique premise and setting (a blue British "police box" with an expansive interior is a time machine) and partially because of its impressively scary rogue’s gallery. Yet even at its most terrifying, Doctor Who’s themes have been primarily safe for kids. Two of the best-known spinoffs of the hugely successful show were K-9 (2010 – 2011), a show about The Doctor’s adorable robot dog (aimed at 11- to 15-year-olds) and The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007 – 2011) about Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) a former companion of The Doctor, who again teams up with K-9, The Doctor’s adorable robot dog.
That’s why its biggest spin-off to date, the BBC’s Torchwood (the title itself is an anagram of "Doctor Who") is shocking in its darkness. From half-assimilated cyber-women to major characters dying off (and occasionally partially resurrecting as semi-zombies) to overt sexuality to an absence of an afterlife to universal corruption, this show makes The X-Files look like Romper Room.
The show was already really quite dark even before 2011’s Torchwood: Miracle Day. You see, when the show jumped the pond (and many would say, the Shark) for its fourth season (to bring the show to a wider audience courtesy of the US cable premium network Starz) the alien hunters of the Torchwood Institute experience (what Fox Mulder would refer to as) the shit-storm of all time!
What are we talking about in this "Miracle Day"? Oh, a little gift in the form of nobody dying. Ever.
Sound good? For the moment. Until you realize what that means for the planet. Nobody dies -- from "mortally" wounded accident victims to innocent kids who threaten to overpopulate the world to the fatally ill to child murderers on death row (oh, yeah, that's a thing in Torchwood). There is quite simply no death and everyone is immortal. Everyone, that is, except for Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the Doctor Who alumnus who was previously the only immortal on the planet.
He’s going to need that gun now!
That’s right, not only are the bad guys living forever, medical resources are being strained (people can’t die, but they can be broken, sickened and in terrible pain) and the global population will become unsustainable in about four months but your favorite character is going to buy the farm. Everybody in the world gets to live to watch that happen.
Starting to sound shockingly dark? Yeah, well that's the bright part of the fourth season. We're now about as far away from cute robot dogs and spunky sidekicks as one can get!
The immortality aspect might well have started as a metaphor for the show itself. The third season, a five-episode mini-series known as Torchwood: Children of Earth (2009), was expected to be its last, but the show defied expectations and achieved great ratings in the UK. This success led to its resurrection as Torchwood: Miracle Day but the darker season failed to impress viewers or critics (on either side of the Atlantic), so the show was shelved. Showrunner Russell T. Davies and star Barrowman have indicated the door is open for the show to return, but for now the immortality of Torchwood seems to have been put to a very dark end.
Baywatch Nights goes from the beach straight into Hell!
For a time, the syndicated TV show nicknamed (both derisively and affectionately) "Babewatch" was the most popular and watched television show in the world and it's still one of biggest and best-known American exports. Let that sink in for a second. Baywatch (1989 – 2001) is something of a cultural ambassador that represents the best glimpse at the United States that some people ever get. This explains why other countries hate us and why aliens never visit.
That isn’t a secret, nor is the concept that successful shows get spinoffs. The show itself was rebranded Baywatch Hawaii in 1999 and managed to spawn, demon-like, such full-length films as Baywatch the Movie: Forbidden Paradise (1995), Baywatch: White Thunder at Glacier Bay (1998) and Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding (2003). If that’s not enough for you (and, cousin, it should be), a big screen adaptation starring Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron is (somehow) hitting theaters just in time for summer 2017.
Probably quite a bit less well-known is that the sunny beach show featuring models in bathing suits received a decidedly X-Files treatment that went all the way to HELL before its second season ended. Erstwhile Knight Rider, David Hasselhoff and the slow-mo bikini squad, was still running around happily during the day.
After sunset, lifeguards become DEATH GUARDS!
Oh, Baywatch Nights (1995 – 1997) didn’t start out that way. The premise was straightforward (if questionable) enough. The bay’s resident copper Gregory Alan Williams gives up his badge to become a private dick and opens his own agency. The only thing missing from the office is what every good P.I. needs: a lifeguard. Thus Hasselhoff joins up. Naturally they run their office out of a nightclub run by Lou Rawls (who also performed the series’ theme song).
And so began a relatively tepid year of procedural and predictable detective episodes with stirring plots in which Hasselhoff falls in love with a cat burglar, Hasselhoff rescues a geisha girl, Hasselhoff’s partner Ryan (Angie Harmon) moonlights as a phone sex operator, Hasselhoff thwarts the efforts of a gang of burglars on roller-skates(!) and, of course, Hasselhoff goes undercover as a crossdresser. The closest to anything supernatural happening is a psychic named (not kidding) "Destiny" (Lisa Stahl) having a vision about a serial killer.
The show did about as well as you might expect considering its bland premise so, inspired by The X-Files the show went full-on Sci-Fi to attempt a second season ratings boost. First they fired Rawls and Williams (you know, the guy who was supposed to have been the focus of the show) and then they filled the second season’s first three episodes with sea monsters. Hey, they’re still watching the bay during nights (hence the title) so you know there had to be sea monsters somewhere.
Further episodes in the season involve Roswell aliens, ancient spell books, vampires(!), radioactive space dust, possession, serial killers, unfrozen Vikings(!!), torture devices, werewolves, mummies, alien invasions, demons, weather that drives people crazy (note: this wasn’t set in Louisiana), haunted restaurants, psychics, computer role-playing games(!!!), parallel universes and time travel, twice.
One episode actually revolved around missing (presumably slow-motion running) lifeguards, so you wouldn’t forget you were watching a show with the word "Baywatch" in the title. Seriously, go back to that previous paragraph and re-read that list and tell me that sounds anything like Baywatch.
Audiences didn’t think so either and as the show went to hell literally in its storylines its ratings also went to hell and the shockingly dark Babewatch spinoff was canceled.
Thus, back to the sunny beaches they did go for more slow-motion adventures in the brightly-lit sand.
Pay no attention to that CRASHED UFO!!!
The death rattles of both Millennium and The Lone Gunmen.
Speaking of The X-Files…
Chris Carter’s 1993 – 2002 paranormal investigations series became a big hit against all industry beliefs and that opened the door for more Carter shows and spinoffs. And although the spinoff films of that saga, 1998’s The X-Files: Fight the Future and 2008’s The X-Files: I Want to Believe both had moderate success and the series’ six-episode tenth season revival in 2016 got good marks, few of Carter’s other enterprises became quite as huge.
Millennium (1996 – 1999) had a respectable, very creepy run, but wasn’t quite the phenomenon that its predecessor was and failed to make it to the actual Millennium as the show had promised. The Lone Gunman (2001), the legitimate spinoff of the main show, never managed to carry the X-torch, lasting only thirteen episodes before falling off the schedule.
It's not so much the shows themselves that were "shockingly dark" enough to include them on the list (though Millennium surely was that), but the fact that these spiritual and literal spin-offs of The X-Files actually had to spin back IN to finish their stories, having both been cancelled prematurely.
To be sure, this created some incongruities, as Millennium was not intended to be an X-Files spinoff at all. Main character Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) is actually seen watching The X-Files on television in one episode seemingly cementing the disturbing show in its own universe. But just when we thought Millennium couldn't get any darker the titular episode of the X-Files that was purported to finish its storyline features the main character Frank relaxing comfortably far away from "The Millennium Group" -- confined to a mental institution.
I have a feeling this isn’t going to end well for you.
What’s more, the plot of 1999’s "Millennium" finds Frank declining to be of any assistance to the FBI in spite of the fact that (the clearly not-so-fictional) Mulder and Scully are looking to save the world from zombies rising from the grave!
Yeah, the guy fighting against the end of the world as Y2K approaches has become a dejected mental patient who can’t lift a finger to help out when the world is about to become overrun by the walking dead and no plot thread is truly sewn up. On the other hand, Mulder and Scully do share an onscreen kiss at midnight on January 1st when Y2K dawns, so at least somebody’s happy. Not Frank, but somebody.
But that's nothing compared to how these next guys fared. Inspired by the popularity of their appearances on The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen gave us that trio of geeks, Byers (Bruce Harwood), Langly (Dean Haglund) and Frohike (Tom Braidwood) using their tech savvy and social ineptitude to continue to investigate conspiracy theories and other real-world shenanigans. While not quite as "dark" on the surface as Millennium, the first episode did feature members of the US government plotting to highjack a passenger airplane and fly it into the World Trade Center, pinning the attack on terrorists and gaining support for an upcoming war. This episode aired exactly six months and one week before the September 11 terrorist attacks.
However, the show itself didn’t last until their quasi-prediction came true and so it fell to The X-Files to wrap up their little adventure in a 2002 episode appropriately called "Jump the Shark". That "spin-in" (or "spin-on") episode plays out like most others featuring the nerdy triumvirate with one noteworthy exception: the heroes don’t make it out alive.
We faked our deaths to start a Honkey Tonk band.
That’s right, The Lone Gunman, stars of their own eponymous, light-hearted spinoff actually DIE in their story-ending X-Files episode. Trapped behind closed doors, the Lone Gunmen actually sacrifice themselves to save the world from a killer virus, which grows in the organs of a hybrid human/ shark. And Mulder doesn’t even make it to the funeral.
I’m starting to think that Starbuck guy got off easy!
Gary Burghoff as Walter O'Reilly in M*A*S*H
W*A*L*T*E*R picks up the torch from M*A*S*H, then douses it in tears.
Remember Corporal Walter "Radar" O'Reilly, the lovable innocent character from M*A*S*H and the only guy to appear with the same actor in the movie, TV show and two spinoffs?
That’s right, good old Gary Burghoff played Radar in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) and was the only actor to carry over into the subsequent series of the same name (1972-1983) and showed up again in the spinoff After MASH (1983 - 1985).
It's the second spinoff, W*A*L*T*E*R (1984), the one in which Radar was intended to be the central character, where everything got shockingly dark.
What are we talking about? Well, Radar, the guy everybody loves like a little brother starts by failing at farming and subsequently losing the family farm. Then the lovable "momma’s boy" sends his poor mother off to live with relatives while dealing with the aftermath. He should be able to handle that, though because he did move back to Missouri to become a police officer (not kidding).
Remember how heart-wrenching it was to see Radar have to deliver the news that Colonel Blake had died on his way back to the States? Well, imagine how you’ll feel when you find out that Radar worked up the courage to get married but his wife left him for another man immediately after the honeymoon.
How does the man now known as "Walter" handle all of this stress? Well, ultimately the poor guy attempts to commit suicide.
Subplots also involve Walter’s wallet being stolen and breaking up a fight between two angry exotic dancers.
This is Radar we’re talking about here, right?
To sum up the premise, Radar leaves the war, spends a couple of days getting yelled at again by Colonel Potter (on After MASH), loses everything, becomes a cop, gets cuckolded and abandoned after the altar, gets robbed, sends his beloved mother away, resolves a gritty disputes between strippers and tries to kill himself.
Considering all, it's a damned lucky thing W*A*L*T*E*R never got picked up. The pilot was shot but CBS passed on it and ended up burning the whole thing off in a single showing. Let me put that another way. All that shockingly dark tragedy that befell poor Walter O'Reilly actually took place in the first 30 minutes of the potential series. Thirty minutes, man. And there were no subsequent episodes to lift the poor guy back up.
To add insult to injury, those 30 minutes (aired only once) were only seen in the Eastern and Central time zones. Mountain and Pacific stations preempted the show for the Democratic National Convention. This is probably for the best because even though the Democratic Presidential Candidate (also named "Walter") lost in one of the biggest landslides in history, it still wasn’t nearly as depressing as Radar’s shockingly dark ordeals.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m depressed. I think I’ll close now and go do something else. I won't turn on the television.
See you in The Next Reel.