TV Series That Were Better Than the Films That Inspired Them

Yeah, there have been some. Rilly.

Don’t believe us? Check this:

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Clear eyes, full hearts, eh, I’ll just wait for the TV show: 14 TV series that usurped their original film versions
by Jason HellerJoel KellerNoel MurrayNathan RabinTasha Robinson, And Scott Tobias

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 toWhat’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 PlaysMr. 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.

Read it all (complete with video samples)