By Darren Johnson
Sometimes a spinoff series takes a long time to get percolating.
Recently, I was watching the hilarious “John Mulaney: New in Town” comedy special on Netflix, and he had a routine about “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and one of its stars, Ice T.
It made me scratch my head, as, yes, I kind of remembered that Ice T was on a cop show – wasn’t that a million years ago?
This was a show my mother used to watch – Lord rest her soul. How uncool of a show could this be?
Then Seasons 13 through 16 of “SVU” recently appeared on Netflix, and I decided to give it a look. It’s excellent. Not only is it based in New York, so the settings are familiar, and fictionalizes stories from The New York Post and Daily News, but, unlike other cop shows, the ending of each show is in doubt.
A show could end with a trial, and that trial could be a win or a loss for the DA. Or the show could simply end with a police capture, and it’s obvious the perp is guilty. Or a show can end with the bad guy getting away with it. Sometimes the wrong person is accused. Sometimes there’s corruption or police brutality. This Dick Wolf franchise is hitting on all cylinders, after 18 years on TV.
I never gave this show a chance way back when. First, it was a spinoff of “Law & Order,” a 1990s staple I just wasn’t that into. Again, it was something for my mother’s generation. Also, it was on a network, NBC, and network shows usually aren’t as cool as cable shows.
This show has never been that big in popularity, usually in the 50s or so, as far as rankings go. It never did get the hype of a Top 10 show, and certainly doesn’t get much press after 18 years, but maybe a new generation should take a look at it.
And early episodes of “SVU” are on USA Network all the time. I don’t like them as much as the newer ones. The main characters left now are Ice T and the show’s biggest star, Mariska Hargitay, who, interestingly, is the daughter of 1960s “blond bombshell” Jayne Mansfield, and was in the car as a tot when Mansfield had her fatal accident.
Hargitay is a strong, very believable presence on the show, calming down victims and helping piece together stories. It makes the show better now that the sex-crime unit is led by a very nonjudgmental, female lieutenant.
Perhaps why the recent shows are better than the shows from nearly two decades ago is because TV has changed so much in this time. We’ve had shows like “The Sopranos,” “Dexter” and “Breaking Bad,” which a viewer can marathon watch. So “SVU,” instead of making a typical network cop show with closure at the end of each episode, leaves many endings open. Some plotlines happen over several shows. Some characters come back years later. Some cold cases from previous seasons get solved by new cast members who are a little better at their jobs.
Somewhat like Hargitay and Mansfield, “SVU” is not only a spinoff that has become more popular than its parent, “Law & Order,” but it has adapted to the times and is more interesting than ever. On NBC, look for season 18 sometime this year, as the show was recently renewed (it’s always questionable if it will come back). For now, get up to speed via Netflix.
The other example of a spinoff that started slowly and eventually became bigger than its popular parent is “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” This is also on Netflix, in full, as well as on the BBC America network.
This show ended in 1994, thus may be “new to you”; just avoid the early episodes. You have to remember, the original “Star Trek,” with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, was legendary by the time “TNG” came out in 1987, and original creator Gene Roddenberry was 25 years older, and had only alienated himself from show business in all the years in between the two series. He was rusty.
The early episodes of “TNG” are really out there. The characters seem stilted, act weirdly at times, and don’t seem quite sure of their roles. Plots don’t make sense. While the special effects are better than the original series – how could they not be? – they still seem amateurish at times, with hand-drawn cityscapes and ships that look like models on strings.
But, eventually, as happened with Hargitay with “SVU,” the best actors rise to the top and take over the show. Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard, especially, saves the show, along with Brent Spiner as robotic Data.
In the first two seasons, the only memorable bad guy is Q, played by John de Lancie (who, interestingly, later played Jane Margolis’s father in “Breaking Bad”). In Season 2’s “Q Who?” he warns the crew of a new bad guy, the Borg.
The Borg then become one of the best cliffhangers in TV history, ending Season 3 and starting Season 4.
So, if you want to try out “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” perhaps start with the last episode of Season 3.
“It’s New to You!” reviews can be found on www.nu2u.info.