Good TV shows can’t just exist in isolation anymore it would seem. Whether it’s a sequel, a prequel, a revival or whatever else you can think of, more and more shows are getting the spin-off treatment these days. Whilst there are some success stories, there are also a lot that couldn’t meet the standard set by their predecessors.
Recently, I developed an unhealthy obsession with Sons Of Anarchy
Not since Boardwalk Empire have I been as in love with a TV show as I was here. Kurt Sutter’s ‘Hamlet on Harleys’ was consistently brilliant thanks to the chaotic mix of characters and the events they were continuously thrust into. Whats more, it did something that few shows seem able to do – it ended well. It’s only the second TV show I’ve seen that’s nailed its conclusion after an excellent run. I cannot put into words how delighted I was to not be underwhelmed by the finale. To put it simply, I loved it, although that probably goes without saying by this point.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. After devoting every spare hour of the previous weeks to binging the show from start to finish, the chequered flag turned up pretty quickly. In a bid to quell the feelings of emptiness that I knew were in the post, I decided it would be worth exploring SOA’s spin-off, Mayans M.C.
Now, this was a gamble. After all, the spin-off scene isn’t known for its consistency. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there have been some great ones, but from my own experience, the quality has been patchy at best. Fear The Walking Dead and, as much as it pains me to say it, the Gilmore Girls revival both failed to live up to the expectations created by the shows that paved the way for their existence. As a result, I was cautious about jumping into Mayans with both feet. But seeing as I was suffering from a distinct biker drought all of a sudden, I figured, what the hell?
Initial impressions weren’t great
It took some time for Mayans to warm up. The first few episodes tried to establish a lot, but didn’t really give me enough to get sucked in straightaway. The characters felt bare; like simple sketches as opposed to detailed paintings that give more away the closer you look. As for the narrative, Mayans spent a fair chunk of time sowing small, thinly spread seeds, that didn’t look like they would return much in the way of a harvest.
However, in the latter half of the first season, Mayans M.C. did start to turn a corner. Every strand started to tie together, and the show gained a decent amount of momentum very quickly. Yes, it had taken a while, but something happened some time around episode seven and the dynamic changed considerably. The show suddenly had a different energy. Episodes seemed to pick up the pace dramatically and I had some desire to actually watch more than one at a time, which hadn’t been the case prior to this point.
Of course, it’s not SOA, and despite the countless nods to the series, Mayans never will be. But it does do more than feel like a cheap imitation of something the creators refuse to let die. All this got me thinking – why do so many spin-offs fall flat? The two shows make for a good comparison that might hold some of the answers.
Mayans M.C. wasn’t exactly breaking new ground
I guess the most obvious place to start is within the concept of the show itself. Many of the greatest TV shows of recent years were firsts in terms of the stories they told. They weren’t necessarily pioneers of storytelling in the entirety of pop culture, but certainly television hadn’t seen the likes of these before. Prior to Gilmore Girls, there wasn’t a show centred on the relationship of a young single mother and daughter, and I’m struggling to recall a zombie apocalypse TV series before The Walking Dead.
Sons Of Anarchy was the first time I’d ever really seen anything related to motorbike gangs full stop. Outside of a single episode of a documentary series I’d watched years ago, I knew nothing. Obviously there were themes the show shared with others I’d seen, but overall there was a real shininess to it. It felt fresh and slightly off-centre compared to much of what else has graced our screens. Mayans M.C., on the other hand, didn’t really have that edge. It just wasn’t the first rodeo for a drama revolving around a motorcycle gang. Now, I’m not saying that everything you see on TV should be a one-stop-shop – that is absolutely not the case. However, when a new concept comes about, it sets a standard, and SOA set the bar high.
Mayans had to carve its own path so as not to become a poor substitution to serve SOA fans. It introduced a series of partnerships between the club and the rest of the world, and lit narrative fires that kept viewers on their toes. I’ll admit, it did feel like it was trying a little too hard during the first handful of episodes. A less patient person would’ve given up before it got going. But I stuck with it. Thankfully, in the second half of the first season, things began to pick up and the show turned a corner. The various threads it unravelled early on began to paint an intriguing picture, even if it had taken a while for that to become the case.
It needed to introduce new characters we could love just as much as the Sons
However, it’s fair to say that the success of many TV shows lies partly with their characters. Sons Of Anarchy was a show that gave us so many people we either loved or loved to hate. There wasn’t a member or close associate of SAMCRO that I didn’t want to know more about; whose story I didn’t care about. There were inevitably favourites, but on the whole, everyone was a beloved piece of the puzzle to some extent. This is probably where Mayans M.C. falls down most for me. I’m not on a first-name basis with too many of the characters, nor am I as invested in their stories.
Characters not being all that was something that was also a significant problem for me with Fear The Walking Dead. I’ve noticed that characters in spin-offs tend to fall into one of two categories for the most part. Either they feel like knock-offs of their inspiration, because people loved them before, right? Or, they’re flat and uninteresting, and don’t give you enough to hang your coat on, let alone the majority of your enthusiasm for a show. The thing is, it’s the characters that enable you to get emotionally invested in a story. When they’re paper-thin, those emotional ties cease to exist, and when they’re sub-par copies of characters you liked much better, it does a lot to turn you off what you’re watching because you can’t help but hark back to a more golden time.
There is also the matter of deciding what direction to spin-off in
Sometimes there are a lot of avenues that could potentially be explored, as Sons Of Anarchy showed us. Personally, there are two other stories I would have liked to have seen told before Mayans M.C. One would have been a prequel focusing on the First 9, the legendary founding members of SAMCRO. The other is slightly more out there – a Chucky origin story. Both are aspects of the original show that I would really like to know more about. They have history and a hold on my own morbid curiosity (although that applies mainly to the Chucky show).
It must be hard for the creative teams behind these shows to know where to go next if they haven’t already got any ideas in their heads. How can you tell what will be a hit with fans, both old and new? From my perspective, there is a greater draw to character-centric shows rather than different stories set in the same universe. For me, they strike the best balance between what we’re familiar with and what we haven’t necessarily seen before. This is, of course, very dependent on the writing staying true to form. However, for the most part this seems to be a formula that works more consistently than anything else. Just look at the likes of Better Call Saul and Frasier.
Mayans M.C. needed to become a great show in its own right
Now that it has established itself, Mayans is good, but that didn’t happen straightaway. In the beginning, the link to SOA wasn’t very strong, and Mayans also didn’t have legs enough of its own to stand on. It started off feeling a lot like it was just a way to crowbar the Reaper into some new content. But, back then, Mayans was taking its sweet time to build momentum and get interesting, so it needed something to give viewers the hope that things would get better I guess. It’s not like it wasn’t putting the effort in. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it was working a bit too hard. There were so many stories being set up and characters being introduced that it got very busy and it was hard to keep track of all that was going on.
It would be worse, however, if Mayans had just settled for riding on the coattails of Sons Of Anarchy’s success. I had a real fear that that was exactly what was going to happen when I started watching it though. There was a lazy cameo in the pilot that was wholly unnecessary despite my love for the character in question. It set an ominous tone for how things might proceed, but thankfully it moved away from this quickly.
Some spin-offs lean too heavily on what started it all off, to the point that they tarnish the original shows. They undo everything that these iconic series built over however many seasons for the sake of nostalgia and a pay-check. I get that it’s nice to feel like you’re doing something for the fans, but sometimes they don’t really know what they want. It’s easy to think that a story isn’t over purely because you don’t want it to be, no matter how definitive the ending might have been.
The trick is not to try and reinvent the wheel
Ultimately, I think the reason why TV spin-offs have such a hard time is because they struggle to escape the shadow of what came before them. The originals are held in such high esteem that these sister shows are almost set up to fail before they’ve even happened. This is made worse when said shows seem to be aware of how the odds are stacked against them and buckle under the pressure. They become clones of their parents, and poor ones at that.
But when these spin-offs have the courage to be bold and step out of the shadows, magic happens. It’s important that they keep sight of where they came from, but at the same time, they don’t have to remain rooted to the spot. Mayans M.C. does a great job of this very thing. Despite the rocky start, when it found its feet, it became a worthy spin-off of Sons Of Anarchy and also a pretty good show in its own right. It just needed the confidence to move away from what was familiar and be its own thing rather than trying to recreate the magic of SOA by becoming a replica of the show.