Spin-offs have been a part of television since the very beginning. These include not just those series that branched off from popular shows focusing on a favorite supporting character but also those that continued following the leads. The latter could be thought of as TV show sequels, like Archie Bunker’s Place. Prequels, however, have not been as big a part of television tradition. There were Saturday morning cartoons offering origins of live-action TV characters like Alf and the Muppets, as well as some jumping onto the “__ Babies” concept for classic animated series like Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones. Around the same time, ’80s drama Dallas got a legitimate prequel, but it was in the form of a TV movie.
Outside of shows that were prequels to movies — a current trend in and of itself that has its roots in series like Freddy’s Nightmares (some of its episodes, anyway) and Young Indiana Jones Chronicles — the earliest American live-action spin-off of a live-action series to go backward in focus was probably Young Hercules, in which none other than Ryan Gosling portrayed the teenage version of Kevin Sorbo’s legendary hero for 50 episodes between 1998 and 1999. Unsurprisingly, the Star Trek franchise eventually got into prequel territory with Enterprise. Later, another sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica, tried it with the unsuccessful Caprica.
Now prequel TV series are all the rage in Hollywood, another way of maintaining a brand with a built-in audience. I won’t say it’s part of the creative bankruptcy, though, because a number of the shows are well done and even sometimes quite clever. The trend is twofold, as the prequels of movies in series form and the TV show spin-offs as origin stories are similar enough to be viewed as parts of the same idea. But the movie versions (Hannibal and Bates Motel in particular) have sort of led the pack while the only series prequel we’ve gotten so far is The Carrie Diaries, which is like the Muppet Babies version of Sex and the City.
However, we’ll soon be getting pre-cursing series for Breaking Bad (Better Call Saul, which is now apparently prequel, sidequel and sequel all in one), Agents of SHIELD (Agent Carter, which is more like a spin-off/sequel to the first Captain America movie) and Fargo (technically a second season that completely takes place before the first) all in the next year, and Sons of Anarchy showrunner Kurt Sutter is still promising a prequel once the current show finishes its last season, which starts this fall. HBO has expressed interest in a Game of Thrones prequel series, as well, and that was before everyone on the Internet started wondering about Jon Snow’s parentage). And a few years ago, Julian Fellowes claimed he has an idea for a Downton Abbey prequel centered on the courtship of the characters Cora and Robert.
As is the case with many film prequels, the problem with a prequel series is often a matter of redundantly illustrating a back story that we’ve already heard told in some manner. Do we have to see an explicit depiction of the founding of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club with focus on Jax’s dad? And as for GOT, can’t they just throw in some flashbacks, as Sean Bean presumes they will? Speaking of flashbacks, how many TV series couldn’t have proper prequels because they already shared enough of the past on the original show itself? Lost comes to mind. Not that I wouldn’t watch a series more linearly chronicling the origin of the island or focused on the Dharma Initiative era.
But Lost might be off air now for too long. Yeah, I know it’s only been four years. While it’s fun to go back and think of classic TV series that would be good fodder for a prequel show, such as Seinfeld (Jerry and George in high school), The Sopranos (Tony as a young gangster) and Beverly Hillbillies (just plain hillbillies), the truth is that such a series is going to have the best chance of being greenlit before or immediately after its source show is finished. The best possibility for anything else might be something like “The Vince Diaries,” since Entourage has long been viewed as the male Sex and the City and is already following in that show’s footsteps with a movie spin-off.
How many currently running series don’t follow a flash-back model for its character development, though? Mad Men and Orange is the New Black are basically out, although mostly because nobody really wants to watch more of young Dick Whitman (future Don Draper) as a kid in a whorehouse or young Piper Chapman and her awful, cliche WASP upbringing. Then again, who needs the main characters to be the concentration? How about a show about Bert Cooper’s early days? Or who else, after the second season of OITNB, is curious to see young Joe Caputo as a young rocker who gives up his dream to become a prison worker?
One that I’d enjoy is “Ben Wyatt, Teen Mayor.” It’s hard to picture anyone but Parks and Recreation‘s Adam Scott in the role, but I can’t help wish to see this guy in the ’90s, trying to run his city by day and attending Toad the Wet Sprocket concerts at night. I’d settle for a flashback episode. Another idea is a show about House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood during his college days or the beginnings of his political career. Villains are always getting origin stories making them out to be more like antiheroes. This would be an antihero getting an origin story making him out to be a full-on idealistic political hero. How about a prequel series of Young Sherlock Holmes? It’d be like the 1985 Barry Levinson film but modernized.
After a couple more of these are pitched, though, Hollywood will have already moved on to the next trend. Although the upcoming Heroes: Reborn is too related to the previous incarnation to be called a remake, maybe the idea of rebooting series will become a new fad for television, whether they go for the totally recast redo model or for a kind of fresh start spin-off. Maybe it’s time for another ensemble to become ship- or plane-wrecked on the island of Lost? Meanwhile, there is that Spanish-language Breaking Bad remake, Metastasis, to get addicted to.