As the increasingly desperate ranks of movie executives scramble to reboot, remake or re-launch tried and tested film franchises in a bid to find as close to a box office sure thing as possible, the small screen isn’t exempt from chasing similar ambitions.
Previously it was cheaply-made animated spin-offs of popular films which seemed to be the mode for TV, with a couple of live-action exceptions (George Lucas should have taken his lacklustre Young Indiana Jones Chronicles as forewarning about mishandling prequels). But is a modern TV audience, used to being fed quality output from the likes of HBO, willing to leap back and make a long-term commitment to their favourite cinematic worlds re-imagined for the small screen?
The TV spin-off of Fargo has acknowledged this, maintaining the darkly comic atmosphere and the colloquial quirks of the characters from the original film, but telling a very different tale and cleverly using one minor, seemingly throwaway, plot point from the Oscar-winning 1996 Coen brothers feature as a major character revelation in the series.
The equally lauded second season has drifted even further from the origins of the film, going back in time to the late seventies and becoming essentially a period drama.
Spin-offs of Minority Report (set eleven years after the events from the original film) and Limitless are on the way, along with a recent announcement from Vin Diesel that the exploits of space fugitive Riddick could be moving to TV, but it’s actually horror which seems to be a dominating genre in this small screen onslaught.
In recent years we’ve seen the likes of a young Norman Bates and his domineering mother take up resident in the titular motel, and another iconic figure from big-screen horror Hannibal Lecter being rolled out again to acclaim if not particular longevity (Hannibal was cancelled after three seasons due to low ratings). From Dusk till Dawn: The Series (used as a launch pad for Robert Rodriguez’s fledgling TV network El Rey) has been renewed for a third season despite muted praise from fans of the original.
Even Netflix’s Scream TV series, which appears to be pretty much Scream in name only, with zero contribution from the late Wes Craven (once rumoured to be shooting the pilot episode, but instead given the obligatory executive producer credit) has gained enough traction to have earned itself a second series.
Into that mix now comes Ash vs. Evil Dead (the first five episodes are now available to watch via Virgin On Demand) where mercifully, original creator Sam Raimi hasn’t reinvented the wheel or felt the need to go travel back to the beginnings of the world he initially created thirty-plus years back in an attempt to entice newcomers. He’s been canny in his approach, and after a number of attempted big screen sequels which failed to come to fruition, he’s given fans what they’ve always wanted – a continuation of the story of Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) which humorously acknowledges the character’s age and rather stilted development (pushing 60, he’s still stacking shelves in the local supermarket).
The beautifully-judged opening scene in the pilot episode offers a repeat of Ash suiting up with his corset body armour from Army of Darkness, only this time it’s being used to keep his protruding middle-aged paunch in check.
Raimi and his development team have perhaps made a concession to a younger fanbase by teaming their creaky hero up with two twentysomething co-workers to defeat a new swarm of Deadites (which Ash has unwittingly summoned during a sad attempt to impress a young lady back at his ramshackle trailer) but it’s a dynamic which also helps to further establish the decades that have passed in the character’s life, and just how antiquated his macho quips and social outlook is now.
Wasting zero time in thrusting the audience back into Ash’s world, those coming to the show without prior knowledge of the character have the ultimate reference guide in the form of the widely-available original films, surely the best kind of reverse marketing and means of engaging with a new generation of fans?
While it’s true that many small screen spin-offs don’t have the luxury of casting the same leading man found in their cinematic counterparts (slipping back into this character like an old glove, Campbell is having the time of his life here) Ash vs. Evil Dead offers a reminder that what worked in the movie doesn’t necessarily need to be reconfigured and stretched beyond all recognition for TV.
You don’t need to tinker with the formula if your characters remain strong enough and their stories still resonate. The success of the show (American premium cable channel Starz has already commissioned a second season) means we may see similarly ageing genre figures dusted off and reconfigured for the small screen.
Those future showrunners could potentially avoid a whole series of narrative pitfalls by following Raimi’s sound model here.