Let’s Take A Fond Look Back At The Lost Art Of The Shameless Television Crossover

Tonight is the big Family Guy / The Simpsons crossover event that many have been fearing since it was announced last year. While it represents many things about both shows, including the idea that differences in humor don’t always mesh, the biggest one for me is a call back to the era when television more or less a big science experiment between shows. A time when a TV crossover meant something and networks were big families that shared members with each other.

The Simpsons and Family Guy are no strangers to this era, having experienced or utilized the crossover numerous times. Springfield famously crossed with The Critic during their memorable film festival and will cross with Futurama later this season, while all of Seth MacFarlane’s shows crossed with each other for Night Of The Hurricane.

It’s just doesn’t happen that much these days. With television productions all over the place, the scope of broadcasting widening and becoming less dependent on networks, and a focus on more serialized stories, the days of the classic TV crossover are gone. Today there’s more of a reliance on guest stars and recognizable faces from other shows instead of trying to insert characters into the universe of a show and forming some sort of incestuous relationship .

And that’s perfectly fine. I think it shows a general maturation of television over the years, where cheap ploys and gimmicks don’t have to be the main attention grab. The kind that NewsRadio used to have a lot of fun shrugging at. They still happen, it is just as a passenger instead of a main course (an exception being 30 Rock’s great live episodes).

It is still perfectly fine to get nostalgic for those old days. I missed a bulk of it due to my age, but I could still catch up via the wonderful world of reruns and syndication. I can remember how it was a big deal that all the TGIF shows would come from Disneyland one week or that NBC would inspire Seth MacFarlane by crossing-over shows like Empty Nest and The Golden Girls via a hurricane.

It was an easier time without the watchful eye of the Internet to critique every plot turn and idea. Stupid things happened and audiences ate them up, at least for a little while.

One of my earliest crossover memories was the 1987 Hanna-Barbera event that had The Jetsons Meet The Flintstones. It makes no sense at all on paper, but it provides the viewer with the kind of sanctioned “what if” that keeps fan fiction afloat. Elroy Jetson builds a time machine and the two time periods meet, allowing for a plot to blossom from there. It sparks the imagination and creates a connected universe. You see folks trying to do this on the Internet all the time, but here it is in an official capacity.

The Jetsons Meet The Flintstones has an obvious influence on what we’ll see tonight, but what you also notice is a key trademark of the crossover: ownership. It is something that hasn’t changed, but also doesn’t seem to lend itself to blending anymore. Most of the famous crossovers from television history are the result of that synergy inside a company.

Hanna-Barbera owns both The Jetsons and The Flintstones, allowing them to do what they please with the characters. It’s why the Marvel Comics films seem to hold interest better than their earlier attempts at the box office. The same happened with other crossovers and some were even filmed on the same studio lots, allowing for that easy transition. Instead of having to fly into a location for a shot, actors and crew could just walk from one set to another on the lot.

The “spin-off” also provided a lot of ground for crossovers to happen, aside from the obvious hurdles of ensuring a new show survives by using the old show as a balance. The bulk of spin-offs we see today don’t happen until the original show has moved on. The Cleveland Show and Private Practice are two that immediately come to mind, but others seem to wait their turn like Better Call Saul following the end of Breaking Bad.

Most are also unsuccessful, like those featured in Married With Children or Joey after the finale for Friends. It is easy to over-saturate the audience and hard to please them, but it does work. Cheers famously spawned several spin-offs, including Wings and Frasier, while All In The Family and Happy Days were almost responsible for every show on network television at one point. It is just something you don’t see happen today, even with prominent creators still holding sway like Chuck Lorre at CBS.

CBS is probably the king of television crossovers across the years. Be it Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies appearing on Petticoat Junction, itself a spin-off from Green Acres, or Walker Texas Ranger teaming up with Sammo Hung’s Martial Law for a two-part adventure. CBS tried it and usually got away with it.

The most recent crossover event I can remember is all three versions of CSI coming together for one storyline. It was billed as an event and it was a reminder of what used to be. CBS sometimes is a reminder of those old days, usually for the wrong reasons, but I liked the idea of a sometimes two-part or three-part episode between series.

Magnum P.I. solving a case with Simon & Simon, The X-Files giving Millennium a rub of good luck, or The Green Hornet and Batman kicking ass together for an episode or two was fun to watch. TV is still fun now, but for other reasons. Sometimes the art label supersedes that aspect, but it still shines through from time to time (and not in the reality television sort of way).

It isn’t that I think television should dumb itself down or remove itself from the current critical trends. I just think it shouldn’t forget where it comes from. It’s a medium for artistic expression, yes, but it is also a stupid box used to sell you things in between silly ideas.

If CBS wants to cross-over all of their Monday Night sitcoms and have them exist inside the same universe to facilitate the silliest of plots, I think it should be allowed. It is something Community could’ve had a lot of fun deconstructing if it had lasted. We did get a glimmer with that Cougar Town cameo though.

I don’t necessarily think television today can lend itself to the silly plots and crossover trends of the old days. While seeing actors infiltrate each other shows with characters they’ve cultivated elsewhere is easy, sights like the one above are hard to swallow. Seeing The Six-Million-Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman battle Sasquatch is awesome, but I think it would be seen as parody today.

Like I said, it was all a big experiment. A fun way to advertise to you and sell products without having to rely on the tenets of radio to draw ideas. The idea of having Bob’s Burgers and Archer exist in the same universe was a fun notion, but it couldn’t be taken to that next level. The same can be said for what we’re going to see tonight.

It’s a one off, a fun experience. Futurama returning will be the same way, although it actually makes more sense than the characters of Family Guy visiting Springfield. I just think we should take it as a window into the past and what used to be fun about television. It is so great now, but it was once this wild, gimmick filled wonderland where aliens could hang out with soda fountain greasers, retired police detectives could help mystery solving doctors solve crimes, and cartoon characters could join together in an effort to stop kids from using drugs.

I’ll probably tune in just to see what they can do with the concept. I just think it’s going to serve better as a reminder of what has come before.