“Hey, people loved it as a movie. What if we change the cast and put it on TV once a week? What could go wrong?”
I can only assume this is how at least half of television series that were adapted from movies of the same name came to be. It’s remarkable how often this happens and how often it fails. Of course, there are successes: Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a great series that came from a mediocre movie. M*A*S*H was a great series that came from a great, but very different, movie. (There are more, but I’m not going to list them. So if you’re thinking, “But what about 12 Monkeys?,” I’m already aware.)
What makes these series so bizarre is that they often ignore the events of the movie, instead just taking characters and setting and creating its own new universe. It’s all very unusual and… unnatural.
(As a note, I might do more of these because it’s a personal fascination. I mean, Gung Ho had a television series. But I might not. Who can say, really?)
Let’s start with 9 to 5, the incredibly popular 1980 film that stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Dabney Coleman – in fact, it was the second most popular movie of 1980, only behind The Empire Strikes Back. Because it takes place in an office – as a lot of situation comedies already do – it makes a lot of sense that 9 to 5 was adapted for television. (Jane Fonda even produced the first two seasons.) Oh, and they tried. And tried. And tried.
One of the reasons I wanted to start with 9 to 5 is because it’s kind of tricky to get a grasp on what exactly happened with this show – because there are many, many cast changes. And there are, somehow, 85 episodes of 9 to 5. (Also: the theme music. That’s not Dolly Parton singing the iconic song in the opening credits of the first season! A Google search tells me this version is performed by Phoebe Snow, best known for her 1974 hit, “Poetry Man.”)
The first season was only four episodes long and were the only four episodes to feature Jeffrey Tambor as Dabney Coleman’s character, Mr. Hart. (In the movie, Mr. Hart is shipped off to Brazil, kidnapped, and never heard from again. But that doesn’t seem to matter much here.) Rita Moreno takes over for Tomlin as Violet. Valerie Curtin (cousin of Jane) plays Jane Fonda’s Judy. And Rachel Dennison takes on the role of Doralee, originated by Dolly Parton. (Fun fact: Rachel Dennison was born Rachel Parton, but used her married name in the credits. She is the younger sister of Dolly Parton.)
By the time, 9 to 5 returned for its second season in the fall of 1982, Tambor was out as Mr. Hart, replaced by Peter Bonerz (best known for The Bob Newhart Show) with no explanation why Mr. Hart all of a sudden looked very different. By the third season, Curtin was out as Judy. (Though, they didn’t replace Judy, they just brought in a new character.)
Okay, so here’s where it gets tricky: After 9 to 5’s seven episode third season, it was canceled. But then, three years later, in 1986, it was resurrected as a first-run syndication show. Dennison is back as Doralee. Valerie Curtin, who was fired from the show in its first run, is back as Judy. Only now Sally Struthers is playing the third lead, Marsha. Violet is gone and Mr. Hart is gone (he really was, now, never heard from again) and he was replaced by a host of new executives.
A few years ago, I interviewed Jane Fonda and asked her about this television adaptation. (I’m not making it up that I’m fascinated by this kind of thing and, yes, used my limited amount of time with Jane Fonda to talk about this.) Here’s what she said:
You produced the television spinoff of “9 to 5,” too. Were you happy with that? Do you wish you had done a theatrical sequel instead?
Well, we always wanted to do a sequel. But Fox bought it and they weren’t interested in it. I think Jada Pinkett-Smith wanted to do it and it never happened. With the television series, I was real busy doing other things right then and I didn’t pay too much attention to it. So, I’m not too sure exactly why it didn’t work. I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t work.
Watching some episodes today, not surprisingly, it just feels like any ‘80s office-based sitcom from the ‘80s, really. It’s only weird when you remember this is supposed to be 9 to 5. The characters act differently and have almost nothing to do with what we saw in the film – for example, Mr. Hart is just a buffoon, not an asshole – but here they are!
The early plots are what you might expect from a sitcom from this era. In the second episode, a big business deal won’t happen unless Doralee agrees to go to along in the deal, something Tambor’s Mr. Hart encourages her to do. Jane Fonda shows up in the sixth episode as a blue collar security guard who learns lessons from working around Judy, Violet, and Doralee. In the eighth episode, Judy accidentally erases all the computers in the office and loses her job until the end of the episode. (There’s also an episode where John Larroquette shows up as Judy’s husband.)
Sometimes television can take some themes from a film and expand them to become much more interesting over longform storytelling. And sometimes you get four episodes of Jeffrey Tambor as Mr. Hart before he’s replaced. Most of the time you get something like the latter, but they sure kept on trying.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.