Even for those not alive in the late 70′s, the phrase ‘jump the shark’ has an immediate contextual meaning: the moment you can look upon as when an otherwise enjoyable and/or high quality show started a downward spiral into oblivion. Every writer / actor / director would love the thought of having a great show and going out on top, leaving everyone with high quality episodes that simply have you wanting more. But the networks want to ride their high-rating shows as long as possible, and end up throwing more and more money at the show to keep people on-board. The result? Rehashed ideas and increasingly desperately obvious grabs for ratings, like last year’sfor example … there is a huge difference between a moment of unexpected passion and ‘OMG we r zo edgY!’
A few days ago Fred Fox Jr., the writer responsible for the infamous ‘Jump the Shark’ episode of Happy Days, wrote a guest editorial for the LA Times as a sort of retort against the usage of that phrase and a defense of the episode:
“Happy Days” was finishing the 1976-77 season as the most popular series on television, an accomplishment we were all proud of. That year had begun with a highly rated three-part story in which Fonzie ( Henry Winkler) rekindled the flame of a former love, Pinky Tuscadero. Because of this success, ABC and Paramount wanted us to open the next season, our fifth, with another three-part story.
After discussing different scenarios, we decided to take the “Happy Days” gang to Hollywood, with Fonzie invited for a screen test. One of the plot lines would be Fonzie clashing with “The California Kid,” a cocky local beach boy. Since Henry water skied in real life, it was suggested the characters race and then, as a tiebreaker, have to jump a shark in a netted area in the ocean.
For me, those two paragraphs tell the entire tale. You had a show that had tremendous success in four seasons using essentially two sets – the Cunningham house and Al’s Drive In. A multi-episode story arc worked before, so naturally the tendency is to do exactly the same thing – but BIGGER! Suddenly Fonzie is being scouted and everyone is taking a trip to Hollywood! Having a midwest cool dude versus west coast cool dude showdown … and so on. Let’s not forget that in the first season Fonzie didn’t even wear a leather jacket – yet by this episode the producers and writers had the jacket so tied to the identity of the Fonzie character that he goes water skiing with it on!?!
By the time this episode aired, the ‘trip to Hawaii’ multi-episode arc of Brady Bunch was already well known as an early form of ‘jumping the shark’ … though without the term we all just thought it was a sign of pure desperation on the part of the producers, second only to Cousin Oliver!
The fact that no one had any issues with any of that doesn’t make it OK … in fact it should signal in retrospect that there were deeper issues. I mean seriously – pretty soon we had aliens and all other sorts of absurd plot-lines involving Fonzie as though the writers thought taking his ‘cool powers’ to a sort of Star Wars ‘Force’ level made any sort of sense. But back to the LA Times article:
Which brings us to the question: Was the “Hollywood 3″ episode of “Happy Days” deserving of its fate?
No, it wasn’t. All successful shows eventually start to decline, but this was not “Happy Days’” time. Consider: It was the 91st episode and the fifth season. If this was really the beginning of a downward spiral, why did the show stay on the air for six more seasons and shoot an additional 164 episodes? Why did we rank among the Top 25 in five of those six seasons?
Ah, the ‘if it sucks so bad why is it so popular’ defense. To me that has always been a sure sign of desperation! It is like discussing musical artists with someone, making a criticism about their favorite artist and having them retort ‘yeah, well they have a lot more money than you!’ OK, fine …
It seems that Mr. Fox is equating the ‘Jump the Shark’ nomenclature to calling the show moribund. That misses the point. As noted, that season featured aliens (the spin-off for Mork & Mindy) and other odd battles. The focus also started to shift to Joanie and Chachi, and the 50′s era focus started to drift as the popular mindset had left that nostalgia behind. And then Ron Howard left the show, and a nephew came in as a pseudo-replacement.
The point isn’t that the show died when Fonzie jumped the shark, but the slow and agonizing road to death really began with the story arc that started the 5th season and climaxed with that absurd water-skiing competition.
Interestingly, the site Mr. Fox refers to, the eponymous ‘Jump the Shark’ site created by Jon Hein, has itself had an interesting transformation. Created in 1997 as an open community where folks could vote for possible reasons a show had ‘jumped’ and look at a wide array of ‘common themes’ such as cast changes, new kids, marriages, and so on. It was great fun in the late 90′s, though quickly it became popular to try to use the term in a predictive rather than retrospective fashion.
In 2006 Jon Hein sold the site to TVGuide parent Gemstar, who in early 2009 completely overhauled it and pretty much dismantled anything that made the site popular in the first place. Rather than listing shows and themes and other things of interest, the site is now just an ad-filled gossip site. Heck, for good old Ted McGinley, who joined the Happy Days cast after Ron Howard left, and served as a ‘second stringer’ on enough shows in decline that he became the ‘patron saint’ of the site … here is the entirety of the listing:
Ted McGinley alert! The “patron saint” of Jump the Shark will be appearing in a Hallmark Channel movie, The Note II: Taking a Chance on Love, alongside sudser queen Genie Francis. Will you tune in?
Yep … an advertisement for a lousy Hallmark movie from more than 18 months ago! (I call it lousy because my wife and I watched the first one earlier this year and then it started into the second one … and we just couldn’t take anymore!)
Now there is a site called ‘Bone the Fish’ that is an attempt to recreate the original feeling of Jump the Shark. Here is their info:
The term “Bone the Fish” was created in direct reference to TV Guide parent Gemstar. Sometime in 2006, Jon Hein decided to sell the website known as “Jump the Shark” or “JumptheShark.com”. Hein sold his company, Jump The Shark, Inc., to Gemstar (owners of TV Guide) on June 20, 2006 for “over $1 million”. After Jon Hein sold it he went to work with Howard Stern. Some Howard Stern staff have speculated that the site sold closer to $5-$10 million, however. We like to say that was the point in time when the website Jump the Shark “Boned the Fish”.
Looking at the site, it seems clear that the whole concept of the original site is largely lost on the folks who contribute opinions. For every insight by someone who saw Barney Miller, there are several nonsensical comments from younger kids watching reruns bemused by the fashions and sensibilities and who just think the whole thing is crap. That misses the point in several ways. The original site looked at shows we loved and that were lousy by the end and tries to figure out if there is some inflection point or points where decisions made by producers led to certain failure.
For a recent example look at Ghost Whisperer. A charming little show with fun characters and ‘freak of the week’ storylines (and self-admitted scantily clad Jennifer Love Hewitt to provide ‘eye candy’ in her own words), each year there was a major cliff-hanger, from the death of her business partner to her own near-death experience. But then her husband Jim got shot and killed and his spirit took over another dying body … and a whole Jim/Sam dichotomy played out for the season – though most fans probably didn’t see it to its conclusions. Others say it is the birth of the child and 5-year time jump, but that was just a purely desperate attempt to revive the corpse the show had become …
On the other hand, ABC Family launched a show called ‘The Secret Life of the American Teenager’, which dealt with a 15-year old girl going into high school who attended band camp the previous summer … and got pregnant by an older ‘smooth operator’. We watched the first season with our kids, as it offered a decent look at kids and families in difficult situations. But by the end of the first 11 episode season, it was already starting to drift into the typical teenage show ‘everyone sleeps with everyone else’. The kids were done, my wife and I watched more … but it was amazingly ironic that a show whose foundation was the consequences of teenage sex would so quickly become a titillating look at abnormally attractive teens constantly discussing having or not having sex. The show was never good, therefore looking for a ‘jump the shark’ moment is an exercise in futility.
What about you? Do you have Happy Days memories? Thoughts from the Jump the Shark site? Other shows?