Can Any Show Survive Jumping the Shark?


             Jumping the shark is the ultimate death knell for any television show, the surefire, single-phrase description that lets everyone know the expiration date on the milk carton has come and gone.  For those few who don’t instantly recognize the phrase, it was born decades ago from Happy Days when Fonzie was on waterskis and literally jumped over a shark, though to what purpose I can’t remember without looking it up on Wikipedia.[1]  The phrase has now become ubiquitous in describing any show that has permanently lost its way and become creatively bankrupt.[2] 

            Not surprisingly, the examples of shark jumping are endless, after all, failure is inevitable, no show is going to last forever.  The reality of American television, and this is neither inherently good nor bad, is you simply cannot have two hundred episodes of a show, no matter how great, with the same set-up and outcome to every episode (think Home Improvement or Everybody Loves Raymond) and not eventually run out of steam.  There’s nothing wrong with that, those shows ran successfully for a very long time, but at some point, the audience will tire of the format and want for more, and this is where desperation can set in and shark jumping most often occurs.[3] 

            Roseanne was built on the economic status/struggles of the family but jumped the shark with a final season that saw the impoverished family win the lottery and then topped that debacle with a finale dream sequence ultimately negating much of the entire series.[4]  Californication was pretty entertaining throughout it’s first season, but shark jumped when self-destructive hero Hank’s object of affection Karen left her wedding, flowing white dress and all, and jumped into the convertible to reunite the family,  culminating in a cringe-inducing freeze-frame group smile, a shockingly strange turn for a show that had to that point mostly eschewed warm and fuzzy sentimentality in favor of crass exploitation and a pervasive sense of loss. 

            One could make the argument that every single episode of Lost was a JTS moment, though it has its fervent defenders to argue otherwise. 

            Most shows never recover from their JTS moment, lost forever in a morass of mediocrity before the inevitable and (usually) swift network mercy kill, but what about those shows that have gone off the deep end yet somehow managed to swim back to safety?  Is it possible to jump the shark and land safely on the other side?  

            Stay tuned for the answer in Part One – Friday Night Lights


[1] I looked it up.  Apparently, the characters all decided to visit the West Coast, for some reason, I don’t know why and I didn’t care enough to look that part up.  Once in California, Fonzie’s bravery was challenged and he answered by donning waterskis along with trademark leather jacket and jumping over a confined shark.  Frankly, if it were a real test of bravery, he should have kept the leather jacket but  tried swimming through the shark infested waters.  That’s television for you, though, always coddling their actors.

[2] It does not, in my mind, refer to the popularity of a show.  Happy Days survived for another 150 or so episodes after the incident, and the number of shows that live on year after year without having anything of any importance to impart could fill what’s left of the Detroit Superdome.  Or, really, Detroit at this stage.  Seriously, that place is a ghost town.  I’d like to buy 3 square blocks, put up a twenty-foot high steel wall, surround that with razor wire and motion-sensor machine guns, import some bottled water and a few cans of soup and bunker down for the impending zombie apocalypse.  Which is definitely coming.  And soon.

[3] In fairness, the show’s producers will often attempt to revitalize the show of their own volition, though the end result will often be the same.  This is most perhaps most commonly seen with the addition of a precocious kid, as in Growing Pains, The Brady Bunch, Who’s the Boss, Married With Children, Family Ties, etc. or a baby, as in Friends, Full House, 90210, Murphy Brown, etc. 

[4] It was actually a pretty cool idea for the finale, but it just didn’t work.  Good intentions or not, it’s still jumping the shark.

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