Recently I’ve been thinking about the phrase ‘jumping the shark’, which is TV-speak for when something happens in a TV series that precludes any subsequent developments from being taken seriously. The term derives from a scene in the fifth-season premiere of 1950s-set American nostalgia sitcom Happy Days in which Dad-aged TV surrogate of cool The Fonz jumps over a shark on water-skis. The phrase did not come into popular usage until the late 1990s – twenty years after the episode aired – when radio and web personality Jon Hein compiled a list of TV shows that declined badly in quality on his website jumptheshark.com. It’s been on my mind because the condition seemed to be peculiar to television series, especially the American ones that go on too long, and yet lately I’ve heard ‘jumping the shark’ used in connection to all walks of life. Also, there are some shows currently on the air that reminded me how easy it is to ‘jump the shark’. Can shark-jumping apply to anything but television and what does it mean for a TV show when that fin appears above the water?
First of all, it’s unfair to implicate Happy Days in this phraseology. People didn’t watch Happy Days for realism but rather nostalgia, kitsch and fun. The series always had room for flights of fancy, like the special science-fiction episode which introduced Robin Williams’ alien Mork to TV. If we were to go back and coin another phrase that better describes what we’re talking about, we might go instead with a reference to a show that genuinely lost its way. We could talk about TV shows that ‘found a dead man in the shower’, recalling the time that super-soap Dallas made an entire season worth of episodes a dream in order to bring star Patrick Duffy back from the dead as Bobby Ewing. The producers of Dallas forgot that just because melodrama isn’t always convincing, it can’t simply be nonsense. We might even say that a series has ‘won the Illinois lottery’ in lieu of the lottery win which made the working-class Conner family in the sitcom Roseanne into millionaires for the entirety of the final season, duly sabotaging the show’s uniquely stark and undiluted portrayal of blue-collar life.
A couple of weeks ago I heard Dancing with the Stars host Tom Bergeron use ‘jumping the shark’ in reference to social media when describing the show’s ‘shirt on/shirt off’ Twitter voting campaign for one of its male dancers but not, strangely, when discussing the tanking ABC series Agents of Shield. In his casually amazing stand-up special Obsessed shown on Comedy Central over Easter, comedian Jim Gaffigan accused Yum Yum Donuts of ‘jumping the shark’ on business names. Apparently, the phrase has been widespread in media, business and politics for years now. There’s not really much you can do once a phrase has infiltrated popular culture (or we’d have redacted ‘selfie’ from history by now), but we should remember its roots in TV. TV shows don’t ‘jump the shark’ intentionally but as a symptom of a worn-out format, a capitulation of principles or a desperate need to survive. So much of American TV is about keeping shows on the air at any price and prolonging their natural lifespan that ‘jumping the shark’ is inevitable, and much more so than in other forms of culture.
Season six of docu-sitcom Parks and Recreation recently had its finale and in its final few seconds arguably lost all credibility as a sitcom grounded in contemporary reality. From this point on, we’ll be watching a sitcom set in the projected near future, and nothing can undo that. This all happened for the sake of resolving story problems that the writers had themselves created and a few discontinuity gags. It’s pretty clear that a TV show doesn’t need a grandstanding spectacle to ‘jump the shark’; it can do it casually under viewers’ noses. This week marks the return of 24, which probably holds the water-speed record on shark-jumping throughout its previous eight seasons of amnesia, faked deaths, nukes and conspiracies. Yet audiences still bestow the show with the legitimacy that graced its first, and only truly believable, season. There are even websites that count the number of times a TV show has ‘jumped the shark’ during its run. Even though we may assume a show can’t come back from ‘jumping the shark’, clearly it can and we might just have to accept that it’s something that happens organically to TV shows.