Jumping the Shark
Jumping the Shark is a term that was coined in 1985 by some bored (drunk?) college students who binge watched Nickelodeon. The term originally applied to only TV shows but its groovy phrase has since expanded to include other things. We’ll only be talking about TV shows here. Jumping the Shark is basically when you’ve reached your peak and begun the downhill slide, but I don’t think it always has to be downhill. I think sometimes it can just be different.
The term is usually perceived in a negative manner, but I don’t think that’s always true. Jumping the Shark is described by Wikipedia as “the moment when something that was once popular no longer warrants the attention it previously received”. You then “jump the shark” and try new and different things to get that popularity back. To jump the shark means that writers have exhausted their bag of tricks. The show has been on so long that they have no more scripts to write. It’s at that point they change their formula and take the show in a different direction. It usually goes downhill, but……
The term Jumping the Shark is from an episode of Happy Days. Happy Days started their fifth season with a three-part opener where the gang goes to Hollywood. On September 20, 1977, Fonzie jumped over a live shark. Fonzie jumping the shark was just a way for the writers to show off Henry Winkler’s water-skiing abilities. He had a stunt double for the actual jump, but Winkler filmed all the other scenes.
This Fonzie jumping over a shark gimmick was so far outside the normal writing of the show and was definitely over the top. I don’t believe this was the beginning of the end for Happy Days though as it ran seven more seasons. Fonzie, who was once just a supporting character, became the focus of this series after he jumped the shark. The focus of the show changed and it became very different with new characters and sets. (I miss the old Arnold’s.)
Ron Howard described the reaction from him and Donny Most after reading the script: “Donny’s reading it and he kinda looks down, then says ‘what do you think of the script?’ and I shrugged and replied ‘people like the show, it’s hard to argue with being number one’ and he looked up and said, ‘he’s jumping a shark now?’. That was the first time I saw that phrase bracketed, before it was even done, you’ve got to give props to Donny Most.” So, I guess Ralph Malph deserves some credit too.
Instead of defining Jumping the Shark as the decline of a beloved TV show, maybe it could be described as just different. It doesn’t always have to be bad.
Shows that Jumped
Below are the shows I can think of who jumped and when things started to change:
- The Brady Bunch – the addition of Cousin Oliver (Robbie Rist)
- The Partridge Family – the addition of singing neighbor (Ricky Segull)
- Laverne & Shirley – when Cindy Williams left the show
- Welcome Back, Kotter – the addition of Beau De LaBarre (Stephen Shortridge)
- The Dukes of Hazzard – the addition of Coy and Vance and the departure of Bo and Luke
- Diff’rent Strokes – the addition of the little red-haired boy, Sam (Danny Cooksey)
- Family Ties – the addition of Andy Keaton (Brian Bonsall)
- Growing Pains – the addition of Luke Brower (Leo DiCaprio)
Almost all the above jumped the shark with a young child. Do you think those shows got better or worse? Do you think they stayed the same but were just different? What other shows can you think of that jumped the shark? What shows that are still in production today have jumped the shark? How? You have some homework to do. I look forward to your answers.