Jumping the Shark: Television Shows that Lived Too Long
Where Did Jumping the Shark Come From?
Over the past thirty five years, there has been a common phrase used to describe over the hill television programs that remained on the air longer than they should have. But what does the phrase mean and where did it come from?
Jumping the Shark is a phrase coined from an infamous episode of Happy Days. "Hollywood Part 3" was part of the fifth season premiere of the long running show where The Fonz on a dare- literally jumps over a shark in his trademark leather jacket and jet-skis. It is at this point in the series that many viewers and critics noticed a decline in the quality of the series even though it went on for six more seasons.
Through the years, this phrase has been applied to several other shows that lost their momentum for one reason or another. The phrase caught on in the mid-1980s thanks to writer Jon Hein and became a pop culture phenomenon.
This hub takes a look at some qualities of shows that have jumped the shark as well as the actual shows themselves.
Common Jumping the Shark Qualities
While this is not true for every show on television, some series present key characteristics that indicate the writers and producers are still looking to keep the show original and fresh. Some are obvious and others not so much. The types of changes include a twist in plot development, cast changes, a twist in character development, and gimmicks. Here is a sampling of some of the noted changes:
- A Baby Out of Nowhere: This is something that is typically symptomatic of sitcoms. Mostly family sitcoms where the kids are getting older and less cute in the eyes of viewers. It can also be sitcoms with adults as the focus but in need of a fresh storyline. Examples include: Family Ties, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Friends and so on.
- Main Character Exits: Many shows go through cast changes and survive, even thriving to a certain extent (see NCIS) but there are several others that barely survive after a beloved or influential character leaves. Examples include: Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Three's Company, House and etc.
- Romantic Tension is Resolved: This is also known as the Moonlighting curse. Many shows wait several seasons to resolve it and once it is- viewers lose interest. Here are some shows that exhibit this: House, Bones, Cheers and Who's the Boss.
- Too Many New Characters: This usually is common with ensemble dramas that focus on the operations of a town, community, or organization (school, hospital, etc.) Examples include: ER, House, Dallas, and so on.
- Same Character, Different Actor: Also known as the Other Darrin (after Bewitched), it is one of the most common and repetitive ways to tell a show has jumped the shark. Many shows want to maintain continuity and viewers and find it easy by replacing the actor but keeping the character. Shows that have done this are: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Roseanne, Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, My Wife and Kids, and many more.
This is just a sampling of how a show can jump the shark. Now, on to some prime time offenders.
Law and Order
Series Lifespan: 1990-2010
Key Characters: Detective Lenny Briscoe and Assistant District Attorney, later Head District Attorney Jack McCoy
Distinct Features: The theme song; title card transitions; the series exists around two arenas of the law: the police and the district attorney's office.
When the Show Jumped: Det. Lenny Briscoe, arguably the heart and soul of the series met an untimely death after he was transferred to another branch of the police department. His last partner, Det. Ed Green is left with a series of new partners that essentially do not have the same rapport with him as Briscoe. In real life, Jerry Orbach had succumbed to prostate cancer while working on the spinoff show Law and Order: Trial by Jury. Law and Order lived an additional five seasons, while Trial by Jury was DOA before the end of its first season.
What Should Have Happened: There should have been one additional season that eventually centers on Ed Green trying to adjust to a new partner.
The Cosby Show
Series Lifespan: 1984-1992
Key Characters: Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable and Clair Huxtable, Exq., All Huxtable Children (Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa, Rudy)
When the Show Jumped: Season six, when Bill Cosby decided to give us a cousin Oliver with then 3 year old Raven-Symone. Instead of being cute and precocious like Rudy, she came off as an irritating, noisy toddler. The following season, Cosby added Cousin Pam who really was another Vanessa in disguise.
What Should Have Happened: Maybe if it could have ended with Vanessa's departure to college and Rudy's foray into middle school. Less is more.
Series Lifespan: 1994-2009
Key Characters: Nurse Carol Hathaway, Dr. Mark Greene, Dr. Doug Ross, Dr. Peter Benton, and Dr. John Carter.
When the Show Jumped: At the end of season eight when Dr. Mark Greene passed away due to a brain tumor and when Dr. Peter Benton left county general. It was among the last of key departures of the show's core cast. While the show was intended as ensemble cast, fans soon had a hard time when a revolving door of doctors, nurses, and administrators instead of a show focused on the grueling life of ER staff.
What Should Have Happened: The eight season should have been a final farewell and it should have ended as a cliffhanger. Not all shows have to be neatly tied up for the viewer. Mark Greene's death would have been a great point for the show to make fans wonder what would happen now that County General lost its heart.
Key Characters: The Keaton Family (Elyse, Stephen, Alex, Mallory, Jennifer, and Andrew)
When the Show Jumped: The start of season five saw the age advancement of baby Andrew to four year old toddler status. While the other Keaton children had their issues, they were at least the same age.
What Should Have Happened: The show really could have ended with the birth of Andrew and the possibility of a new future for the Keatons. Turning a baby into a four year old version of Alex was just too much.
Here are some shows that are still on the air that many fans have given up on.
How I Met Your Mother: As hard as it is to admit, it should not have taken this long for world to find out who the mother is. Not to mention all of the back and forth relationships between Barney and Robin and Robin and Ted.
Bones: Another victim of the Moonlighting curse, the show lost all credibility with Bones and Booth getting together.
Two and a Half Men: It started off as somewhat clever and funny but devolved into a series of crude sex and bathroom jokes. The final straw was the acrimonious departure of Charlie Sheen.
Grey's Anatomy: It's fair to say that the musical episode was one of the many reasons why this show does not need to be on the air much longer.
Sources and Further Reading
- Jumping the Shark - Television Tropes & Idioms
The Jumping The Shark trope as used in popular culture, with a list of examples from all media.
- 10 Hit Television Shows that "Jumped the Shark" - Yahoo! Voices - voices.yahoo.com
In the television industry, the term "jump the shark" was conceived in the late 1970s. It is defined as the moment when a hit television series takes that almost inevitable turn from greatness to mediocrity or worse.
- 14 TV Shows That Jumped the Shark | Real TV Addict
More by this Author
A playlist of some of the most memorable songs with Baby in the title.
The good, bad, and the umm from various artists who've tried to fly solo.
A biography of the most iconic and influential boy band of the late 20th century, New Edition.