Ever since Arthur Fonzarelli slapped on a pair of water skis to go with his leather jacket and jumped over a shark to climax a three-part trip to California, the term jump the shark has gone from literal to figurative to describe not just a particular moment in time when “Happy Days” simply took Fonzie too far, but to demarcate when a once-proud TV show reaches a point of degradation from which there is no hope for recovery. It doesn’t take a literal shark to create that line of demarcation, however, making it sometimes more difficult to determine when your favorite TV show is no more.
The deal with great TV shows that jump the shark that many who carelessly toss the term around forget is that there is a construction plan around that particular moment in that particular episode that alters the legacy of the show forever. Sometimes that construction is almost impossible to fathom; as in what could those in charge of “Happy Days” possibly have been thinking when they came up with the idea of having a guy who had never been on water skis before jump over a shark. While wearing a leather jacket! And then there are some occasions when the moment of shark jumping is so startlingly obvious that you can only assume that those involved just wanted to find a way out.
Those examples very often rest upon one of the five following warning signs that are not in and of themselves moments of jumping shark, but are as clear as warning sign as you could possibly give.
Releasing Sexual Tension
The problem with creating a TV show that revolves around the sexual tension of two characters is similar to the problem inherent in a striptease. The tease is what keep eyes glued, but once the last shred of clothing comes off, there is really are only two options left: exiting stage right or devolving into deviance right there onstage. Sexual tension has been the lifeblood of shows ranging from “I Dream of Jeannie” to “Castle” and it takes major dedication by all involved to keep the tension tight rather than give into loosening the creative pressures it places upon the makers. “Cheers” managed to keep going strong even after it gave in to the pressure and allowed Sam and Diane to consummate things. By contrast, “Moonlighting” never recovered from allowing the tension between Maddie and Dave to devolve into painfully athletic sex.
Some TV shows can deliver a legacy to full term after introducing a pregnancy while others should clearly have been more Pro-Choice than Pro-Life. Interestingly, some television shows have been able to withstand the actual pregnancy of an actress without the associated pregnancy of her character while others have died by making the character pregnant along with the actress. The worst thing about having a character become pregnant a few years into the show is that the show then revolves around that aspect so audiences get things like Lamaze classes and baby showers and the inevitable Sweeps Week crazy birth. Pregnancy played a part in bringing about an unexpectedly sudden end to shows as diverse as “Mork and Mindy” and “ALF” whereas “I Love Lucy” scarcely missed a beat. Yeah, I’m having a little fun in describing those two shows about aliens as diverse. If you want, replace one or the other with “Mad About You.”
Recasting Major Characters
“Bewitched” proved that a hit show can survive not only recasting a major character, but recasting that character with an inferior product. In fact, “Bewitched” actually has the distinction of recasting not just one, but two regular characters with different actors over the course of the show. Same thing goes for “The Jeffersons” when it recast Lionel, although the actor that originated the character on “All in the Family” was even more superior to his replacement than than the first Darren Stevens. Those are some exceptions that prove the rule, however. TV shows that must recast a major character almost always suffer in some way and though the recasting itself may not be the vital element that ultimately cause the show to jump the shark, it certainly doesn’t help. So ingrained is this truism outside the unique world of soap operas that you very rarely ever see a major character recast anymore.
Young Relatives to Replace Growing Kids
Call this one the Cousin Oliver Rule. “The Brady Bunch” was doomed to jump the shark as a result of the aging of the kids around which the show was built. Once Cindy and Bobby started becoming less and less cute, it was decided to bring in a cuter relative: Cousin Oliver. The problem wasn’t so much that Robbie Rist wasn’t cute; he was. The problem is that he wasn’t a Brady! “The Cosby Show” managed to avoid this problem through the luck of finding a cute replacement once Rudie started aging. In almost every other case, bringing in a younger relative of kids who have grown past the age of cuteness is a shortcut to death for a TV show and a guarantee that it is close to jumping the shark.
Spinning Off The Best Character
This might well be called the Benson Effect. It rarely happens because most of those involved in a hit show recognize the risk: call that the Fonzie Paradox. “Soap” didn’t die when it lost its funniest character Benson to an inferior spinoff, but it was never quite as snarkily funny. Henry Winkler realized what the producers of “Happy Days’ apparently could not: if you took Fonzie out of the “Happy Days” lineup not only would it kill that show, but a spinoff would result in such Fonzie overkill that he would have figuratively jumped the shark as a character long before he literally jumped the shark as a character. When a character is spun off from a TV show these days, it doesn’t tend to be a character too vitally important. Even so, in far too many cases the spinoff is a disappointment and the original show needlessly suffers. Just ask the Ropers for a major argument of this TV reality and Carla’s ex-husband and the rest of his Tortellis for a minor argument.