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Friday, July 20, 2012

Jumpin' The Shark

Anybody who has ever watched television will have a list of television programs that they would put in their favourites section. I know that I have a list of television shows that I enjoy. Some of them are current. Some of them are 40 years old. And my favourite television shows include comedies, dramas, game shows, and even a couple of reality shows.

Of course, not every television show can last forever (well, unless your favourite show happens to be “Meet The Press” or “60 Minutes”), and at some point, we're forced to say goodbye to our all-time favourite television shows.

There are a select few television shows that end their runs at or near the top of the Neilsen ratings. “Friends”, “The Cosby Show”, “Cheers”, and “All in the Family” all ended their runs while they were in the Top 20. But some television shows may enjoy great success early on in their run, and then something happens within the show that causes the ratings to plummet beyond repair. And in some cases when the show is put out of its misery, people usually only remember the very moment in which the show received the suckerpunch that would choke the life out of it slowly and painfully.

I'm sure that many of you have heard the phrase “jumping the shark”. Well, that's what the subject of today's blog topic is.

In this blog entry, we're going to talk about how the phrase “jumping the shark” was coined. We'll talk about who came up with the phrase, what show they were watching when they came up with the phrase, and of course, we'll give some examples of shows that many people feel jumped the shark. I think as a bonus, we'll also talk about some of the sure-fire signs and warnings that pop up which might indicate that your favourite show has indeed jumped the shark.

The phrase “jump the shark” was coined by a man named Jon Hein. Hein, a radio personality who works on The Howard Stern Show, and current host of the show “Fast Food Mania”, was in a discussion with a group of friends at the University of Michigan about when popular television shows began to decline. At the time, Hein was a student on the campus, and his roommate, Sean J. Connelly, was part of the discussion.

In fact, it was Connelly who ended up giving Hein the idea behind the phrase “jumping the shark” with one of his suggestions.

During the discussion, Connelly brought up the television program “Happy Days”, which ran from 1974-1984 on ABC. He cited the first episode of season five, “Hollywood”, which aired over a two week period on September 13 and September 20, 1977. Aside from it being the episode which introduced the character of Chachi (played by Scott Baio), it was the episode that many people cite as the one that caused the quality of “Happy Days” to decline.

(And no, Chachi was not the cause.)

No, it was the scene in which Fonzie decides to accept a challenge to water-ski over a shark in a confined tank. He succeeded in the dare, and looked rather ridiculous wearing his leather jacket and swim trunks while he was jumping that shark in the process!

The end result of this episode elevated Fonzie from a supporting character to a lead character, which was perfectly fine for Henry Winkler, who played Fonzie at the time. And the show lasted for a few more seasons. However, it was widely believed that the episode marked the beginning of the decline of the show. People believed that the creative streak of the writers of the program had dried up, and that the show had lost its original focus as a result of Fonzie jumping over that shark.

Who knew that just twenty years later, Jon Hein would take that episode, coin the phrase “jumping the shark”, and write an entire list of 200 television shows that he believed had jumped the shark, and explained the reasons why he felt this way. He published the list on the Internet, and within months, the site exploded with popularity. Hein maintained the site for several years before selling it to Gemstar (the owners of TV Guide) for a nice hefty profit.

It's been fifteen years since “jumping the shark” entered the vocabularies of millions of people, and with hundreds of television shows that have aired before and after 1997 being examined under the microscope, I think that we can have a great discussion over why shows jump the shark, as well as providing some examples of this in action.

Are we ready? Good.

In most cases, the birth of a baby can be a very happy experience, and brings much joy and ecstasy to the proud parents and extended family. But let's get real, in the world of television, there have been many examples of how the addition of a child spells nothing but doom for a television series.

One of the best examples that I can think of to illustrate this is the sitcom “Step By Step”. If you've ever watched the show, you know that the show features a blended family where the children of one half of the family struggle to get along with the children of the other half of the family. The formula was a bit contrived, but it had a successful run for three seasons.

But at some point during the 1994/1995 season, the decision was made by writers to have Suzanne Somers' character get pregnant. And when Lily Foster-Lambert was born at the conclusion of the fourth season, Lily was the person who permanently bonded the family together as one.

It's just a shame that the episodes following Lily's birth weren't all that memorable. It was bad enough that the show managed to age Lily five years in the time frame of one season (of which a similar fate happened with Chrissy Seaver from “Growing Pains” who we'll discuss later in this entry), but they ended up sacrificing Brendan from the show just so the baby could get more storylines. The quality of the show diminished, and by 1997, the show was too far gone to fully recover.

Of course, “Step by Step” was hardly the first show to jump the shark because of a new baby in the house. Was it really necessary to add another set of twins to the already “Full House” after Becky gave birth to Nicky and Alex? Wouldn't one have been enough? And how about on “Roseanne” when Roseanne gave birth to fourth child (named after Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead)? It seemed like nothing more than a plot device intended to extend the life of a sitcom that was beginning to stagnate. And, don't even get me started on the birth of baby Mabel on “Mad About You”. The name was bad enough.

You know, speaking of the addition of a new baby, another sign that a show has (or is about to jump the shark) is the addition of a character to the show that proves majorly unpopular with the viewers. One of the most famous examples of this in the past was on the Brady Bunch, in which Robbie Rist joined the cast as Cousin Oliver. I have been on many pop culture themed websites in my lifetime, and I can't begin to tell you just how many people have gone on the record to state just how much they hated Cousin Oliver.

For other examples of this in action, just check out;

Billy from “Who's The Boss?”
Beverly Ann and Pippa from “The Facts of Life”
Sam from “Diffrent Strokes”

Oh, and let's talk about the recasting of certain roles in a television series. I know that bringing up the television show “Ghostwriter”, which aired on PBS is a weak example of this, but sometimes, a character recast can break a show...and when the character of Gaby Fernandez was taken over by Melissa Gonzales from Mayteana Morales, the show just didn't feel the same.

Granted, there are some examples where recasting can work (“Bewitched” managed to survive when the role of Darrin was recast midway through the series). But other examples were just strange. The strangest occuring on the series “Roseanne”, and the revolving door of Becky Connor's.

You know the character of Becky Connor, right? When Roseanne debuted in 1988, the role was played by Alicia “Lecy” Gorensen. A few years passed and Lecy left the series. She was then replaced by Sarah Chalke. She didn't quite look like Lecy, but I didn't mind the new Becky because she was a good actress. But then Lecy decided that she wanted to come back to the show, and Sarah Chalke left. And then Lecy left again, and Sarah Chalke returned. It got to the point that we weren't sure which Becky we would see during Roseanne in the later years, and it was incredibly jarring for the viewers to keep track of it.

Since we're name dropping here, do you know what actor's name seems to be synonymous with jumping the shark?

That's Ted McGinley. And, McGinley's name has been linked to several shark jumping instances throughout the years. In a lot of cases, McGinley played roles of characters that were added to the show when their ratings were declining. In a bit of irony, one of McGinley's first roles was on the very show where the phrase “jumping the shark”, when he appeared on “Happy Days” as Cunningham nephew Roger Phillips (1980-1984). Ted McGinley's luck and timing weren't much better, as he landed roles on “The Love Boat” and “Dynasty” as their shows were free-falling in the ratings as well. Of course, there were some instances in which Ted McGinley ended up doing well. His role as Jefferson d'Arcy on “Married With Children” was received well, and he did have a starring role in the Faith Ford/Kelly Ripa show “Hope & Faith”. Nevertheless, his name seems to forever be associated with jumping the shark. But Ted seems to take it in stride, and he likes to poke fun at himself. He's a good sport about it all.

Besides, Ted McGinley isn't the only one to have the “shark jumping” label attached to him. I can think of someone else who does as well. Remember how I brought up Chrissy Seaver from “Growing Pains” earlier in the blog entry? Well, she was played by Ashley Johnson, and well...I found that she's like the female version of Ted McGinley? Ashley Johnson managed to land roles in the sitcoms “Phenom” and “All American Girl” after “Growing Pains” wrapped up, but neither show ended up being a success. Johnson did find some success playing the role of Gretchen in the Disney series “Recess” though, so I suppose that she had the last laugh after all.

And there you have it. You know what jumping the shark is, as well as some of the signs to look out for.

Can you think of any others?

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