“Jumping the shark” is an idiom used to describe the moment a television show begins a decline in quality, signaled by a particular scene, or episode, in which the writers use some type of gimmick in an attempt to keep viewers’ interest.
We’ve all had a beloved series that, for one reason another, just couldn’t hold our attention for much longer. The longer a series is on the air, the more likely it is to resort to these kinds of cheap gimmicks. It’s sad, and makes us wish it were easier for TV series to quit with grace, instead of milking the property for every last drop.
Here are 11 TV Shows That Jumped The Shark.
11. Happy Days – Literally Jumping the Shark
Happy Days is credited for a great many things: most notably for giving us “The Fonze,” possibly the coolest character ever introduced to television. Unfortunately, its other lasting legacy is birthing the phrase “Jumping The Shark.”
During the fifth season of the show, the character of Fonzie is seen water-skiing in a leather jacket, and to prove his courage, accepts a challenge to jump over a confined shark in order to prove his bravery. Now, the problem with this episode is twofold. Firstly, the early success of Happy Days had come from the show being relatable to the audience. This was seen as a moment so outrageous that it broke away from this early formula. Secondly, the character of Fonzie had been secondary to begin with, but this moment was seen, by many, as the moment that the focus began to shift away from the core characters of the Cunningham family and onto Fonzie himself.
10. The Brady Bunch – When the creepy cousin joined the family
The Brady Bunch was considered to be the last of the “old-fashioned” sitcoms. Revolving around a blended, or “reconstituted,” family, the show made good use of the many themes and elements that made prime time comedies relatable at the time. The episodes focus on typical pre-teen and teenage themes such as sibling rivalry, puppy love, character building, and responsibility.
In season 5, in an effort to fill the gap of a young child in the family (the youngest being 12 at this point), the producers introduced the character of Cousin Oliver. Seen by the fans as an interloper, he was never accepted and even the producers admitted that his presence had thrown the show off balance. He only appeared in the final five episodes of season 5, which proved to be the series’ final season as ABC canceled The Brady Bunch. The term “Cousin Oliver” has since been used to describe a younger character brought in to save a show from cancelation.
9. Heroes – Season 2
Heroes was, believe it or not, a phenomenon when it first hit our screens. Its comic book-inspired storytelling, overlapping narratives, and real-world setting made it huge. The cast and characters came from a variety of walks of life, from cops and watchmakers, to Senate wannabees. For a show about people developing superpowers, it was surprisingly relatable.
The climax of the first season met with mixed reactions. For some, seeing the whole cast come together for a showdown with the villain Sylar was a huge pay-off. For others, the question of what happened to the Petrelli brothers felt like there were still too many questions left unanswered.
Then, season 2 happened. Like the first season, it started slow. For a lot of fans though, this was a mistake. There were few answers to some of the biggest unanswered questions. More than that though, it didn’t ‘feel’ like a continuation of the energy of the last several episodes of the first season. The main threat was a virus, which made it seem less impactful that the nuclear bomb of the first season.
By the end of season 2, there had been some good moments, but for many, the damage was done. Also, there was the slight problem of a Writers Guild strike, which caused production to shut down and season 2 to finish up early. By the time season 3 rolled around, the decline in quality increased. A different writer every few weeks meant that storylines were quickly abandoned and character arcs never seemed to develop. An obsession with trying to repeat the success of season 1 and as a result, never really growing as a show, kept Heroes from achieving any more. By the time it was canceled, many fans were glad to say goodbye. And not that many tuned back into the recent Heroes: Reborn event series.
8. Smallville – When Lex left
Smallville was a pretty smart idea. Tap into the “teen angst” genre that was popular at the time (Dawson’s Creek, we’re looking at you) and mix it up with a young Superman origin story. It was a show that appealed equally to young men and women. In its first few seasons it didn’t touch on many of the comic book villains and instead tended to go with the “freak of the week” formula made popular by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with the frenemy relationship between young Clark and Lex as the backbone of the show.
The quality varied over the years, some seasons had some serious high points of pure comic book excitement, others felt a little too forced. When the seriously underrated Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor) called it a day, the show lost one of its biggest draws.
Some later seasons managed to recapture some of the fun of the show’s early years, but once it shifted focus from Smallville to Metropolis, it ceased to be “young superman” and became ‘Superman’ except Superman, in all his glory, didn’t appear until the final episode. Even then, we never did get to see him in full uniform like we’d been waiting a decade for.
7. Star Trek: Enterprise – the Xindi attack
Enterprise never did get the same following that its predecessors had. Shifting to a prequel was always going to be problematic, as any new elements were going to be met with the same response from fans “Why have we never heard of this race/planet/idea before”?
This was never more of a problem that when the alien Xindi attacked earth and killed millions. Presumably this would be an event in earth’s history as massive as World War 1, 2, and 3 put together. Yet, in all the years of Kirk, Picard, Sisko, and Janeway, it was never even mentioned. You’d think at least once, something as massive as a thousand 9/11s would get a footnote in one of Data’s holodeck adventures.
When the reboot button was hit again with 2009’s Star Trek movie, it was wisely placed in an alternate timeline. This meant that just because Scotty survived to be an old man before, doesn’t mean he’d be safe now. The timeline was able to unfold completely differently and didn’t need to fit with what had gone before.
6. Roseanne – Winning the lottery
Roseanne was one of the biggest comedies of its era. It was unique for having an in-your-face style of comedy and revolved around a working mother as the central voice of the show instead of focusing on the male characters.
One of the things that made the show a success was that both the parents were normal, blue-collar workers. There was no perfect housewife style character, both parents were noticeably overweight (Roseanne’s husband was played by John Goodman) but it was rarely mentioned. For much of its first season, Roseanne was the number one show in America, and in its first five years, it never left the top five.
Roseanne jumped the shark in its final season. The Connors won the state lottery and suddenly became worth over $100 million. All traces of relatability were gone and the show was mercifully put out of its misery soon after.
6. Two and a Half Men – Charlie Sheen leaving. (Winning!!)
For a show about a guy that inexplicably got any woman he wanted, despite terrible tast in just about everything, Two and a Half Men was HUGE! America’s biggest comedy in years went from strength to strength for most of its early run.
Then it hit a snag. In 2011, after fierce contract negotiations over salaries, and Charlie Sheen entering rehab for the third time in a year, production was suspended. After several bizarre, angry interviews an online and tirade by Sheen towards producer Chuck Lorre, the last 8 episodes of the 2011 season were abandoned and the show looked like it had lost its leading man.
It had. Sheen’s character, Charlie Harper, was killed off-screen. In May 2011, Ashton Kutcher was announced to be joining the show as new Character Walden Schmitt, replacing Sheen as the lead. Despite continuing for a few more years, the show declined in quality steadily with several cast changes and ever more outlandish storylines. In a finale that divided the fan base, Charlie Harper was seen to be alive and returned to confront his brother and ‘imposter’ Walden, only to bed killed by a falling piano. Winning!
5. The X-Files – When Mulder left
Initially a cult-hit, The X-Files quickly became a mainstream favorite. Tapping into pre-millennial tension and distrust of government in the wake of numerous scandals, The X-files found an enormous fan-base.
Much of the show’s success came from the on screen chemistry between the two main characters: Mulder, the emotional believer in the paranormal, and Scully, the skeptical scientist. After the 1998 film, fans began to criticise the show for a lack of coherence in planning the overriding ‘invasion’ plot. Despite this, the show still had several great “standalone” episodes that were as good as the early years.
The show jumped the shark when Mulder (David Duchovny) was abducted by aliens at the end of season 7. While in many ways, the “search for Mulder” revitalized the show, the narrative began to wander and by the end of the season it was clear that the once most-imaginative show on TV was losing its imagination and had run out of ideas.
5. Lost – season 3, the Flash-forward
Another massive hit from the beginning, Lost was a phenomenon. Throughout its run it was one of the most popular shows on worldwide television. The premise initially seemed simple: a plane crashes on a remote island and the survivors struggle to stay alive and try to find help. Quickly, things became much more complicated and the plot becomes convoluted very quickly. The island contained many mysteries and the show took incredible twists and turns.
One of the key elements of the early seasons was the use of flashbacks to fill-in the character’s back-stories. In the last episode of season 3, however, the series introduced a surprise “flash-forward” to life after the island, showing what happened to “The Oceanic Six” after they made their way home.
Though this idea was initially exciting, its follow-up in season 4 began to attract a lot of criticism. After three years, there was little explanation to any of the mysteries that had been there since day one and the audience was getting restless. Several new characters were introduced and received almost universal derision. There was a noticeable drop in audience enthusiasm at this point, and the show failed to garner the love it had enjoyed in the early days.
4. Dallas – The shower/dream sequence
When Dallas premiered in 1978, it was an instant TV phenomenon. Initially focussing on the marriage of Bobby Ewing, the show quickly began to shift its attention to JR. JR’s dirty business dealings and scheming became a hallmark of the show and it became one of the most successful shows on TV.
Over the years, a behind the scenes creative change resulted in Patrick Duffy’s character, Bobby being killed off in the series 8 finale. Season 9 saw a noticeable change in the general tone of the show and the fans reacted by vocally showing their dissatisfaction with the direction things were going. By season 10, things had escalated to such a degree that the producers decided to completely undo the entire previous season by explaining it as a dream had by the character Pam, while Bobby was in the shower.
The events of the 9th season were completely erased and the show hit reset, but the damage was done and viewers lost interest in the once-great show. A few attempts at rebooting notwithstanding, the show died in 1991. The infamous shower scene remains one of its lasting legacies.
3. Prison Break – When they broke out of prison
Another high-concept show of the 2000s, Prison Break was another instant hit. The story of the two brothers, one sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, and the other who devises an elaborate plan to help his brother escape prison and clear his name drew in big audiences. At the end of the first season, the brothers, along with several others, escape in a tunnel dug beneath the walls of the prison.
The second season followed a very different format and met with mixed reactions. Some praised the change in direction, feeling that they couldn’t stay in the prison forever. Others felt that the show had become too different to the original formula and had become a show about fugitives as opposed to prisoners. At the end of season 2, several prisoners were recaptured and imprisoned in Panama.
2. Moonlighting – When they got together
Moonlighting was the definitive will-they-won’t-they show, with most of the attention being given to the chemistry between co-stars Bruce Willis and Cybill Sheppard. The show was a mixture of drama, comedy, and romance, and was considered to be one of the first successful examples of comedy-drama, or “dramedy.”
Despite being a massive hit, once the two leads entered into a relationship, the show was in trouble. While the investigations of the private detective agency had been central to the show, along with successful gimmicks such as their “breaking the fourth wall,” the main audience draw was waiting for the couple to give in to the sexual chemistry between them.
When the couple finally got together in season 3, there were behind the scenes complications which added to the shows problems. Cybill Sheppard was off having twins, so they had to shoot her scenes in advance, causing much fewer scenes with her and Bruce Willis. Also, Willis was making Die Hard. When that was a massive success, his interest in making a weekly show waned, due to his blooming movie career.
1. Seinfeld: When Larry David left
Considered by many to be the greatest show of all time, Seinfeld was the brain-child of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. The definitive “show about nothing,” Seinfeld was, and still is, one of the most successful shows of all time.
While never faltering in the ratings, indeed viewership rose throughout its run, Seinfeld is considered to have jumped the shark when Larry David left after season 7. While he left on good terms, and indeed he came back to write the finale two years later, his genius was missed in the last two seasons.
While there was no specific moment on screen, the show’s once-magic dialogue was a little less polished and the quality of the writing lacked what had once made it so perfect.
Did we miss any notable examples of shows jumping the shark? Let us know in the comments!