Thursday, November 04, 2010


Has Jumping the Shark Jumped the Shark?

By Matt Maul
In a Sept. 3 Los Angeles Times article, Fred Fox Jr., the writer of the infamous Happy Days episode where Fonzie jumps over a netted section of ocean containing a shark and inspired the "jump the shark" meme, addresses his dubious claim to fame in pop culture history.
Was the "Hollywood 3" episode of Happy Days deserving of its fate?

No, it wasn't. All successful shows eventually start to decline, but this was not Happy Days time. Consider: It was the 91st episode and the fifth season. If this was really the beginning of a downward spiral, why did the show stay on the air for six more seasons and shoot an additional 164 episodes? Why did we rank among the Top 25 in five of those six seasons?
I suppose that if you've heard of Wikipedia (or meme), you don't need anyone to explain what "jumping the shark" means, but according to Wikipedia:
[JTS] has become a colloquialism used by U.S. TV critics and fans to denote the point at which the characters or plot of a TV series veer into a ridiculous, out-of-the-ordinary storyline. Such a show is typically deemed to have passed its peak. Once a show has "jumped the shark" fans sense a noticeable decline in quality or feel the show has undergone too many changes to retain its original charm...

Interestingly, Wikipedia also describes a 1963 episode of Bonanza, "Hoss and the Leprechauns," in which Hoss meets a leprechaun. That episode coined the term "seeing the leprechaun" as a precursor to the "jumping the shark" phenomenon.

This led me to wonder if, perhaps out of sympathy for Mr. Fox, a new term to explain the dynamic could be adopted.

Dumped the Velour (Star Trek)

Star Trek is such a pop culture touchstone that the franchise was a natural choice to inspire some new euphemisms. Most critics view Star Trek's first season on television as its best. Because NBC had all but given up on the expensive show when it grudgingly approved a third season (in a horrid time slot), the low energy level and mediocre to bad quality of stories were quite evident.

In his book The Making of Star Trek, Stephen E. Whitfield reports that the costume people were having shrinkage problems with the velour tunics worn by Kirk, Spock and the rest of the regulars. Apparently, they shrank after each washing. As a result, by the start of third season, they had switched to polyester fabric for the uniforms.

Today, I can quickly decide to watch or avoid any Star Trek episode based simply upon the presence or lack of velour on the crew.

Shaved the Captain (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)

If Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation were Gene Roddenberry's vision of Wagon Train to the Stars, the third Star Trek series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with its creatively self-inflicted limitation to a single setting (an alien space station), was more like Gunsmoke.

Working on that ONE location, the show was initially a satisfying, more cerebral departure from the typical shoot-em up conflicts of other TV sci-fi series.

At the helm of this Federation outpost was the calm, steady hand of Caption Sisko (Avery Brooks). Sisko was a strong soft-spoken, family man who brought a new dimension of authority to the role that didn't rely on Kirk's gratuitous shoulder roles or Picard's self-righteous, Shakespearean soliloquies.

Perhaps discovering that the one-set limitation was, well, limiting, the show attempted to broaden its scope by adding a docked star ship to the space station's inventory. This made it easier for the writer's to create situations involving space travel and, of course, space battles.

Included in this metamorphosis was a makeover for Sisko that involved shaving off the hair on his head and adding a goatee. Perhaps deliberately, this made Brooks look more like Hawk the tough, no nonsense character he played on Spenser for Hire and his own spin-off, Hawk.

Knocked Up Murphy (Murphy Brown)

Dan Quayle jokes aside, once Murphy Brown (Candice Bergman) got pregnant and brought her baby home, a perceptible amount of wind got taken out of the show's sit-com sails. Just as in real life, a new baby can be a real wet blanket.

Chopped the Doc (ER)

How many hospitals do you know of that have been blown up more than once?

ER, a medical drama that generally depicted realistic storylines, descended into a tailspin of escalating pyrotechnics which culminated into gratuitous, borderline camp when Dr. Robert Romano (Paul McCrane) had his arm cut off by a rescue helicopter.

For me, it never recovered.

Capped the Chief (Rescue Me)

I've never forgiven Rescue Me for having one of its strongest characters, long suffering Chief Jerry Reilly, abruptly commit suicide in Season 4.

Jumped the Balcony (Deadwood)

Speaking of "rescues," many would disagree with me, but the producers of Deadwood softened the Al Swearengen character (played by Ian McShane) too much when he jumped off his second story balcony to save a damsel in distress on the muddy, mean streets below. Ironically, the woman he saved, Alma, was the wife of the man Al had arranged to have a mining "accident" in the first, and best, season of the western series.

I can't shake the notion that the writers blinked at the idea of keeping one of the show's leads a truly evil character. In the first season, Swearengen was a throat slitting, whore beating, claim jumper, who even had no qualms about killing a child. He lost a lot of that edge the minute he became "Action Al."

And that's when I folded.

Moved the Shop (American Chopper)

Driven by the success of the Discovery Channel reality show, American Chopper, Orange County Choppers outgrew their facility and had to move to new digs. By that time, the Teutels had grown noticeably comfortable in front of the documentary cameras and drove through the fourth wall by clearly mugging for the audience. Note: I distinguish the original American Chopper from it's new "Junior vs. Senior" incarnation — which is pretty much the same exploration of their dysfunctional relationship (on steroids).

Saw Starbuck (Battlestar Galactica)

For my money, Battlestar Galactica was one of the best shows on television.

BUT, in the teaser ending of the penultimate season, Apollo (Jamie Bamber) sees Captain Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) who had been killed off in a previous episode. They also dropped the bombshell that a number of show regulars are really Cylons (to the tune of All Along the Watchtower no less).

I never quite bought into the human/Cylon religious dogma that was ladled into BSG's last season. It felt like the writers were making it up as they went along. Having "Head Six" and "Head Balter" wandering around modern day Earth making random wisecracks about the human condition was a little too neat and didn't fit at all with what had come before it. BTW, I've always wondered if the phantom pair had wandered throughout the eons to observe and ridicule various stages of human development or just jumped straight to the 21st century?

Abducted Abel (Sons of Anarchy)

I've never been a huge fan of hostage storylines in either movies or television. So, as the entire plot for Season 3 of Sons of Anarchy is one LOOOONG kidnapping plot (with Jax's son Abel having been stolen by "the Irish"), you can understand my current frustration.

Schtupped Megan (Mad Men)

While I'm still a HUGE Mad Men fan and not even close to writing it off, the show reached a zenith for me with Season 3's film noir inspired "Seven Twenty Three." Since then, I've detected a slow decline in my involvement with Mad Men's storylines. Certainly, Dick Whitman wearing a cynical smile while embracing his "Don Draper" persona (to the tune of "Tobacco Road") was a GREAT ending to the fourth season's first episode ("Public Relations"). But Don's subsequent inner struggle culminating in his abrupt coitus with Megan (and their subsequent engagement) hasn't quite gelled for me.

I'm holding my verdict until Season 5.

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Even though it was only the 2nd season and it went on several season after that, it was when I quit it so I would come up with some kind of variation having to do with Kim and a mountain lion in reference to 24. Curiously enough, the moment you cite on Rescue Me is the exact moment when I quit that show too. I even wrote about it here. As for Deadwood, I still defend Al's move because while he started out as a straight-out villain, everyone was eventually shown in shades of gray and I thought it got better as it went on because it was about the encroachment of civilization. Hearst turned out to be such a far worse villain, one who had political backing, that he allied everyone against him, even Al and Seth. The enemy of my enemy is my friend... Hearst did cut off Al's finger after all. Besides, in Al's mind, he had a good reason to kill Alma's first husband, Hearst killed Ellsworth out of spite and to take a shot at Alma. He was only considering killing the child as a possible witness, he didn't do it. Only Cy actually killed children.
Yeah, you're totally wrong on Deadwood. Swearengen acted that way because his carefully-crafted world was crashing down around him. Hearst was flexing his muscles and demonstrating his ability to act with impunity in Deadwood. Like Ed says, civilization had arrived and Deadwood was no longer a place where it was acceptable to gun down the respectable lady who owns the bank in the thoroughfare, and Al had helped craft this civilization. Hearst's men shooting at Alma was a message that "Your civilization, and your place in it, means nothing to me, and I will not hesitate to destroy it." Look at Al's face in the scene, he's completely gobsmacked that Hearst would try to pull this and he's acting on instinct when he jumps, reacting to the impending end of his world.
This was an ongoing argument I had with Deadwood fans at the time. And I see merit in the idea that Al wasn't saving Alma as much as he was protecting his turf.

But what I neglected to include in my piece was that after getting Alma out of harm's way, Al pointedly sends someone to make sure that the child is safe as well. Why? So Alma's alive and happy too? There was a hint of true tenderness (for want of a better word) to Al's act. YET, the previous season he was going to kill her (I don't make a distinction between giving serious consideration to the murder of a child and actually having it carried out). Maybe a scene with Al sayin "if anyone's gonna be gunnin down women and children here, it's gonna be me" might have helped. ;)

However, I saw it as subtle, yet deliberate watering down of Al's evil nature (The Sheild did that with Vic after the very first episode). IMHO, they did it to make him the relative "good guy" in his contest with Hearst. I'd much rather have seen a battle beteen two unrepentent pricks w/o ANY redeeming qualities (there was certainly room for two such "bosses" in Deadwood).
I think you misunderstand Al. He's not moustache-twirlingly "evil." He's a self-interested survivor interested in building and maintaining his own power. He doesn't kill people for fun, he kills them if they are threats to him. By the time of "jumping the balcony," Alma is now an ally because Hearst is the greater threat. Of course Al wants to make sure the rich person in Deadwood he's aligned with is okay, and that her kid is too.

I also don't think that Al vs. Hearst was a contest between two "bosses." Hearst is no boss, he's a force of nature who possesses unimaginable wealth and power. The point of season three is that Hearst can't be beaten by Al & company. Alma gives up her gold claim, they have to kill the girl, etc.
You're a lot nicer to BSG than I am. I thought the show walked off a narrative cliff when they visited that silly temple in season 3 and started chasing around after the sacred Arrow of Truth or whatever. I'd agree that things got really silly in the final season with Undead Starbuck and Final Five (which was the hoakiest selection of secret Cylons I could have imagined), but I did think they did a decent job of wrapping the show up. The finale had its share of head-slapping moments, but it also paid off most of the narrative that came before it and it certainly didn't end in a way anyone could have possibly predicted.

It was certainly a lot better than the finale of Lost.
Andrew: He's not moustache-twirlingly "evil."

I get the concept of a complex character exhibing shades of grey. I guess it comes down to one's personal reaction. I guess it boils down to whether or not a character and his/her depiction works for your or not. For me, it didn't. When they tried to blunt the sharper edges of Al's character (such as his assistance to the handicapped character, I can't remember her name, or his sympathy for the sick doc), it came across as just that: a deliberate manipulation so as to dial back his original incarnation and allow the audience to root for him. I felt the same way about NYPD Blue's Sipowitz (bascially a racist who regularly brutalized suspects which was somehow supposed to be overlooked because of the times he played nice).

I agree the temple storyline was silly. However, they redeemed themselves with the great story arc involving the first planet they tried to colonize and the flashbacks resulting from the attempt.

FWIW, I didn't watch Lost (I just never found the time to catch up with it once it became a hit).
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