How TV Shows Jump the Shark


Now that GM is saved for another six weeks or so, take a government-backed, pre-lunch coffee break and think about the TV for a few.

Via the wunnerful Arts & Letters Daily comes this National Post essay on how TV shows inevitably hit the crapper like some three-camera Spenglerian civilization:

Most episodic shows tell two stories simultaneously. One deals with fictional characters. The other is the narrative's slow evolution under the pressure of desperate producers and harried writers.

The second story demonstrates that the history of a TV series, like the history of a nation or an art movement, falls into four periods—primitive, classic, baroque and decadent….

The decadent era begins when writers lose interest in their themes and try to maintain audiences by concocting steadily more outlandish storylines…. Happy Days did in 1977 when Fonzie rode water skis over a Seaworld shark, making "jump the shark" a term for a program reduced to terminal silliness. (In 1997, a website,, began chronicling self-destructive TV shows.)

Whole thing here.

Not all shows go decadent (or at least not in a bad way). The last few years of Cheers, say, or Taxi, or the last half-dozen episodes of Get a Life!, etc. all suggest that shows can get decadent, surreal, and increasingly bizarre and be better than ever (at least to longtime watchers). I'd throw Seinfeld into the mix as a show that got more outlandish and better over its run right up to the last, generally rancid final episode. Now there's a challenge: Other than Newhart (the sitcom starring Bob as a Vermont innkeeper) has any final episode of any series ever ever been worth a damn?

TV shows, like the rest of us, die as we live, alone.

Bonus links: The first is to Fonzie jumping the garbage cans on Happy Days (embedding has been disabled!) early on in Happy Days' run. The second is to him literally jumping the shark in a later show, which even HD auteur Garry Marshall has acknowledged as godawful. The real takeaway? Happy Days pretty much always sucked, given that it was never really much more than a rip-off of American Graffiti drained of pathos, wit, and humor. Which is to say, it was a lot like George Lucas' previous movie, THX 1138, with Robert Duvall in the Ralph Malph role.