Jumping The Shark: Finding the Exact Moment When Good Shows Went Bad


by Indy Zoeller

“Oh, and for the record, there was an episode of Happy Days where a guy literally jumped over a shark.  And it was THE BEST one!” – Troy Barnes, Community

Jumping the shark is a phrase that has a bit of a nebulous meaning.  Generally, it’s the moment in which a beloved television show “goes bad.”  More specifically, it’s when the premise itself becomes stale.  It’s the event horizon of television: the moment when you realize, as a viewer, that a show has passed the point of no return and it’s never going to return to its former glory.

It’s a sad moment, especially when a show was particularly good at one time.  To see your favorite characters lose a vital piece of themselves, saying same things but missing the soul, appearing as some sort of hollowed-out Stepford Wives version of themselves – well, it’s a little heartbreaking.

Any show of sufficient length will generate a wide range of opinions on this subject.  Exactly when a show is “RUINED FOREVER” can be an intensely personal thing.  Take a popular show like Friends, poll 100 people, and you’ll get 50 different moments when it jumped the shark, 25 people denying it ever did, and 25 denying it was any good to begin with.

So the caveat here is that this is in no way a complete or objective list.  It’s a starting point for discussion – what are your own personal moments of realization that your favorite show has passed the “event horizon of suck”?

House – “Joy” – House kisses Cuddy

Yes, it was one of the most formulaic shows on television, but House was at one time an extremely compelling show, and Hugh Laurie’s Gregory House belongs on a list of the best television characters in the last decade.  So when did it all go wrong?

For me, it was this moment.  Just prior to House and Cuddy’s first kiss.  Cuddy, frustrated and angry to the point of breaking down, asks House, “Why do you do that?  Why do you need to negate everything?”  To which House replies: “I don’t know.”

It was an illuminating moment for me, because it felt like the show didn’t know, either.  The show had explored the depths of House’s screwed-up-ness to an absurd, complete degree, and rather than resolving his issues or moving him forward, the writers couldn’t, or wouldn’t mess with a winning character.  However this left the series in a slow, gradual spiral where nothing was accomplished because nothing could be accomplished.

Dexter – “Take It” – Meeting Jordan Chase

Dexter has its share of highs and lows.  For those that stuck with the show through the cringe-worthy Season 3 and Jimmy Smits, you got the payoff of Season 4 and the incredible Trinity Killer, John Lithgow.  But then we got to Season 5, and Jordan Chase was just… a letdown.

Jordan Chase is such a weak bad guy.  At no point did it feel like he even had a chance, or was much of a threat at all.  The gang-raping girls and stuffing them in barrels just felt over the top, purely for shock value.  Trinity was so much more subdued and thus so much more of a creepy and effective foil for Dexter.

Once Season 5 got rolling and I watched this scene in particular, I realized that Dexter was spinning its wheels.  I stuck with it, heroically, but quit after William Adama himself couldn’t salvage the once-compelling storyline.

The Office – “New Boss” – Michael Scott is a child

* Apologies for the quality of this video –  this is the only clip I could find.

I hung around with The Office for a long time.  But in the end, Michael Scott was a fundamentally unlikable character that the writers kept trying, over and over, to shove down our throats as someone to empathize with.

Here he is, in the 5th season, acting exactly like that 9-year-old you want to punch in the face.  And yet, at the end of the season, his scrappy, upstart paper company scores a major victory and he’s a hero, in the narrative sense.

There are other reasons for the show’s gradual decline, such as misused/overexposed supporting characters, Flanderization (WARNING: DO NOT CLICK THAT LINK UNLESS YOU HAVE MORE THAN 1 HOUR OF FREE TIME), Jim and Pam’s relationship, and an overall lack of direction, but for me, Michael Scott is reason number one.

Alias – “Before the Flood” – My name isn’t Michael Vaughn

Oh for shit’s sake.  When your first thought at a plot twist is, “they are going to have to ret-con the shit out of his character,” then it probably wasn’t a good twist.  Alias used to throw Clayton Kershaw-esque curveballs; this one bounced in front of the plate.

I mean, seriously.  Alias did cliffhangers and plot twists very well in the beginning.  The pilot episode alone was a tour-de-force of riveting, compelling television.  But this far into the series, a moment like this one just feels contrived and unbelievable.  Instead of having me on the edge my seat, I’m rolling my eyes.

I did end up watching the last season of Alias, and to this day I couldn’t even tell you what this “twist” actually meant, it was that unremarkable.  Apparently instead of a spy he was like a double or triple spy or something.  Sydney and Michael’s relationship didn’t change, at all, and all that happened because of the car crash was that he had to spend a lot of time in some remote hut or something.

Weeds – “Mother Thinks The Birds Are After Her” – After Agrestic burns down

The first three seasons of Weeds painted an incredible, dry, darkly comedic picture of life in suburbia.  But what happens after suburbia burns down?  Does the show take a bold new direction, breathing new life into the characters, introducing dynamic new plotlines?

In a perfect world, yes.  In this world, Weeds spun its wheels for another four seasons, turning Nancy Botwin into a whiny, unbelievably hypocritical, pathetic version of Walter White.

Shows I wanted to include, but didn’t:

Lost – Too many moments to pick.  Basically, the moment when you realize the sum total of all the ‘mysteries’ can never have a satisfying, all-encompassing answer.  I’m sure this varied for everyone.  For me it was somewhere near the end of Season 2.

Battlestar Galactica – It tailed off rapidly at the end.  “No Exit” was the breaking point for me, but it was so close to the end that it didn’t really matter.  Plus, it was such an amazing show that even a weak ending is easily forgiven.

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia – More weak episodes lately, but damn it if it doesn’t come up with brilliance, too.  See last season’s “Chardee MacDennis: The Game of Games.”  CalvinBall for psychopaths.

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  1. A lot of people say the Office went to crap after Steve Carrel left but I’m with you. It’s decline started long before that and Michael Scott turning into a caricature (somehow ) of his already ridiculous character is the main reason why.

  2. As for “Lost” I am ashamed to say that I was in denial and didn’t realize that the writers had no idea what they were doing until the opener for season 6. I hate-watched the show from that point on.

  3. I loved the first three seasons of Weeds… but Nancy, my god. The series started with her really mourning the husband she loved immensely and she really wanted the best for her kids.

    Then they go on the road trip, where she’s increasingly annoyed at having to be her parent. She completely ruined Silas chances for a normal safe life (and didn’t care) and Shane murdered someone (I loved her whole “oh he probably would have killed someone eventually” excuse). It turns out she cheated on her husband and Silas wasn’t his? The last season with her struggling to get her youngest son back was ridiculous, he’s obviously better off with her sister. Everyone’s lives were better when she was in prison.

    Jesus, Betty Draper is a better mother.

  4. I like the antithesis of this phrase “Grew it’s beard it/It’d beard grew in”

    This is in reference to how Star Trek TNG get’s better after Riker starts wearing his beard.

    As for the subject itself — I’m so done with community it hurts, it seems like they could not have tried for a bigger shark to jump for this season! 😉

  5. I also agree about The Office and Michael Scott. He started out as goof who was a bit of a jerk and eventually turned into pretty much a pure jerk.

    I watched it religiously for 3 or 4 seasons. I eventually stopped thinking Michael Scott was funny and lost interest.

  6. The beauty of Michael Scott is in the fragility he’s hiding behind his behavior. I find it incredibly touching. The character totally changes after he meets Holly.

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