There is no doubt that it takes an incredible amount of skill, passion and vision to write a television show. Sometimes, however, the writers will hit a wall but are still tasked with creating further episodes. This will see them “jump the shark,” where they resort to outlandish storylines, gimmick episodes, the arrival of terrible new characters or many other tactics to try and draw viewers. We will get to where the term first originated, but essentially it is used to pinpoint the precise moment where a television show has reached its creative peak, marking the beginning of the end.
10. Friends – Ross and Rachel Have a Baby
Whilst they fortunately managed to tie Friends up nicely with a satisfying conclusion, the show certainly had a wobble towards the end which all started with the arrival of Ross and Rachel’s baby. When major characters have a baby it will always shake things up, but it was not necessarily Emma that changed things for the worse. The bizarre storyline of Rachel and Joey starting up a romantic relationship was a curveball that felt so wrong, given that the Ross and Rachel relationship was perhaps the most important plot line on the show. This created a strange dynamic which many viewers felt uneasy with, but thankfully the writers managed to steer away from it and finish the show with a satisfying conclusion. Friends remains one of the greatest and most well-written sitcoms, but like all shows it had an inevitable decline which began at this moment.
9. Lost – The Smoke Monster
There are a few different moments which indicated that Lost was in decline and not going to offer a satisfying conclusion, and the dizzying and distracting plot twists proved to be unnecessary and frustrating for viewers. Perhaps the most notable shark jump and the point when the show officially lost it (pun intended) was when Mr. Eko was killed by the Smoke Monster/The Man in Black. It is revealed that the Smoke Monster is actually a middle-aged man dressed in black, and in season six he primarily appears as John Locke. The monster was originally supposed to represent the id, but this was changed after season one to it being a security system that protects the island. The Man in Black as the monster was the first major plot twist of the sixth season, and marked the beginning of an overly complicated final season which failed to deliver a neat and satisfactory conclusion.
8. Prison Break – Back into Prison
Prison Break is a show that gets a lot of stick, and this is largely due to the somewhat ridiculous premise. It is important to note, however, that the first season is excellent and the second season is also highly entertaining. Where in the first season the prison break in planned and executed, the second season is then largely focused on the escapees on the run. The writers must have hit a wall following this, as the ludicrous third season sees a number of the escapees committed to Sona prison where the protagonist, Michael Scofield, is tasked with breaking out a prisoner. The storyline by the end of this season was horribly farfetched, but this made for an entertaining yet slightly ridiculous final season. The final two seasons somewhat tarnished the reputation of the show, which is a shame as the first two seasons (the first in particular) were brilliant.
7. Grey’s Anatomy – The Musical Episode
It is always an enormous gamble for a show to do a musical episode, and 9/10 times it will be a spectacular failure and mark the moment a show jumps the shark. This was the case for Grey’s Anatomy, since a musical episode seems particularly out of place in a medical drama. They also timed it horribly, with the previous episode involving a horrific car accident that included main characters of the show. The cast actually put in some impressive performances as they covered songs which were used on the show (most notably “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol and “How to Save a Life” by The Fray), but it still seemed wildly out of place and mistimed. This occurred in the seventh season, and although the show is still going, it has been downhill from this moment, with most fans reacting negatively to the episode.
6. The Cosby Show – Introduction of Olivia
As The Brady Bunch proved (more on this to come), throwing a new character in the mix is always a risk and one which often does not pay off. Adding a new character changes the dynamic, and often writers make the mistake of thinking that people will immediately care for a new character, but this is not the case. In a bid to boost ratings in season six, The Cosby Show added Raven-Symone as Olivia Kendall, who was Denise’s stepdaughter. What was supposed to be a cute addition quickly turned into an irritating and sassy character, with many fans being frustrated with the heavy use of a new character and how this took away screen time and storylines from the rest of the characters (ones that the audience had come to know and like). Ratings dropped heavily and it marked the beginning of the end of the show.
5. ER – The Helicopter Crash
When television shows have run for a decade it is understandably difficult for the writers to retain interest (The Simpsons being a prime example) whilst keeping the show’s identity. This was certainly the case for ER, which massively jumped the shark in season 10 with a ridiculous, almost cartoonish and over-the-top accident which left just about everybody rolling their eyes. In the season nine premiere, arrogant surgeon Robert Romano lost his arm to a helicopter blade, and, somewhat heavy-handedly, the helicopter would be back to finish him off in the 10th season. Around half way through the season, a helicopter would explode in mid-air over the hospital and land directly on top of the incredibly unlucky doctor. The show would continue for another five seasons, and whilst it still provided plenty of entertainment, it was also clear that the show had hit its creative peak long before.
4. Dallas – It Was All a Dream
Rule number one of writing is that “and they woke up and it was all a dream” is a big no-no. It is an incredibly cheap and easy twist, and it is also very insulting to the reader/watcher. The writers of Dallas clearly never heard this rule, as they shockingly used this tactic and simultaneously marked the beginning of the end of the immensely popular show. This occurred at the beginning of the 10th season, where Pamela awakens to realize that the entirety of season nine was just part of a bad dream. This included the death of primary character Bobby Ewing, which of course was a major moment in the show that was quickly erased and brushed aside. It is such a gigantic and ridiculous move pulled by the writers that you can practically picture them laughing at the audience as it aired.
3. The Brady Bunch – Cousin Oliver Syndrome
One way that television shows jump the shark is by adding a character whose sole purpose is to try and breathe new life into it and save it from cancellation. The most notable example of this is on The Brady Bunch, when half way through season five Carol Brady’s young nephew, Oliver, came to live with the family whilst his parents were living in South America. The fans did not react well at all to this new character and it completely threw off the balance of the show. This saw him last just six episodes, and ABC would cancel the series following the conclusion of the season. The introduction of a new character is always a gamble, and this proved to be an infamous moment in television history which coined the term “cousin Oliver syndrome,” which is used even today to describe this tactic.
2. Roseanne – Lottery Win
A large part of what made Roseanne such an excellent and popular television show was the fact that it was about a relatable, working class American family. Throughout the course of the show their struggles with money were evident and important to the show, but this all changed with a famous shark-jump moment that occurred at the beginning of the ninth and final season. Here the family won $108 million in the lottery, and with this gigantic shift in fortune it brought about a whole host of strange plot lines and twists that seemed disconnected with the rest of the series. The “daily struggle” was no longer evident and instead episodes were particularly surreal. The series also concluded with a bizarre shark jumping finale, which left the majority feeling cheated and disappointed that a once great show would end in such a way.
1. Happy Days – “Jumping the Shark”
The moment that spawned the now-widely used term and the biggest example of jumping the shark in TV history, Happy Days desperately attempted to regain its popularity with this ludicrous stunt which proved that the writers were fully out of ideas. Occurring during the fifth season of the show, the gang takes a trip to Hollywood for a three-part episode where The Fonz is challenged to jump over a shark on water skis. The gimmick did not work and the show rapidly declined in quality (although it would continue for another seven years), with many changes in cast and situations occurring during this time. The show was once relatable, as it was about growing up and typical family experiences, but gradually the focus shifted to Fonzie, who became increasingly superhuman and over the top as the years went on. Even the best of shows have moments of decline, but none as famous as Fonzie jumping the shark in 1977.