We all know the phrase by now, and have undoubtedly watched it happen. “Jumping the shark” is that defining moment where a previously good TV show makes a turn for the worse and never recovers – so named for the scene where Fonzie literally water skiis over a shark in ‘Happy Days’. In this week’s Roundtable, we call out some of our most depressing examples of good shows gone bad.
I’m going to let our friend Adam from DVDTalk start things off, since he has perhaps the most egregious example of a TV show jumping the shark in recent years, and he followed this series all the way to its bitter, bitter end.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
‘Heroes‘! I mean, we’re talking about a series where NBC’s big marketing ploy for its third season was apologizing for Season 2, and then it followed that up the next year by apologizing for Season 3… just a steady stream of empty promises that the show was going to be a triumphant return to the heights of its first season. And it never, ever did.
‘Heroes’ was a one-season wonder. Less, even, if you’re in the crowd that thinks it jumped the shark in its first season finale. The show spent a couple dozen episodes building up to what had to a HUGE battle royale, only instead to wipe out pretty much all of the internal struggles with its sprawling cast of characters and disinterestedly throw out a lame, anticlimactic fight that lasted all of a minute or two.
‘Heroes’ didn’t even have a full season’s worth of ideas, let alone anything meaty after that. So the series just decided to spend the next few years running in place. How many times did Hiro lose his powers and/or devolve into an eight-year-old? How many different sets of parents did Sylar think he had? How many times did he waffle back and forth between good and evil and evil and good and morally beige but not really good but…? We saw lots of the same jaunts to apocalyptic futures, Mohinder routinely getting duped into helping out the bad guys again, plenty of shadowy, evil corporations, and around 287 different characters whose eyes would roll over white as they started painting visions from the future. If something kind of worked once, why not trot out the same exact thing an eleventh or twelfth time? Too many of the show’s characters were overpowered, which made it kind of tough to pit them against credible threats. The show was so terrified of having super-powered brawls that, during the third season finale, a climactic fight to the not-really-death was depicted by a bunch of flashing lights under a doorway off-screen.
‘Heroes’ piled on too many characters but didn’t really have much of anything for them to do. Their power sets and thinly-sketched personalities would vary wildly from one episode to the next. None of the badniks’ motivations really made any sense whatsoever. Seasons would be padded out with long, long stretches of boring, repetitive nothing. What few viewers it hadn’t hemorrhaged had to suffer through cringeworthy dialogue like, “I’M the most special!” and “You’re not a Butterfly Man; you’re an EVIL Butterfly Man!” It stopped being a story about ordinary people with extraordinary powers and instead mutated into ‘Passions’ with an effects budget. Ack. I have to make myself stop ranting. I’m stopping now. Sorry.
People may not like my decision here, but I’m going to go with ‘The Office‘. I can tell you the exact moment this show jumped the shark for me. In the fourth season, there’s an episode called ‘Dunder Mifflin Infinity’ where Michael Scott drives his car into a lake because the GPS told him to. At that exact moment, I gave up on ‘The Office’. Now, some may argue that it was one bad episode and the rest after that were just hilarious, but I don’t care. That episode marked a turning point for the show. Michael Scott was no longer a multi-layered character; he was simply a moronic dolt who amazingly never got fired from his job. The first few seasons showed Michael as this feeble man who just wanted to be loved, but when the situation called for it, he actually rose up and did the right thing. I’ll always remember the emotional moment he shared with Jim on the booze cruise, when Jim confided in him about Pam. Sadly, as soon as Michael drove that car into the lake, the character he was died and ‘The Office’ died right along with him.
From a very young age, ‘Quantum Leap‘ was a show that my family would gather around the television to watch. It was such a fun and unique concept. Although the story had no limits, its writers sure did. ‘Quantum Leap’ dabbled in shark-jumping midway through Season Four of the series’ five-season run. I’m talking about the episode where Sam jumped into a space-bound chimpanzee.
Shortly thereafter, Sam flew into the Bermuda Triangle, but the show truly jumped the shark in its fifth and final season. Season Five opened with Sam repeat-leaping through moments of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life and the key events leading up to the JFK assassination. In this season, Sam jumped into Dr. Ruth, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe’s chauffeur. He also had to fight against the Evil Leaper once again, only to have to work side by side with her in a multi-episode arc. The only thing ‘Quantum Leap’ got right in its fifth season was the series finale – and even then that’s open to debate.
I haven’t fallen out of love this fast since I started eighth grade and instantly realized the girl I’d had a crush on the year before looked exactly like Billy Joel on the cover of “Piano Man“. I had the exact same sinking feeling as I watched the first episode of Season Two of ‘Community‘.
I loved every episode of the first season. It continually played with the conventions of sitcoms, while walking just a fine enough line to keep me coming back week after week to see what the writers would come up with next. Plus, I was sort of rooting for fat Chevy Chase, an actor who can be truly obnoxious in everything but ‘Christmas Vacation‘, but who seemed to be working kind of an underdog thing quite nicely in his return to television. Unfortunately, the first episode of the sophomore season saw Chevy’s Pierce become thinner and meaner. Like Chase, the other characters, while looking much the same, had some sort of meta personality transfusions. Actually, meta became the name of the game for the show. But meta upon meta upon meta often becomes obnoxious, and that was what happened here. The writers seemed so determined to avoid anything resembling traditional sitcom elements that they made every story annoyingly bizarre. The characters became utterly unlikable.
Oh, and they put a miniature Andy Dick in several episodes. Andy Dick. Seriously, do I need to go on? As far as I’m concerned, that guy is the SAG equivalent of a coffin nail. I went from rushing to the TV every Thursday, to letting the DVR record the show ’til I could stomach it a few days later, to just watching the first ten minutes and deleting the rest. As far as I’m concerned, ‘Community’ went from being the best show on television to the worst, all in a matter of months.
For the record, I think Mike is nuts. I just needed to say that.
Anyway, my pick (sadly) is ‘Alias‘. I can hardly describe to you how in love with this show I was during its first two seasons – the seasons where J.J. Abrams was actually directly involved with the production. This series mixed James Bond intrigue with the emotional turmoil of a relationship drama. The result was a giddy concoction of exciting adventure, exotic locations, high-tech spy gadgets, shooting, explosions, martial arts, and even a little bit of kissing. What more could you possibly want from a TV show? It was awesome.
I still hold the pilot episode as one of the most entertaining hour-and-ten-minutes of television I’ve ever seen. The entire first season-and-a-half worked like gangbusters. Before the formula could go stale, Abrams pulled off the famous “reboot” episode in the middle of Season 2 that turned the whole premise of the show on its ear. This was brilliant stuff, and the season ended with a fantastic cliffhanger that had me salivating for more.
My anticipation for the Season 3 premiere was immense, but the episode left me deflated. It wasn’t awful or anything, but decidedly lacked the spark of the first two seasons. That great cliffhanger wasn’t resolved until the middle of the season, and the answer was terribly anticlimactic. As it went along, the show became silly and repetitive, developed enormous plot holes, and was overburdened by the increasingly ridiculous “mythology” storyline that stopped making any sense at all. By the end of its run in Season 5, ‘Alias’ had turned into an undeniably bad series that I forced myself to keep watching only out of obligation. What a waste of potential.
So, those are our worst jump-the-shark TV series. What are yours?