Okay, where exactly did the term "jump the shark" come from? According to Ron Howard, it came from his Happy Days co-star Donnie Most.
One day in 1977, they received the weekly script for the upcoming episode of the show. The episode was actually the third part of a season five three-part episode called "Hollywood." In the episode, the Happy Days gang takes a trip to Hollywood, where Henry Winkler, as Fonzie, clad in swim trunks along with his trademark leather jacket, water skis over a shark to prove how brave he is. The episode was intended to show off Winkler's water skiing abilities.
Most looked over the script and asked Howard, "What do you think of the script?"
Howard shrugged and replied, "People like the show. It's hard to argue with being number one."
Most replied, "He's jumping a shark now?"
Jon Hein claims the term was coined by his roommate, Sean Connolly, at the University of Michigan. According to Hein, "jumping the shark" came from a conversation the two were having regarding the above Happy Days episode, and other TV shows, that had a specific episode or a specific moment in time when they realized the show had peaked and after that moment they had started going downhill. (Image source: TV Tropes)
Both stories are probably true. Whatever.
The term "jumping the shark" has now become a part of the American lexicon and has grown to encompass not just television shows that fit the definition, but anything. Some think the James Bond movie series has jumped the shark. A local restaurant can jump the shark when they get a new cook or any couple going through tough times or splitting up can look back and say, "Our relationship jumped the shark when you kissed that girl at the Christmas party." And although pretty much any subject can fit the bill, for the purposes of this article, I am just sticking to TV shows.
Here then, is a list of the seven biggest TV show incidents of jumping the shark, in my opinion. Note: the order of the episodes has no relevance, except for the last show in the list, which I believe is the biggest shark-jumping of a great TV show in history.
1) Happy Days: The departure of Richie and Ralph Malph.
Well, as long as we're on the subject of Happy Days, let's delve in a little deeper. Of course, it is now commonly thought that the episode where the Fonz jumped the shark is when the series "jumped the shark." I humbly disagree.
There were other shark jumping moments in the show's history, some even think it started going downhill as early as season three, when they switched from filming the show like a movie to shooting it before a live audience.
For me, I think season eight, when both Ron Howard and Donnie Most left the show (at the beginning of season 8, in the episode "No Tell Motel") was the shark jumping moment. The most important relationship on the show was the one between Richie (Howard) and Winkler as Fonzie. The show still had other good facets to it, but the Howard-Winkler chemistry was the show's cornerstone and without it the show really began its true decline.
2) I Dream of Jeannie: When Tony and Jeannie got married.
They were possibly the hottest couple in TV history (if not, definitely in the top five), millions of male viewers drooled over Barbara Eden as Jeannie while probably as many women were swooning over Major Nelson (Larry Hagman). The show and a great four-season run, but because of the morals of the times, although Tony and Jeannie lived in the same home, there was absolutely no hanky-panky.
But for season five, the suits decided it was time Tony and his sexy Jeannie got hitched. Both Eden and Hagman vehemently argued that the sexual tension and main appeal of the show would disappear if Tony and Jeannie married, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
"Guess Who's Going to be a Bride?" (the wedding episode) was a two-parter in 1969 and the die was cast. Instead of her pink Jeannie outfit, Jeannie started wearing civilian clothes more often- and she now addressed Major Nelson not as "Master" but "Anthony." The magic was gone- not only from the show, but the ratings. (Ironically, although she agreed the show started dying after the marriage of Jeannie and Tony, Barbara Eden still chooses the wedding episode as her favorite one in the series.)
3) Dennis the Menace: The death of Mr. Wilson and a lesser new Mr. Wilson.
The first time I can recall being aware of what death was was in 1962, when my mother sat me down on the couch (I was four or five at the time) and explained to me how Mr. Wilson (Joseph Kearns) on Dennis the Menace, a show I loved, had passed away. Kearns had just finished filming the 100th episode of the show, when he died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Enter Gale Gordon as the new Mr. Wilson- one of TV's earliest cast member replacements during the run of a successful series. (Technically, Kearns was George Wilson. When Gordon replaced him, he was George's brother, John Wilson- the name was changed, although the characters and their roles were almost identical.)
Although, ironically, Gordon looked much more like the Mr. Wilson in Hank Ketchum's comic strip, Joseph Kearns had a quirky charm, something about the way he would take his nerve medicine when Dennis got to him too much. Whereas I found Kearns funny and charming in the role, Gordon, to me, was overly grumpy, less fun and more importantly, less funny.
By the way, to be completely fair to Gale Gordon, Dennis himself also underwent some severe changes during that last season. Instead of his trademark suspenders, he now wore regular pants, and a striped polo shirt had replaced his striped pullover. His cowlick was gone and his slingshot along with it. In short, by season four, Dennis had been watered down and become a bit of a wussy. Instead of being a mischievous little brat, Dennis was now a very straight young man who learned lessons about life. The show's cancellation soon followed.
4) The Flintstones: The breaking down of Fred Flintstone.
Everyone knows that Elvis Presley was rock 'n' roll's number one rebel when he came on the scene n 1956. His swiveling hips, long sideburns and menacing sneer scared the parents of the millions of teenagers who worshiped him. But in 1958, Elvis got drafted and the U.S. Army "made a man out of him" and the king became much more tame, never quite ever recovering his original thrilling aura of danger.
Same with Fred Flintstone. The early original Fred Flintstone was wild, loud, boorish, crude and out of control. A reckless, thoroughly delightful and hilarious character.
But if you watch The Flintstones carefully, with the passing of each season, Fred got a little tamer, a little more watered down. This was perhaps best symbolized with the 1963 season three episode "Blessed Event," where Pebbles Flintstone was born. Ironically, this was the show's highest-rated-ever episode. But Fred's decline was now sealed.
He really started changing, becoming a doting father, calling her "Pebbly Poo." Puh-lease! Like Elvis getting his hair shorn and cutting out the wiggling onstage, Fred Flintstone had become "safe," non-threatening.
John Lennon once said, "Elvis died in the Army." Fred Flintstone died too- the day Pebbles Flintstone was born.
5) Seinfeld: "The Finale."
Seinfeld may be the best sitcom in history. And unlike any other show on this list, Seinfeld did not go on running after it jumped the shark. Uniquely, it jumped the shark in its final show.
After 172 episodes, "The Finale" came and brought this marvelous show to crashing halt. All the show's classic characters, including the Soup Nazi, Babu, the low talker, the bubble boy, Puddy, et al returned and joined Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine. Anticipation was rife and fever-pitched. But this last episode "the finale" was unbalanced, awkward and worst of all, not that funny. Proves more can sometimes equal less.
But this one can be forgiven. All that pure gold and one cheap piece of tin alloy. I'll take that ratio any day.
6) The Simpsons: The Simpsons Movie
Perhaps it was the funniest show ever- in its prime. This is the only "classic" show on the list that is still on the air. Pretty much everyone agrees with two points regarding The Simpsons- 1) it was a truly great show and 2) it went on too long and jumped the shark somewhere along the line. But when?
In my humble opinion, unlike any other TV show, it jumped the shark in a movie. The Simpsons Movie (2007) to be exact. The Simpsons Movie was a huge national, cultural event. OMG, if The Simpsons is brilliant. clever and groundbreaking on TV, the movie will be doubly so. But alas, no. The movie was rather bland, mildly amusing and mediocre. It was kind of like a mediocre episode of The Simpsons. I don't think the great magic of The Simpsons TV show ever returned after the 2007 premiere of The Simpsons Movie.
7) The Andy Griffith Show: The departure of Barney Fife.
As I previously stated, I saved the worst for last, and this one was the worst, jumping the shark-wise, of all-time. For the five seasons Don Knotts played the overly self-important deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, it was charming, warmly human and quite hilarious. Although Andy was definitely the show's star and there were a few other great cast members, much like the relationship between Dorothy and the scarecrow, the Andy-Barney dynamic was the show's cornerstone, its main appeal, its crux.
But Barney left with the 1965 episode "Opie Flunks Arithmetic." He was never to return (with the exception of three guest-starring appearances, none of which were anywhere near as funny as Barney in his salad days as Mayberry's inept but lovable deputy).
Barney was replaced, first briefly by Dick Van Dyke's kid brother, Jerry, and then by a new deputy named Warren, played by Jack Burns. Warren proved more annoying than funny and was given the ax after a handful of episodes. The episodes became much more serious, often painfully so. Worse still, after Barney's departure, the series went from black and white to color, losing more of its homey charm.
After Barney left, I swear, Andy seemed to have aged ten years. He became grumpy, quick-tempered, impatient- he lost that spirit of fun he always had when Barney was around to be his foil. Strangely, The Andy Griffith Show did retain its popularity and was still a huge ratings hit after Barney left (how, I have no idea).
I still regard Barney Fife's departure as the greatest "jumping the shark" in the history of television. And no shark jumping has happened since to change my mind.