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The Boston Phoenix Where It All Went Wrong

jumptheshark.com documents TV gone bad

By Robert David Sullivan

AUGUST 9, 1999:  One of the great things about being a TV fan is that there's so much to complain about. It's one more reason TV is better than film. I mean, who isn't sick of the arguments over whether Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut is any good? Who wants to hear any more about George Lucas and The Phantom Menace? The output of "masters" like Kubrick and Lucas (and Ed Wood, for that matter) is so paltry that film buffs can spend years rehashing the same stupid questions that were never interesting in the first place. (Go to www.krusch.com for musings on the typefaces used on signs in The Shining and supposedly significant anagrams of film titles and the name Stanley Kubrick -- or "Rickety Lab Sunk.")

But fans of a successful TV series have hundreds of hours, thousands of characters, and millions of hairstyles to ponder. True tube aficionados must also accept the fact that even the best series have lame episodes, and most classic shows stay on the air a little longer than they should. We're okay with that, because when Law & Order churns out hundreds of installments, we can point out the stinkers (i.e., impossibly complicated cases that are somehow understood by juries) without tarnishing the overall reputation of the show. We don't have to make arguments like "Every film he ever made is deeply flawed, but Stanley Kubrick is the greatest film director in history."

The tough-love quality of TV criticism is the basis of www.jumptheshark.com, a Web site with dozens of examples of how a good series can be fatally wounded by a single episode. (I looked it up after Renee Graham mentioned it in the July 18 Boston Globe Magazine.) On their home page, the jumptheshark creators say they are after "a defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak . . . [and] you know from now on, it's all downhill." The title comes from a silly episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie jumped his motorcycle over a tank of live sharks. I can't say the show was ever that good, but I'll buy the argument that it got noticeably worse after this stunt.

Unfortunately, the Websters jumped the shark themselves by designing the site so that if you click on the title of a series, you have to wait for your browser to download all the readers' comments on all the series beginning with the same letter. So in order to get to The Simpsons, you have to scroll past S.W.A.T., She's the Sheriff, and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters -- if your computer doesn't freeze. This is not a good site to visit while at work.

As of last week, the series to elicit the most responses was The X-Files, and the best guess for the show's jumptheshark moment was "the episode where Scully sang to Mulder." I didn't see that one, but it does sound chilling. Almost all the other postings insisted that the show is perfect. ("The only jumping done concerning this show is me jumping up and down and screaming for joy every time it comes on!") The postings for other popular shows echo this blind loyalty, and I pray that no political candidate ever figures out how to win over these people. The only scarier group of Americans are letter writers to Entertainment Weekly, like the woman incensed over the magazine's recent "It List": "To leave off Buffy [the Vampire Slayer] creator Joss Whedon is just a crime against humanity." Gee, when does the NATO bombing begin?

Similarly, 99 persons took the time to protest that The Simpsons "never jumped." They are wrong. It jumped last season when Homer persuaded Marge to pose as Apu's wife so that Apu could get out of an arranged marriage. The plot would have seemed stale on The Lucy Show, and it was an expensive waste of animation cels. Four individuals posted comments along the lines of "Homer gets stupid," which wouldn't be too far off the mark if "predictably" were inserted after the second word.

No one got the right answer for Frasier, which jumped when Frasier, Niles, and Martin all lost their girlfriends and stood on a balcony together moaning about their bad luck with women. Not funny or poignant, just a reminder of how repetitive the plots were getting. But one jumptheshark respondent was correct to complain that in this past season, "every episode seemed to be a Three's Company episode with everyone involved in a 'misunderstanding' that led to 'wacky situations.' "

Sports Night, which started out promisingly last fall and is still salvageable, may have jumped the shark in the episode where Jeremy practiced making eggnog in the office. It's a common mistake for workplace sit-coms: characters with a strange exhibitionist need to do everything in front of their colleagues. (The worst cliché is the character who goes directly to the office from a vacation, still toting bags and wearing a Hawaiian shirt.) What made this scene especially bad was its similarity to an equally implausible episode, only a few months before, in which Dana tried to thaw a turkey on the lighting board of the TV studio. For the record, jumptheshark respondents were more concerned with the addition of Ted McGinley (Gordon) to the cast; they noted that McGinley joined Happy Days, Dynasty, The Love Boat, and Married . . . with Children when those shows were all past their so-called prime.

One respondent did nail the jumptheshark moment for NYPD Blue: not the death of Bobby, or the shooting of Sylvia, but the inexplicable kiss between Danny (Bobby's replacement) and Diane (Bobby's widow, for Christ's sake). There was no sexual spark, just the desperation of scriptwriters trying to give everyone something to do. At least they reminded us of how good the show used to be.

There aren't too many public-TV series on the jumptheshark site, though some people note that Sesame Street went downhill after Snuffleupagus became visible to characters other than Big Bird. Some Republicans, of course, think PBS jumped the shark the day it was created, and since the news broke that public-TV stations have been sharing their donor lists with liberal groups, those Republicans have been on their high horses saying that the network should be snuffed out like a sack of puppies thrown into a river. Defenders of public broadcasting respond that someone has to provide the programming you can't find on commercial TV. But what is the scarcest form of programming in 1999? Not nature documentaries or home-repair lessons, but locally produced shows. Here in Boston, Community Auditions is long gone, and Channel 4 even canceled People Are Talking, which was as close as you could get to a homegrown version of Jerry Springer.

Congress should abolish PBS and instead give federal funds directly to public-TV stations, with the proviso that the money be used to produce local programs. (The stations would have to cover operating expenses through viewer and corporate donations, and perhaps funding from local governments.) Only the most extreme libertarians would oppose this most high-minded form of pork-barrel spending. Sure, there's a chance that North Carolina public TV will suck up to Senator Jesse Helms with the kids' show Tobaccotubbies, or that Utah public TV will produce Polygamy Street, but WGBH would be able to produce as much leftist programming as it wants. Let local "community standards" reign supreme.

In fact, WGBH probably wouldn't be on the defensive about the contributors'-list scandal if it were still associated with homegrown personalities like Julia Child, Christopher Lydon, plant lady Thalassa Cruso, and theater critic Elliot Norton. Greater Boston host Emily Rooney, on the other hand, looks embarrassed to be stuck on local TV. If Channel 2 gave more airtime to the local arts scene (which the commercial stations ignore so they can squeeze in more "behind-the-scenes" reports from Hollywood) and even brought back Community Auditions (live from the Middle East!), it might not have to keep hitting up Clinton supporters in Lincoln and Wellesley for cash.

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