When a TV show’ has run its course and yet stays on the air, there’s only one thing for its writers to do: Jump. The. Shark. Start throwing its characters into increasingly outlandish storylines in the hope that something will draw viewers in. And once that shark is jumped, it maybe flounders in rough waters for a few more seasons before mercifully, finally sinking.
To honor the birthday of that first and most literal shark jumper—Henry Winkler, who, as Arthur Fonzarelli in the classic Happy Days episode donned a pair of skis and actually jumped a shark—here are the 10 biggest jump-the-shark moments in TV history.
10. Will & Grace – Guest Stars Galore
When guest stars are used right, they can elevate a storyline (see The Good Wife). When guest stars are used wrong, they are the storyline. Near the end of Will & Grace’s eight-season run, came an influx of guest stars. A Jack Black here, and a Matt Damon there isn’t jump-the-shark worthy, but when you add in Tim Curry, Andy Garcia, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore and Seth Green (just to name a few!) you start to wonder who are the real stars of the show, and how such a simple concept could turn into such celebrity bloat.
9. The Cosby Show – Olivia joins the cast
Whenever a child star joins an already-established show, you know there’s trouble on the horizon. Such is the case when Olivia (Raven-Symoné) joined The Cosby Show in Season 6. Cute quickly turned into annoying as the writers almost immediately began to saturate the episodes with Denise’s precocious stepdaughter, taking storylines and time away from the cast and characters that had been there from the beginning.
8. ER – Helicopter Hell
ER had a lot of gimmics throughout the show’s run, but in the early seasons you could chalk it up to writers taking advantage of a fantastic cast and fresh ideas (such as season four’s live episode and season eight’s smallpox epidemic); however, in the later seasons it became clear that the writers weren’t sure what to write about anymore or what to do with certain character, especially Robert Romano (Paul McCrane). In the Season 9 premiere, the surgeon loses his arm to a helicopter blade. That event and subsequent recovery storyline was actually handled fairly well. The arm was reattached and he went through rehab only for it to never regain proper motor function and he decided to amputate it. As if the poor guy didn’t already have enough bad luck with helicopters, just over a year later, a transport helicopter exploded mid-air and the falling debris killed him.
7. Grey’s Anatomy – The musical episode
Our problem isn’t with the vocal abilities of cast members (Sara Ramirez has performed on Broadway and Kevin McKidd has sang in various projects) or even the concept (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s musical episode—if you’ll pardon the cheap pun—slayed). The fault lies in the execution. It was extremely ill-timed and out of place in the episode following a horrific car crash involving main characters. The show is still running on fumes, but it likely won’t survive another musical episode.
6. Seinfeld 1998: The series finale
It might be misusing the term to suggest a show “jumped-the-shark” in its very last episode, but excluding this would’ve sent the list itself into shark-infested waters. The show about nothing concluded its run with a finale that left viewers feeling empty as the gang gets arrested for a “duty to rescue” violation when they see a crime happening—essentially being guilty of doing nothing. Instead of taking everything we love about the show and tying it up in a nice little bow, the episode paraded in former guest stars to testify at the trial. It took a “reunion” on Curb Your Enthusiasm to give the show a proper sendoff.
5. Prison Break 2005-2009: Everything after season one
This Fox drama had an intriguing concept. A man purposely gets sent to prison so he can break his brother out. It was easy to tell how much thought went into that first season; it was evident in the main character’s body ink. Even the most minute detail was intricately plotted, from the riots to the hospital visits. It’s too bad money clouds peoples’ judgment. When Fox saw it had a hit on its hands it quickly pulled the renewal trigger, even though the concept would’ve worked best as a one-off. Everything after that first action-packed, riveting season was eye-roll inducing, the low-point of which included one main character’s supposed decapitation and another’s amputation. The first season finale—while leaving things open-ended and potentially unsatisfying—was at least a better option than the mess it turned into.
Felicity was a realistic portrayal of a teenage girl’s transition into adulthood through her time in college and the relationships she made along the way. And what’s more realistic than a drastic haircut after an emotional breakup? Unfortunately when your hair is a character all its own, the outcome can be catastrophic. That’s where Felicity the character, Felicity writers and the WB found themselves when Keri Russell cut her signature locks for a storyline. Though the resulting ratings decline coincided with a timeslot change, most people place the blame on the hair. There were admittedly some very good episodes after the ill-advised shear, but the constant break-ups, make-ups and time-travel didn’t live up to the series’ first-season potential.
The first two seasons of Alias is a perfectly scripted spy drama. It’s obvious that a show like this would have an expiration date and viewers became wise to that fact starting in Season 3 with the introduction of Vaughn’s wife. Certain curveballs can reinvigorate a series, but by the time the Season 4 finale rolled around, it was clear the writers were scrounging for storyline scraps. In the episode, star-crossed lovers Sydney (Jennifer Garner) and Vaughn are now engaged and appear to be a picture-perfect couple until Vaughn drops the bombshell that he isn’t who he appears to be and the two are swiftly hit by an oncoming vehicle. Season 5 then continued with more convoluted mythology and the few viewers that stuck around were mostly doing so out of nostalgia.
In the premiere of the show’s ninth and final season, the relatable, working-class family that invited us into their home week after week won the lottery. All happiness for them vanished as each subsequent episode was more out of character than the last, and our joy at awaiting new episodes turned into dread. The even-more-shark-jumping finale revealed this storyline was not all that it appeared to be.
We have Happy Days to thank for this catchy phrase to describe when a show has lost its luster and desperately tries to regain it. In the Season 5 episode “Hollywood (Part 3),” the Fonz is challenged to jump over a shark on water skis. While the show remained successful for five more years following that stunt, it never came close to matching the quality of those first few seasons.
A shark-jumping moment from a show that hopefully won’t be added to the list when it reboots in the spring.