What Does It Mean to ‘Jump the Shark’?
by Damon Huss
In the most recent New York Review of Books, English poet and journalist James Fenton writes about the highly popular BBC drama series about a WWI-era British noble family and the servants in their manor home, Downton Abbey. He writes that the program “jumped the shark” at a certain point which I won’t recount here, because I don’t want to spoil it for you (or my CRF colleagues). For the record, as a viewer of both seasons (so far), I agree with Fenton that Downton Abbey jumped the shark. But what does that mean?
Fenton cites the Wikipedia entry for “jump the shark”:
Jumping the shark is an idiom used to describe the moment in the evolution of a television show when it begins a decline in quality that is beyond recovery. It is synonymous with the phrase, “the beginning of the end.”
He proceeds from there, but I think the phrase connotes more than that definition explains. The phrase is most often used to describe the point at which a TV series not only declines in quality, but also when the decline is hinged on some plot element that is so incongruous with the show’s characters or story as to be absurd.
Case in point: The origin of the phrase comes from a 1977 episode of Happy Days, a show about an idealized version of the rock ’n’ roll 1950s. The “beginning of the end” occurred when The Fonz, in his leather jacket, quite literally jumped over a shark, revealing how the show’s producers clearly sacrificed the narrative (and whatever charm the show had) in order to capitalize on the Jaws movie craze of the time.
Here’s the moment that gave us “jumping the shark”: