Never cottoned to the catchphrase "Jumped the shark." It's a useful one, a clever bit of shorthand to refer to the moment when a TV show goes bad. Some decision by the writers and the producers made in a desperate attempt to shore up ratings or a result of an egomaniacal star's unfortunate inspiration sends a
show careening into silliness. For me Fraiser jumped the shark when the producers decided that Niles' lunatic obsession with Daphne was really a true love that deserved to be rewarded, as if all along Niles had been Sir Tristram instead of walking the fine line of stalker-dom.
There's a website devoted to this, if you want lots, and lots, and lots, and lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of other examples.
But even though I know the origin of the phrase (Happy Days. Fonzie. Water skis. You don't want to be reminded if you don't know.) I can't use it comfortably because A.) it makes me see sharks and I hate sharks, and B.) it's too abrupt; it implies you've settled down in front of your TV, remote in one hand, bag of chips in the other, and without warning a moment of such incredible stupidity leaps out at you that all of your muscles reflexively tighten in horror and the bag of chips explodes in your suddenly clenched fist.
Plenty of shows have gone bad without there being a specific episode in which they jumped the shark.
I can't put my finger on when it started, but over the course of I think the fourth season Mad About You became less and less fun to watch until it was so bad that I couldn't remember its ever having been good. Some fans would probably say that the show jumped the shark in the episode where Paul and Bruce Willis had to break into the hospital and do a lame parody of Die Hard in order to get Paul in to see Jaime and the new baby. The birth of babies is a bete-noire among the Jumped the Shark crowd, ranking just ahead of marriages. I liked that episode, but I remember thinking, This is the first the show's made me laugh in a long, long time. And that was the last episode I watched.
Other shows I liked a lot but gave up on didn't jump the shark, or even experience a slow slide into awfulness. They ended, but they didn't end. That is, the show finished off a narrative arc that turned out to be the point of the whole show. The story was all told but the producers didn't know it and kept turning out new episodes for a while, episodes that seemed to belong to a different, and lesser show. Miami Vice did that. And it happened to Northern Exposure.
The real tension driving Northern Exposure wasn't whether or not Joel and Maggie would get together. Their will they or won't they back and forth turned out to be a part of the larger question of whether or not Joel would stick around Cecily after he completed his side of the bargain.
One of the things that made NE a great show was that as much as the show's producers loved the town they'd created and loved all its quirky citizens, they saw themselves in Joel's shoes and knew that like him they would be horrified at the prospect of being trapped there for the rest of their lives. Joel's prickliness and his often overt hostility to the town and his refusal to give in and become one of the gang weren't signs of a character that needed to be saved and reformed. They were expressions of his integrity. He didn't belong there. He belonged in New York and he was driven by the fear that he would never get back there.
And then they did a show in which Joel, feeling the need for a vacation, goes on strike, and the town sues him. He expected them to understand how tired he was and sympathize. What he discovered was that they didn't see him as a quirky character like themselves. They saw him as just the doctor. They didn't like him or dislike him. They just needed his services.
When Joel realized that all his supposed friends in Cecily thought of him that way, as not really one of them, as an outsider, he relaxed. The episode didn't end with Joel feeling sad or angry or with there being any sort of reconciliation. It ended with Joel defeated but happy. Because from that moment he knew there was no chance of his staying when it was time for him to go. And as soon as he realized that, the show was over.
Fans of the Sopranos talk of it as being like a good novel. Northern Exposure was a novel. Which is what you'd expect, given that one of its producers, Joshua Brand, had a master's degree in English Lit, and the other, John Falsey, was a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. They'd structured the series as a picaresque novel and each episode was a chapter. They accidentally wrote the last chapter before they were ready to close the book. Northern Exposure continued for a few more seasons. They even tried to keep it going after Rob Morrow quit and Joel really left, but it was never near as good. I guess you could say the show Jumped the Shark in that episode, but the phrase implies a moment of fatal silliness, and that's not what happened.
Smallville is a big hit in our house. Not just with the guys. With the blonde and me as well. It's not
great. There are too many Everwood/One Tree Hill/Gilmore Girls explorations of teen angst and sudden flare ups of soap opera sex when the blonde and I lunge to cover the boys' eyes. Last week's episode was as much about Clark and Lana naked as about whether or not Clark had been taken over by the evil computer he thinks is Jor El. And next week Lana kisses another girl. I've already told the guys we aren't watching.
I'll tape it and watch it later, alone, after everyone else has gone to bed.
Despite its shortcomings though, it's fun. Michael Rosenbaum, the actor who plays Lex Luthor, is terrific, as is John Glover as his evil father, Lionel. Tom Welling is almost as perfect casting as the soon to be Superman as Christopher Reeve was. The show has a sense of humor about itself and about the Superman story, which it takes seriously but tweaks playfully from time to time. And it has actually added to the myth, which the Reeve movies didn't---except for Reeves' portrayal of Superman, which defined the role forever, and all the comic books and cartoons that have followed and all the movies in the future will have to live up to what Reeve did. Making Jonathan and Martha Kent fairly young was a great decision. And, although it didn't invent the idea, it has expanded beautifully on the idea that Lex and Clark were once friends.
I'm afraid, though, that Smallville has jumped the shark the way Northern Exposure did.
One of the premises of the show has been that Clark is still a long way from being Superman. He doesn't have all his powers yet. He doesn't know how best to use the powers he does have. His father always refers to his superpowers as "abilities," an allusion to the opening narration of the old TV show---"powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men"---but also a characteristic way of teaching Clark that he is not to be simply power-ful. One of my favorite lines from the first movie was when Glenn Ford as Pa Kent tells a frustrated Clark that though he's not sure why Clark was sent to earth he's sure there's a reason, but he's also sure that reason "wasn't to score touchdowns and hit home runs."
It was Pa Kent's way of saying that someone with Clark's powers and abilities had responsibilities, that he wasn't put on earth to gratify his own ego and vanity or to be cheered and admired just for having those abilities. On the show, Jonathan calls those powers abilities as a way to downplay their potential for being used to control and coerce. He also calls them gifts. This underscores the fact that the show is mainly about one boy's learning how to be a responsible adult. And so in most of the episodes the superheroics are put off as much as possible and Clark has to solve his problems by thinking them through. And very often he makes mistakes in his thinking because he is, after all, a 17 year old kid.
With that as its premise, the show's natural end is when Clark has learned enough that he can become Superman. The last episode's last scene will be when he pulls open his shirt to show the big red and yellow S. The producers have said they see the show finishing. They've promised it'll be over when Clark moves to Metropolis.
Last week, Lois Lane showed up, and with her Metropolis came to Smallville. Except for Erica Durance, the actress playing Lois, being sexier than Margot Kidder (I can't believe I wrote that. It's true though. It was those 70s fashions.), last night's episode came very close to being an extended out-take from the movies.
Next week's episode looks like its plot was taken right out of one of my old comic books.
Except for the lesbian smooch.
Superman was DC after all. Not Marvel.