Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"The Opposite of the 'Jumped The Shark' Moment"

A “Jumped the Shark” moment is that moment in a television series, where an event takes place that stretches credulity beyond the breaking point. The example from which the term derives comes from a late Happy Days episode, where “Fonzie”, vacationing, I believe, in Hawaii, vaults completely over a shark while waterskiing. A beloved character displays some unlikely behavior on a popular television show, and an entire country goes,

“I don’t think so.”

That’s “Jumping the Shark.”

The beginning of the end.

Today, I’m interested in the opposite of “Jumping the Shark.” I have witnessed myself being excited and often overjoyed to the point of releasing a celebratory “Yippee!” or a less showy though no less appreciative “Ahhhh” by the moment when a television series discovers its essence, that moment when the diverse elements come magically together, "sealing the deal" with the audience, and certifying that show’s creators have indisputably delivered the goods.

Can you be a little clearer about that?

I’ll try, Italics Man. What I’m talking about is that point where a new series comes alive, producing an energized and original-feeling whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, those parts being the “spot on” casting, the show’s distinctive story selection and its style of telling it, the defining range of the show’s comedy, and the unique manner in which the characters – whom we’ve never seen before, or at least never seen before that way – interact. You follow?

I guess so. It just sounds so subjective.

You can say it’s subjective. You’d be wrong, but you can say it. My point here is that there’s something about the way a show – I’m talking about a new show – delivers on its concept, where you just have to acknowledge, “That show really knows what it is.”

Of course, there are series that know what they are that nobody wants to see. (These shows are generally about poor people.) There are shows that might have discovered what they are, had they been allowed to stay on the air long enough to find out, but they weren’t. Then there are poorly conceived shows that just blunder along, having no underlying “what they are” to discover.

I am not talking about those shows; I’m talking about the hits. And what’s interesting is, some shows hit their natural stride from Day One. And others, which are allowed to be nurtured, find themselves as they go along.

I knew The Dick Van Dyke Show had hit “pay dirt” right from the pilot, where the Petries’ young son, Richie, signaled he wasn’t feeling well by the indisputable fact – at least to his mother – that “he wouldn’t eat his cupcake.”

I could tell The Mary Tyler Moore Show was “there from the get-go” from the exchange in its pilot where, during a job interview, Mary becomes contentious and Lou Grant snarls, “You’ve got spunk!…I hate spunk!”

These classic comedies “had it” right from the starting gate. Some others did too. Selected examples:

Rosanne always knew what it was – the embodiment of the comedienne’s “Domestic Goddess” persona in sitcomical form.

The premier episode of Friends also arrived fully realized – likable, clever and quirkily off-center (the pilot featured a runaway bride still in her wedding gown, and a monkey.)

Home Improvement debuted fully formed as well, complete with its feral “Tim, the Tool Guy” growl, never-before-used animated scene transitions, and the neighbor you could only see from the nose up.

This season, Modern Family hit the airwaves conceptually whole. The energy (and self-assurance) felt “there” from opening scene.

Now you, Mr. (or Ms) Skeptic, may say, “Earl, you’re saying that these shows came out ‘fully formed.’ But doesn’t that really just mean you liked them?”

Respectfully, Mr. (or Ms) Skeptic, my liking them is emphatically beside the point. I remember watching the pilot episode of Three’s Company. When it was over, I said, “That was very funny. I’m never watching it again.” “Why?” I was asked. “Because it will be exactly the same every week.”

The show had discovered who they were. And “who they were” was something I never wanted to see again.

The preceding were hit shows that “opened whole.” There are, however, other shows that I came to love (or at least admire) that didn’t come into full floweration for quite some time.

One of them was Cheers.

Cheers didn’t fully become Cheers until Sam and Diane slapped each other, and then kissed. You could feel the difference immediately. Before the “slap-kiss”, Cheers was an unquestionably funny series. But after that series-defining moment, the laughs were “through the roof!”

While it showed flashes of potential, The Cosby Show didn’t explode until mid-way through its first season, when the Huxtables lip-synched “Night Time Is The Right Time (To Be With The One You Love).” I take no credit for that. By then, I had already left the show. I remember watching that episode at home and thinking, “Oh, that’s what the show is about. The “trumping” power of “family.”

Seinfeld also took time coming into its own. Despite restaurant conversations, where Jerry and George debated the importance of “button placement” on men’s shirts, early Seinfeld felt like The Single Guy with better writers. The series developed piecemeal. Elaine wasn’t even in the first episode. I also read that the “Kramer” character wasn’t fully realized until Michael Richards stopped thinking of Kramer as being a step behind everyone else and imagined him as being a step (or more) ahead.

For me, Seinfeld didn’t attain its pinnacle of brilliance until “The Parking Garage” – its twenty-second episode.

Sometimes, great series find themselves in their pilot episodes; sometimes, it takes longer. Hopefully, the networks will be patient with the “late bloomers”, though they usually aren’t, unless the shows they have in “Development” are even worse. In any case, a show that “finds itself” is a miracle to behold. Having connected with its essence, it shines like a glistening diamond, bringing satisfaction to its writers, and hours of joy to those watching at home.

Until it jumps the shark.


Brian Fies said...

You're the expert, but I have to disagree with you on the Cosby Show. I think you yourself have written about the moment in the pilot when Cliff goes to Theo's room to scold him for bad grades, and Theo feeds him the line about just accepting him for who he is. The audience emits a sappy heartwarming "Awwwww" ... then Cliff explodes, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard." That was the moment I knew "Cosby" had it. Ironically, that show jumped the shark for me years later when it decided Theo wasn't just lazy but dyslexic, and Cliff apologized to him.

"Ellen" was a sitcom that was the opposite of fully formed, as the Ellen character burned through friends, jobs, and situations like kindling. It was occasionally funny and I guess a success, but I don't think it ever found itself.

If a new sitcom gives me one honest laugh, it's earned my loyalty for at least a season. I remember early episodes of "Newhart" that guaranteed I would follow that show through Hell. It started pretty strong and luckily only got stronger with the addition of Julia Duffy and Peter Scolari.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

The detective comedy on USA network, "Monk,"was the opposite of shark-jumping from the start. It was funny and dangerous back and forth as the obsessive-compulsive former detective took on murder cases.

Despite its excellence and the lack of a jumping the shark episode, Monk is also the only tv series I wanted to end, just to find out who killed Monk's wife Trudy. I'd be happy if they brought Monk back sometime, but they ended the series before the shark arrived.

scooter said...

WKRP found itself when, instead of lapsing into the expected dumb blonde stereotypes of Jennifer (as they did early on), the writers began to see the possibilities of her being the brain and the heart of the place.

James said...

I disagree on MTM. I know you wrote episodes so I'm saying this on my knees and looking humbly at the floor, but this is how I see it: the first two years are mostly (especially the first year) tend to be stories about Sweet Mary being taken advantage of, or how Mary may get delt a lemon and it somehow ends up being lemonade because There's Something About Mary. Everybody loves Mary.

With the 3rd season, the stories move away from that. You start seeing the problems. Things don't always work out. Things often don't work out. It's also when Ted becomes a little less real and a little more of the 7 deadly sins, but also funnier. Lou becomes a little less harsh and the edges get knocked off. Rhoda loses weight and isn't just a series of self-deprecating fat jokes.

I think there are some good MTM episodes in the first couple years, but I think it blossomed when Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels arrived.

At least it did for me.

TheNineDollarBlog said...

Growing The Beard.


Work In Progress said...

I think "Jumping the Shark" is industry mythology. Didn't Fonzie jump a shark tank on his motorcycle? And I also believe the show went on for a couple more seasons and the ratings remained quite good, so if it was a no-no the audience figured if Wylie Coyote can get away with it, so can Fonzorelli. My Name Is Earl regularly jumped the shark, arguably every episode. You might say when it stopped jumping the shark (or ran out of sharks to jump) it lost steam.

Brian Phillips said...

I may lose my "hip" credential, but I think that the pilot episode of "Friends" showed an ensemble that worked enormously well together.

I will also say that there was a lot of "hey, we're cool" mannerisms that were, by and large, not gone until somewhere during the third season.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Murphy Brown was another show tht arrived fully formed. Her character was there, the clash woth the young manager, the weird secretary... but when she arrived home and we were introduced to a new character in the last scene... the house painter that never leaves... it was sure to be a hit. Interestingly, this makes me think that the moment you decsribe almost always is something 'new' to the television landscape.