Think you can tell when a TV show has reached the point of no more returns? When the basic premise feels strip-mined, the characters overplumbed, the jokes flat-lining? Don’t we all, you might say. Well, the TV pathologists at Jumptheshark.com not only think they know—they’ve coined a term for TV show overripeness and even developed a diagnostic checklist for it. The site name refers to a late episode of the sitcom Happy Days, when Fonzie literally jumped over a shark in a water-skiing scene. Jumptheshark.com’s creators seized on this desperation gag as the emblem of a show in serious trouble.
Network TV shows being so formulaic, it should come as no surprise that the ways they show signs of imminent death also follow set patterns. Some of Jumptheshark’s leading exhaustion indicators: the introduction of a new actor to play an existing character; death; birth; puberty; marriage; singing; and my favorite, the appearance of actor Ted McGinley. (He played Al Bundy’s self-absorbed neighbor on Married With Children.) Has the Emmy-winning, Thursday-anchoring NBC sitcom Will and Grace jts’d? This may well be the most divisive question on the site’s various program-specific message boards. Will and Grace “NEVER JUMPED SHARK!!!” shrieked one show-enamored poster, who nonetheless admitted a fear that the awful moment may yet come soon, “when Will realizes he’s not actually gay and he hooks up with Grace.” “Just jumped 9:40 p.m. 5/17/01,” countered a more cold-eyed watcher, citing the episode when the writers “introduced a long lost son for Jack … a classic jump.” A considerably more far-sighted prognosticator ventured that “this show will likely jump in the next six months.” Why? “The big problem is Will changing jobs, and Grace dating his boss,” he or she explained, alluding to classic symptoms of sharky trouble, plot contrivances that diverge conspicuously far from the show’s bedrock premise.
In their attempt to sort out the tea leaves of TV show burnout, Jumptheshark has tapped into an audience of amateur prognosticators who post their own myriad theories about the whys and wherefores of this and that show’s demise. My guess is that the site also gets significant traffic out of certain precincts in Burbank, Calif., and outlying communities, where many TV show creators live and work. One can only hope that the good TV people of Burbank learn something from this almost-too-easy codification of their sins and spare us the inevitable shark-jumping when a show has come to the end of its natural life and begins an agonizing, endless march to syndication. I’m also expecting Santa Claus any minute.