A few days ago the LA Times published an article by Fred Fox Jr., the writer of the infamous Happy Days episode wherein the character Arthur H. Fonzarelli, aka “The Fonz” (Henry Winkler), literally jumped a shark¹ while water skiing as part of a pissing contest with local beach bum “The California Kid.”² The premise of Mr. Fox’s article is that Happy Days did not “jump the shark” with this episode (at least not in the figurative sense.) He writes:
All successful shows eventually start to decline, but this was not “Happy Days’” time. Consider: It was the 91st episode and the fifth season. If this was really the beginning of a downward spiral, why did the show stay on the air for six more seasons and shoot an additional 164 episodes? Why did we rank among the Top 25 in five of those six seasons?
He seems oddly defensive and is clearly still butthurt about all this, even though he goes out of his way to point out that he wasn’t the one who suggested the shark-jump itself. I think he doesn’t understand what is really meant when people say that a show has “jumped the shark.” My interpretation has always been that it is the point in a television series’ life where it begins an irreversible creative decline. To me this also means the show does something to betray itself creatively – it deviates from its original intent in some way, whether it is through a ridiculous plotline or having the characters act in ways that don’t make sense given how they have been developed to that point.
It could be argued that Happy Days “jumped the shark” even before the water skiing episode. It’s easy to forget now, but when Happy Days originally debuted, it was very different from what it eventually became. It took great pains to be accurate to the time period and setting (mid-50s Wisconsin.) It was shot with a single camera for the first two seasons and the focus of the show was more on Richie, with the Fonz used in smaller doses, rather than being the center of most episodes. The show moved to a live-audience, three-camera setup in the third season and the whole feel of the show changed. The humor became less subtle and more broad, Fonzie became superhuman, and pretty soon the setting and time period became irrelevant (I would say that the latter occurred mostly after the shark episode and especially after Richie left. No one in the early sixties dressed and looked like Joanie and Chachi. And certainly no one was sporting a ‘do like Ted McGinley’s.)
What Fox fails to recognize is that Happy Days continued to be successful because it became a kids’ show (and it was one of my favorites.) Just because a show continues to stay on the air and remains relatively successful does not mean it has maintained the same level of quality throughout its run. So sit on it, Fred.
¹ Actually he jumped some stock footage of a shark.
² The Cunninghams and Fonzie were in California for a special three-episode arc where Fonzie was trying to break into the movies as “the next James Dean” or something to that effect.