TV

When 20 popular shows jumped the shark

Written by:
July 7, 2021
Miller-Milkis Productions

When 20 popular shows jumped the shark

It was an unforgettable day in TV history when “Happy Days” character Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli proved himself king of the beach by water-skiing over a shark. Victorious as the moment may have been, it was also a far cry from the show’s otherwise traditional template. Millions of viewers at home were left scratching their heads, already wondering why and how the series had become little more than a showcase for Fonzie’s various antics. “Happy Days” would go on for many more seasons, but with that fateful episode, it had quite literally jumped the shark.

From Fonzie’s singular spectacle, a lasting cultural idiom was thus born. Then and now, a TV series is seen as having “jumped the shark” when it reaches a pointed new low in terms of quality or gimmickry. In many cases, this occurs with either the introduction of a new character or the loss of an old one. It can also take the form of an outrageous plot device, such as Fonzie water-skiing over a shark. Then there are the shows that dip in quality over time and build toward a proverbial death knell or point of no return, after which they’re never quite the same. Anything can happen as long as viewers keep tuning in… until they don’t.

Stacker surveyed the history of popular television and chose 20 shows known for having jumped the shark, in one way or another. Shows are presented in alphabetical order and IMDb user data is presented for reference.

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1 / 20
Mayberry Enterprises

The Andy Griffith Show

- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Years on the air: 1960–1968

Beloved deputy sheriff Barney Fife (Don Knotts) departed “The Andy Griffith” toward the end of the fifth season. The first episode without him was called “Opie and the Carnival” and it suffered from his absence. A handful of replacement characters failed to conjure Fife’s particular brand of quirky energy.

2 / 20
David Eick Productions

Battlestar Galactica

- IMDb user rating: 8.7
- Years on the air: 2004–2009

After slowly building a devout fan base, this sci-fi series took things too far in the finale of the third season. In the episode, the identity of the “Final Five” Cylons is revealed in what fans and critics found to be a less than satisfying fashion. An eerie mystery was now as borderline cheesy as bad New Age music—and imploded prior plotlines in the process.

3 / 20
CBS Television Network

The Beverly Hillbillies

- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Years on the air: 1962–1971

Some fans felt this iconic comedy series lost some charm after switching from black-and-white to color in the third season. It didn’t truly jump the shark until the eighth season’s “Manhattan Hillbillies,” however, when the Clampetts head to New York City and viewers found them building a log cabin in the middle of Central Park.

4 / 20
Paramount Television

The Brady Bunch

- IMDb user rating: 6.7
- Years on the air: 1969–1974

Hoping to revitalize viewer interest, this comedy series introduced a new character halfway through the show's fifth and final season. His name was Cousin Oliver and he caused a string of mishaps wherever he went, peeving the Bradys and their fans. The term “Cousin Oliver Syndrome” was coined soon after, referring to a show bringing on a fresh face in a desperate ratings grab.

5 / 20
Lorimar Productions

Dallas

- IMDb user rating: 7
- Years on the air: 1978–1991

This soapy drama killed off its main character Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) in the season 8 finale—or so viewers thought. It turned out that his death and thus the entire ninth season was all just a dream. The shocking twist was revealed in the season 10 premiere and made for one of TV’s most seminal jumping the shark moments.

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6 / 20
Showtime Networks

Dexter

- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Years on the air: 2006–2021

This Showtime smash kept viewers glued to the screen for the first four seasons before dropping in quality. Most fans would agree that it didn’t jump the shark until Dexter’s sister discovered his shocking secret at the end of the sixth season. Just when things looked like they couldn’t get any worse, the original series finale declared, “Hold my beer.”

7 / 20
Tandem Productions

Diff’rent Strokes

- IMDb user rating: 6.6
- Years on the air: 1978–1986

In the season 6 two-parter “Hooray for Hollywood,” Mr. Drummond takes the family to Los Angeles with the hope of winning back a woman named Maggie. They discover that she has a young son named Sam, who audiences never warmed up to. He became a series fixture nevertheless and a point of no return by proxy.

8 / 20
Carnival Film & Television

Downton Abbey

- IMDb user rating: 8.7
- Years on the air: 2010–2015

Even at the height of “Downton Abbey” mania, this acclaimed British drama exhibited its fair share of “jump the shark” moments. Some critics point to Matthew Crawley's spontaneous recovery from a brutal injury in series 2 as being fairly ludicrous. Most think the series 4 finale is when the show became a bit too silly for its own good.

9 / 20
John Wells Productions

ER

- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Years on the air: 1994–2009

An alternate term for “jumped the shark” might be “crashed the helicopter,” if this medical drama is anything to go by. No stranger to gimmicks, "ER" featured a stupefying helicopter explosion in the season 10 episode “Freefall.” Dr. Robert Romano—who’d lost an arm to a helicopter blade just one season earlier—was killed in the accident.

10 / 20
Home Box Office

Game of Thrones

- IMDb user rating: 9.3
- Years on the air: 2011–2019

A perennial darling of pop culture, HBO’s epic fantasy series divided fans throughout its run. With the premiere of season 8 came a more universal form of disappointment, as the show continued to drift from the source material. Misguided plot choices built to a truly disastrous finale.

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11 / 20
Shondaland

Grey’s Anatomy

- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Years on the air: 2005–present

This long-running medical drama has experienced all kinds of highs and lows over the years. An ambitious season 7 musical episode called “Song Beneath the Song” is every bit as cringe-inducing as it sounds. Call it one of many times this series has jumped the shark, only to subsequently regain its footing.

12 / 20
Miller-Milkis Productions

Happy Days

- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Years on the air: 1974–1984

The idiom “jumping the shark” was coined after Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler) literally jumped a shark in the season 5 episode “Hollywood: Part 3.” Rocking water skis and his signature leather jacket, the Fonz veered the show further away from its nostalgic origins. Approximately 30 million viewers tuned into the event.

13 / 20
Screen Gems Television

I Dream of Jeannie

- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Years on the air: 1965–1970

According to this show’s own built-in mythology, a genie loses her powers after getting married. That didn’t stop Jeannie and Maj. Anthony Nelson from tying the knot in the fifth season episode “The Wedding.” Often perceived as a response to moral standards of the time, it still marked a relative low point for the classic series.

14 / 20
Poppy Productions

Jane the Virgin

- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Years on the air: 2014–2019

The romance between Jane (Gina Rodriguez) and her husband Michael (Brett Dier) comes to a screeching halt when he dies in the season 3 episode “Chapter 54.” Rather than deal with the emotional ramifications, the show dialed up its telenovela-style qualities. Things only got more ridiculous from that point on—including the discovery in the finale of season 4 that Michael wasn't dead, after all.

15 / 20
Silver Screen Collection // Getty Images

Laverne & Shirley

- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Years on the air: 1976–1983

This “Happy Days” spinoff took a nosedive of its own when the title characters moved from Milwaukee to California in the sixth season. It still managed to churn out the occasional quality episode until lead actor Cindy Williams left the show two seasons later. Her final appearance is in the episode “Window on Main Street,” which marks the official jumping of the shark.

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16 / 20
Bad Robot

Lost

- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Years on the air: 2004–2010

Heeding a network demand for quantity over quality, this wildly popular series was stretched thin by the season 3 episode “Stranger in a Strange Land.” The excruciatingly slow episode serves only to give backstory to Jack's tattoos, managing to do so without advancing the plot at all. Whether season 6 is similarly inferior or discreetly masterful depends on who’s being asked; but perhaps nothing compares to the final series twist in the show's last episode that had fans an critics in an uproar.

17 / 20
ABC Circle Films

Moonlighting

- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Years on the air: 1985–1989

The romantic tension between leads Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd kept viewers engaged with this mystery series during its early run. When the pair finally hooked up in the third season’s “I am Curious … Maddie,” it made for a satisfying moment, but an ill-fated story arc. Behind-the-scenes drama also contributed to the subsequent drop in quality and ratings alike.

18 / 20
Reveille Productions

The Office

- IMDb user rating: 8.9
- Years on the air: 2005–2013

Some fans correlate the decline of this comedy classic to the marriage of Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) which occurs in the sixth season. However, the shark wasn’t officially jumped until Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, departed in “Goodbye, Michael” from the following season. He made a brief return for the series finale.

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19 / 20
Kitsis/Horowitz

Once Upon a Time

- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Years on the air: 2011–2018

This unique blend of fairy tale fantasy and modern drama originally wooed fans with its immersive plotlines and complex characters. By the season 4 episode “The Apprentice,” the show had expanded upon its world-building to the point of oversaturation. What was once clever and gripping was now merely contrived.

20 / 20
Tilted Productions

Orange Is the New Black

- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Years on the air: 2013–2019

This Emmy-winning prison dramedy delivered one of TV’s most shocking moments with the death of a major character in the fourth season finale. By the season 5 premiere, it seemed that the show’s creators were struggling to fill the void left in her absence. The series was fairly inconsistent—though still quite watchable—from that point forward.

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