As TV show fans, we can be a fickle, demanding bunch. So, when the quality of a beloved TV show drops, we often seek out a new series. After all, there are so many streaming platforms, networks and shows to choose from. In a desperate attempt to keep (or win back) their audiences, TV show creators have made some truly outlandish plot decisions, relying on a gimmick to garner attention. When this happens, your once-favorite show has “jumped the shark”.
Where did the name of this TV trope come from? During the fifth season premiere of Happy Days, Henry Winkler’s iconic Fonzie character literally jumps over a shark. The Fonz is not only waterskiing when he does so, but he’s waterskiing in a leather jacket. Needless to say, this moment was the peak of an episode that, as a whole, felt entirely out-of-sync from the general feel of Happy Days. Soon enough, “jump the shark” became synonymous with the point at which a series takes a turn for the worse.
Jumping the shark is often marked by totally unpredictable events, the introduction of unnecessary new characters, or rather bizarre storylines. To help you better understand this TV trope, we felt there was no better time than Shark Week (get it?) to review eight times when otherwise classic shows jumped the shark — and left us shaking our heads.
Shows That “Jumped the Shark” After Some Great Seasons
The X-Files (1993–2002)
Critics and fans alike debate when The X-Files truly jumped the shark. Many viewers point to Fox Mulder’s (David Duchovney) abduction by aliens during the eighth and ninth seasons. By then, the show’s once-innovative formula was certainly wearing thin. But there’s actually an episode of The X-Files that’s titled “Jump the Shark” in a sly nod to the well-known trope.
In Season 9, the 15th episode, which was co-written by executive producer Vince Gilligan (he’d go on to create Breaking Bad), uses the classic monster-of-the-week formula, but, instead of connecting to the show’s larger narrative arcs, it’s used to provide closure for The Lone Gunmen, an ill-fated X-Files spin-off. Season 9 spends more time with John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), who team up with Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) after Duchovny’s exit from the show.
In “Jump the Shark,” Doggett and Reyes attempt to find a woman who’s friends with The Lone Gunmen, a trio of self-described “counterculture patriots” and conspiracy theorists who pop up on occasion throughout The X-Files. This woman, though, has allegedly been turned into a super-soldier/biological weapon thanks to some science and shark organs. The episode ends with the three Lone Gunmen dying; the network didn’t want the characters appearing in The X-Files after their spin-off tanked.
Not only was the trio’s death controversial, but, as you can probably tell from this brief description, the episode received pretty negative reviews.
Over the course of 15 years, this medical drama had many, many ups and downs. But the series was truly in decline by its second decade. Many ER fans point to Season 10’s “Freefall” episode as a pivotal moment where the show’s quality took a dip it just couldn’t recover from.
In the episode, Robert Romano (Paul McCrane), who had already lost an arm to a helicopter blade the season prior, is killed… by a bizarre helicopter explosion. Sure, the character was awful, but why the continual helicopter drama? It’s not the only time ER jumped the shark but, after this moment, the drama never regained its original luster, despite remaining on air for five more seasons.
Shows That “Jumped the Shark” — But Really Didn’t Need To
Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009)
In the early 2000s, the 1970s series Battlestar Galactica was reimagined by the Syfy channel, attracting an even larger (and more passionate) fanbase. The series earned a Peabody Award, the Television Critics Association’s (TC) Program of the Year Award, and an impressive 19 Emmy nominations for its writing, costume design and directing.
Part of the “golden age of TV”, Battlestar Galactica is not only a defining science-fiction series, but a landmark drama. Despite a successful run, the show’s popularity was waning as it neared the end of Season 3. For many fans, the Season 3 finale, “Crossroads, Part 2,” really jumped the shark.
If you’re not a Battlestar Galactica fan, let us explain a few basics real quick. In a distant star system, humans live on planets referred to as the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. These humans created an android race, the Cylons, and ended up waging a war against them. When the show opens, the Cylons lay waste to the Colonies, leaving just 50,000 human survivors and only one military capital ship, the Galactica, in their wake. The ship’s crew try and help the human survivors find the fabled thirteenth colony — but Cylons, who look like humans, are a constant threat.
And that brings us to “Crossroads, Part 2”. Near the end of the episode, it’s revealed that several key characters — Sam Anders (Michael Trucco), Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan), Tory Foster (Rekha Sharma) and Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) — are all Cylons. This reveal proved too unbelievable for many fans. The show limped along for two more seasons, but much of the magic was gone after that reveal-gone-wrong.
During its original run, viewers loved Roseanne for being relatable; it was a sitcom that featured working-class Americans, which was rare. It ranked in the Top 20 views-wise for most of its run — well, except for its final disastrous season.
The show lost its dedicated audience when the Conner family won the lottery and became multi-millionaires. Roseanne traded relatability for a season’s worth of bizarre episodes. Not to mention, Dan Conner’s (John Goodman) death at the end of the previous season didn’t help matters. While the show’s series finale tried to give a reason for the ludicrousness, it didn’t quite work. After Roseanne jumped the shark, no amount of “explaining away” could salvage it.
Shows That “Jumped the Shark” for Shock Value
Downton Abbey (2010–2015)
This “upstairs/downstairs” British historical drama became an international hit with a devoted fanbase. In fact, it’s still churning out feature-length films that fans are more than happy to eat up. Despite Downton Abbey’s continued success, many fans felt the series jumped the shark a few times. “The show lost our trust with [a] Christmastime kicker involving Matthew, a milk truck and an abrupt exit,” Rolling Stone recalls.
And then, in 2014, the show went too far. Julian Fellowes, the series creator and episode’s writer, tried to add some truly unnecessary drama and shock value to an episode. In it, the beloved character Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is sexually assaulted. The scene is painful and triggering. It caused outrage — and rightly so — from fans and critics alike who were tired of seeing women’s pain used as a plot point.
“Downton Abbey has a long record of punishing women who dare to challenge convention,” a writer noted for Slate back when the episode aired. “This week, Anna the lady’s maid was raped after she ignored her husband’s warning and was — gasp! — polite to a visiting valet.” And although the show recovered from this misstep, there’s no doubt that the episode still upsets fans years later.
Part thriller and part fantasy, Lost intrigued viewers from its pilot onward. While it has its detractors, most critics raved about the series, and viewership remained steady throughout its run. But, looking back, fans point out various episodes that marked a “jumped the shark” feel. Honestly, Rolling Stone puts it best. “No one agrees when exactly Lost lost its mojo, because there is no one [jumped the shark] moment that stands above the rest,” the publication notes.
“Was it when the survivors met the Others and they didn’t make any sense? Or when the infamously annoying Nikki and Paulo materialized on the scene?” Rolling Stone’s writer goes on to jest. “Or when Claire got amnesia? Or when the Island traveled back in time? Or when Locke was resurrected? Or when it turned out that all the evil in the world was being held back by a literal cork?” Needless to say, it jumped the shark — or polar bear — a lot.
Shows That “Jumped the Shark” — and Ended on a Bad Note
This award-winning Showtime series centers on vigilante serial killer Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall). The Golden Globe-winning series drew a broad audience and received heaps of praise from critics, but all good things must come to an end. By the end of Dexter’s sixth season, that was certainly the case. Although, some fans will argue Dexter jumped the shark before then.
For many, Season 4’s 12th episode was the turning point. In it, the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow) departs the series. Other viewers focus on the Season 6 finale, which is when Dexter’s sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), discovers his killer secret. Head over to comment threads on Reddit and you’ll see fans hash out the many ways the series failed to live up to their expectations over the following season.
In fact, the finale is often cited as one of the worst (and most hated) in TV history. Of course, all of this flack didn’t stop Showtime from rebooting Dexter in late 2021 with a limited 10-episode arc.
Game of Thrones (2011–2019)
The HBO fantasy drama Game of Thrones amassed an enormous, passionate fan base and a plethora of Emmys. But even diehard fans and impressed critics have their limits. Sure, convoluted plots and slow-moving episodes were fine, but that final season? For many, that was the breaking point.
Many fans point out that they were dissatisfied with Season 8 starting from the third and fourth episodes. From Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) rushed descent into being an unhinged, brutal woman in power to Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey’s) truly meaningless death by rocks, Season 8 continually disappointed us.
It’s hard to call this jumping the shark in the traditional sense. But, maybe, the showrunners felt the pressure and just couldn’t live up. When you make a name for yourself by doing the unexpected, you’re bound to make a few terrible choices in an effort to raise the bar.