Jumping the shark is a funny phrase. Ostensibly it refers to the tipping point in the life cycle of any ongoing series where it goes from quality to terrible. It’s like the moment milk turns bad or meat goes off; something has been left too long and is now past the point of no return. I agree with all of that, but to add my two cents, I actually think jumping the shark refers to something a little deeper and sadder than that. To me, the moment a story jumps the shark is the moment you lose faith in the storyteller.
I’ve been re-watching a lot of Scrubs lately, as I usually like to chuck on something that doesn’t require thought over breakfast. I’ve been jumping pretty erratically between seasons and it’s striking how clearly this illustrates a decline in quality; early episodes are clever, well written and occasionally raw and wrenching. Later episodes are overblown cartoons that swing for the fences in every joke and more often than not miss the mark significantly. In a nutshell, it’s the difference between what I love about the show and what its detractors hate. The DNA of what Scrubs became may have been present from the beginning, but in the early days the balancing act was a lot defter. At a certain point the writing just got sloppy.
Season one features an episode where all the characters talk to a shrink while a microscope is put over JD and Elliot’s brief relationship, jumping back and forwards in time. It’s barely funny, but it rings true and feels, at times, uncomfortable for just that reason. Moments and episodes like this abound early on. Season five features an episode where the main concept is that every joke is one we’ve already heard. Season six goes a step further with a risible clip show episode. It also features a fantasy sequence where Turk holds in a fart so long he flies.
The thing about stories is that they need to end, because eventually the ideas and characters just don’t have much left to them. The reason the Scrubs characters became cartoons is because the early years were so packed with development and real emotion that eventually, there just wasn’t anywhere new to take them and so they stagnated. Likewise Dexter, which was a top tier TV show, give or take a couple of hiccups, until a creative nosedive in season six that it never recovered from because the show had just run out of anything new to say and would not be allowed to die due to its success. And hey, if one writer washes their hands of a TV show that they’re done with, you can always hire another, right?
But what about in the case of a series with only one creator? Recently I’ve started re-reading John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, one of my all-time favourites. The early Tomorrow books are still brilliant for all the right reasons. The characters are vivid and feel real. The action is pulse pounding, the themes are haunting, the twists shocking and the writing excellent. By the time we reach the ninth book, however, we’re treated to interminable scenes of cattle farming and a moment where the protagonist climbs to the bottom of a cliff and up again with a kid hanging from her back, using her bare hands.
This is different because, in theory, John Marsden could have stopped writing Tomorrow books whenever he wanted. He had a bunch of other bestsellers to his name and could comfortably assume that any new book he released would do well. It’s not like he needed the money or anybody was forcing him to continue. So why did he keep going? And in the end, what did that mean for the legacy of his series?
In my own pretty humble experience, it can be hard to let go of a character that means a lot to you. You tend to only write a story because it’s important to you and if you stumble on one of those special characters, you find yourself looking for any excuse to spend more time with them, even if ultimately that is to their detriment.
When I was fifteen I wrote a story about a kid called Chris Hawkins, a thinly veiled analogue of myself grappling with extremely dramatized versions of retrospectively mild situations I’d been in. Maybe by merit of being the first thing I’d written that really came from a personal place, I kept writing about Chris, encouraged by friends who seemed to like the stories, until there were about eight different novellas of increasing ridiculousness. In one Chris became a drug dealer. In another he fought his evil alter ego in a strange dreamscape while in a coma after being thrown in front of a speeding car. Eventually, I ran out of anything real to say about him but, not wanting to let go, I continued until the stories descended into absurdity and everybody stopped caring.
I wouldn’t presume to say this was what happened with John Marsden; the guy is a better writer than I will ever be and has affected more lives with his work than I could dream of, but it’s inarguable that there was a clear point at which the Tomorrow books and their sequel series The Ellie Chronicles stopped being essential or special and just kept going past the point where anybody really cared. And once you’ve lost that investment, it’s very hard to get it back.
The creative nadir of Marsden’s series was Incurable, the aforementioned ninth book. When the tenth (and final) book came out I thought it was a comparative return to form, but the damage had been done. I just didn’t feel the same way about Ellie and her friends. I didn’t care where they ended up. Likewise when Dexter had a brief resurgence of creative energy in season seven; it was nice to enjoy Dexter again, but it was no longer my Dexter. The feeling of betrayal that came from the shark jumping was, in the end, too much. The story was just too tainted.
Scrubs, for my money, won back a lot of goodwill in its eighth and final season (the garbage spin off marketed as season nine does not and will never count), partly because it was clearly moving towards a definitive end and did all the things the final season of a well-loved sitcom should. Season eight had great moments and a pitch perfect finale, but if you put any of those episodes against one from the early years the comparison is not flattering. Scrubs was forgivable not because it returned to early heights, but rather because it knew it was time to end, it knew people cared and so it did what it could to make its last run at least decent. In the end, that effort was enough for me to remember Scrubs far more fondly than I do Dexter.
Shark jumping comes in many forms. In Sons of Anarchy or Game of Thrones it was a slow process, an incremental decline in quality until the point where you realise that you’re just not enjoying yourself anymore. In other cases it’s instantaneous, one bad episode or book enough to destroy a series. But in almost all cases, the turned milk analogy is apt; once it’s off, it’s off.
Can you regain trust? Yeah, but it’s hard, and even if achieved a legacy is almost always tarnished. Breaking Bad and Mad Men don’t have any unfortunate asterisks hanging over them because they ended at the right point and were never less than excellent. Star Wars or X-Men might still have a great movie here and there, but nobody will ever again tell you that every instalment is an essential masterpiece. Basically, trust is hard to win and harder to get back, which means that nine times out of ten it’s better to quit while you’re ahead and leave people wanting more, because even a late in the day return to form is scarcely enough to regain what was lost, and even if it does things can never be the same.
And for the record, I did eventually revisit Chris Hawkins in a new play that I think is my best yet, so I guess you can’t really quantify these things. But it’s definitely easier if you don’t have the pressure of a multi-million strong fanbase being disappointed in you.
Writing words about writing words.