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Jumping the shark is an idiom created by Jon Hein that was used to describe the moment in the evolution of a television show when it begins a decline in quality that is beyond recovery, which is usually a particular scene, episode, or aspect of a show in which the writers use some type of "gimmick" in a desperate attempt to keep viewers' interest. Its name is taken from a scene from a fifth season episode of the sit-com Happy Days when the character Fonzie jumps over a shark on water-skis.
In its initial usage, it referred to the point in a television program's history when the program had outlived its freshness and viewers had begun to feel that the show's writers were out of new ideas, often after great effort was made to revive interest in the show by the writers, producers, or network.
The usage of "jump the shark" has subsequently broadened beyond television, indicating the moment when a brand, design, or creative effort's evolution loses the essential qualities that initially defined its success and declines, ultimately, into irrelevance.
The phrase jump the shark comes from a scene in the fifth season premiere episode of the American TV series Happy Days titled "Hollywood: Part 3", written by Fred Fox, Jr., which aired on September 20, 1977. In the episode, the central characters visit Los Angeles, where a water-skiing Fonzie (Henry Winkler) answers a challenge to his bravery by wearing swim trunks and his trademark leather jacket, and jumping over a confined shark. The stunt was created as a way to showcase Winkler's real-life water ski skills.
For a show that in its early seasons depicted universally relatable adolescent and family experiences against a backdrop of 1950s nostalgia, this incident marked an audacious, cartoonish turn towards attention-seeking gimmickry. Initially a supporting character, the faddish lionization of an increasingly superhuman Fonzie became the focus of Happy Days. The series continued for seven years after Fonzie's shark-jumping stunt, with a number of changes in cast and situations. The phrase implies a belief that the show began a creative decline in this era, as writers ran out of ideas, and Happy Days became a caricature of itself. As a nod to the episode, Henry Winkler's character jumps over a beached shark in the 2003 show Arrested Development.
In 1997, Hein created a website to publish his list of approximately 200 television shows and his opinions of the moments each "jumped the shark". The site soon became an Internet phenomenon, and as the phrase quickly spread throughout pop culture, the site grew exponentially in users and renown. Hein subsequently authored two "Jump The Shark" books and later became a regular on The Howard Stern Show around the time he sold his website to Gemstar (owners of TV Guide).
In a 2010 Los Angeles Times article, former Happy Days writer Fred Fox, Jr., who wrote the episode that later spawned the phrase, said, "Was the [shark jump] episode of Happy Days deserving of its fate? No, it wasn't. All successful shows eventually start to decline, but this was not Happy Days' time." Fox also points to not only the success of that episode ("a huge hit" with over 30 million viewers), but also to the continued popularity of the series.
The idiom has been used to describe a wide range of situations, ranging from the state of advertising in the digital video recorder era to views on rural education policy, the anomalous pursuit of a company acquisition, and the decline of republics into degraded democracy and empire.
Automotive journalist Dan Neil used the expression to describe the Mini Countryman, a much larger evolution of the previously small cars marketed by Mini. In a March 2011 review titled "What Part of 'Mini' Did You Not Grasp, BMW?" Neil said the bigger car abandoned the company's design ethos and that "with the Countryman, tiny sharks have been jumped".
In 2008 during the Obama presidential campaign, at a meeting of Democratic governors in Chicago, each governor was identified with a name plate while Senator Obama had a large seal – that looked official but was not. The New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich wrote, "For me, Mr. Obama showed signs of jumping the shark two weeks back, when he appeared at a podium affixed with his own pompous faux-presidential seal."
In September 2011, after Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann repeated an anecdote shared with her claiming that the HPV vaccine causes "intellectual disability", radio commentator Rush Limbaugh said, "Michele Bachmann, she might have blown it today. Well, not blown it – she might have jumped the shark today."
In 2008, Time magazine identified a term modeled after "jumping the shark:" "nuking the fridge". Specifically applicable to film, the magazine defined the term: "to exhaust a Hollywood franchise with disappointing sequels".
The phrase derives from a scene in the fourth Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in which the hero attempts to survive an atomic bomb detonation by fitting himself into a lead-lined refrigerator. The explosion annihilates its surroundings but sends the refrigerator flying sufficiently distant for the protagonist to escape unhurt. The scene was questioned on its scientific merit and critically panned.
Within two days of the film's premiere, the phrase "nuking the fridge" had gone viral, describing film scenes that similarly stretched credulity. Co-producer Steven Spielberg later said the scene was "my silly idea" and was glad to have been part of the pop-culture phrase, while the other co-producer George Lucas took similar credit believing that Jones would have had an even chance of surviving the blast.