Hashtag City

Jump the shark:  a term to describe a moment when something that was once great has reached a point where it will now decline in quality and popularity.

Origin of this phrase comes from a “Happy Days” episode where the Fonz jumped a shark on water skis. This was labeled the lowest point of the show.

 – Urban Dictionary

Nice jacket.

Little did University of Michigan college roommates Jon Hein and Sean J. Connolly know that when they came up with the term jump the shark in the late seventies as code for when their favorite TV shows began to decline, they would really be coming up with a phrase to describe the decade of the 2010’s — as in 2010, 2011, and any other year in our foreseeable future.  And I’m not talking solely entertainment here, but politics, money, possessions, friends, family and pretty much anything else in the public (or even private) discourse.

  •  You can’t just be someone’s friend – you need to be their bff.
  •  It’s not enough to be against an opposing political party’s president – you need to see him “fail.”
  •  You can’t just have vampires do the killing (and have passionate sex) on “True Blood” – it now needs to be demons from beyond; ghosts jumping into human throats and inhabiting our bodies; werewolves; shape shifters; faeries (including the storybook kind) and any and all combinations of the above.

(Note:  The latter is one of my fave TV shows that I fear as gone the route of the water ski).

Feel free to fill in your own examples in the world of — (need some help?):

Love – the MOST ELIGIBLE BACHELOR(ETTE) in the world with whom each year I can fall in love within the shortened season of a reality show.

Possessions – THE ULTIMATE EXTREME HOME MAKEOVER both on TV and off

Lifestyles – The BEST food I ever ate recommendation to your friend and on the Food Channel.

Family– Here is the SISTER/BROTHER/FATHER/MOTHER you never knew who society tells you you can easily access from numerous sites on the web.

Where will it stop?  Well, the cool thing about shark jumping is there is no limit to how over-the-top, awful or even just relentlessly annoying it can be.  So if you appreciate creating excess or just indulging it, you’re set for life.  But the bad part of it is – once you make that jump, the overall quality of that piece of “entertainment” (or subject, for that matter) takes a grand nosedive downward in quality, never be regained again.

Am I talking about the U.S. in 2011?  Or has this blog simply jumped the shark? On both counts — God, I hope not.

Oh, speaking of God – He or She might have been wondering aloud if our rhetoric jumped the shark a few nights ago when HE/SHE was (undoubtedly) watching the Tea Party sponsored Republican candidates debate.  Now, I’m admittedly a liberal and a bit of a cynic (a somewhat lethal psychological combination, I confess) but even my conservative friends (all two of them – oh, come on – I’m kidding!) were taken aback to hear the audience cheering, whooping and hollerin’ when Texas Governor Rick Perry gleefully proclaimed his state executed 234 death row inmates.  Yes – cheers.

But that was nothing compared to the moment when CNN moderator Wolf Blizter challenged uber Libertarian Ron Paul when Paul proclaimed, “the whole idea we have to take care of everybody” is hogwash.  When Blitzer followed up with what to do with a person who was in a near fatal accident who was in the hospital and uninsured, and asked, “Are we to let them die?” even the deity HER/HIMSELF might have been taken aback when more than a few in the audience again cheered, screamed “yes” and gleefully began to shake their heads in agreement.

Click to watch the full video

Has political rhetoric jumped the shark?  (Colbert excluded). Well, if it hasn’t already then what exactly do we have to look forward to in the coming decades?

All this was followed yesterday with a news story that US student SAT scores were the lowest in the country since they’ve been measured over three generations. I don’t blame any of the young people.  (Disclaimer:  I didn’t have great SAT scores either so I’m not sure it’s the ULTIMATE measure of anything).   It is easy to not aspire to math, intellectual reasoning or even reading when you look around and most of what you see goes against intellect and thoughtfulness and instead favors emotional outburst and callousness.

(Further disclaimer:  Certainly liberals are not guiltless in how they categorize certain Tea Party rhetoric and demonstrators either.  I won’t repeat the epithets here, you know what they are).

Since this all started with the world of entertainment I began to think of why the shark is jumped in the first place.  I guess it’s because there are only so many ideas you can come up with for a single subject or set of people.  For instance, in retrospect I don’t blame the producers of  90s TV show “Mad About You” for giving proverbial career couple Paul Resier and Helen Hunt a kid any more than I blame the producers of the 70s sitcom “Rhoda” for marrying perennial single unlucky-at- love girl off to her prince charming construction foreman (though they did divorce sometime later, at which time the show jumped the shark for the second time, if that’s possible).

But if I give them that mulligan, they can’t blame us for pointing out that just because you create wonderful entertainment, or have great ideas, it doesn’t mean everything you do has to be met with superlatives.  That would be personal shark jumping and we each have the responsibility to avoid it.

So take the example of a director I admire, David Lynch.  He is a director known for being ahead of his time in his choice of material and blazed the way for innovation only to see generations (yes, now it’s plural) come after him in homage, imitation and shark jumping of his bizarre, inimitable style.  In true Lynchian fashion in the nineties, when his sensibilities were at the apex of popularity, Lynch drew back and did a film called “A Straight Story,”  a pretty much plain story about a kind of weird guy (hey, it’s Lynch) going cross country on a lawnmower to visit his dying brother one last time.  No little people, no cryptic dialogue, not really any sex or violence at all.  When Lynch was asked what happened he widely replied the most subversive thing he could do at that point in his career was to make a film that was totally traditional.  This, of course, didn’t stop him from returning to great bizareness with the much lauded “Mulholland Drive” but also didn’t prevent even him from jumping the shark in memorably grand style with the deadly, derivative and indecipherable “Inland Empire” just a few years ago.

But there is a difference between entertainment and real life, from what I can tell.  But only, however, if we can tell what that difference is.  That brings us to reality.  Television.

Anyone who watches “Project Runway,” among the big 5 megahits the genre has ever spawned, can report that when it crowned last year’s winner it came close to its own shark jumping, while this year’s truly awful and unimaginative designers have finally sealed the deal with unrelenting bitchiness that not even us gay guys can cozy up to (Uh, I took a survey).

Not even he can make it work.

Will “Dancing with the Stars” jump the shark this season with transgender contestant Chaz Bono or will it be like (as someone at the Emmy nominated writing panel I went to pointed out last week) Shelly Long leaving “Cheers” and, instead of jumping the shark, the show created Kirstie Alley’s character and bought another 7 years of original programming (this was before she jumped the shark as a personality post Jenny Craig commercials).

Certainly it really doesn’t matter –except for the fact that reality TV is a hybrid between entertainment and, don’t laugh, real life.  It covers social issues and actual human beings (most/SOME celebrities are human).  You know it’s true because this season’s DWTS will bombard you with transgender rights the same way you were forced to deal with nudity when an “American Idol” contestant was disqualified for her naked pictures or Vanessa Williams was stripped of her Miss America crown in the 80s when her naked photos were exposed (I can bring it up the latter because we know who got the last laugh).

We have an obligation to look forward to innovation, as many politicians proclaim, rather than shark jumping with the same old reality and TV show cast.   We also have an obligation to look forward rather than jump the shark backwards as network TV so desperately wants you to do this season.

As evidence to the latter I offer this — “Mad Men” reinvented our view of the sixties and hasn’t jumped the shark yet – but you will soon be treated to some godawful shark jumping to the thematic subject of the 60s and 70s in the new TV lineup with the likes of “The Playboy Club,” and “Pan Am” and “Charlie’s Angeles” (I prescreened them for you, don’t bother).  Don’t they know the reason “Mad Men,” which I will AGAIN tell you was turned down by EVERY MAJOR NETWORK numerous times, was a hit was not because of the period setting (we writers call it the “gift wrapping”) but the originality and uniqueness in its storytelling??  Right, I guess not.

I haven’t left out movies of 2011. But as an avid  moviegoer I just prefer not to dwell on them.  Let me just mention some 2011 titles as “The Green Lantern,” “Arthur” and “Pirates of the Caribbean 23” and say I’m always a little happier when the fall movies open.  Still, we all fear, if we’re honest, the shark that calls itself the movie business began its approach jump three decades ago and has yet to recover.

The question is – when is going too far considered shark jumping and not innovation and when is imitation considered shark jumping and not homage?  You can’t answer that one as easy as you can an SAT question.  It takes study, intellect,  thought and analysis mixed in with all those feelings – the combination of which is not too valued in our shark jumping culture.  At least for now. #hereshoping #maybejustforme #bewarethejump

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7 thoughts on “Hashtag City

  1. Ok, I watched that clip and my first thought was “Holy shit — I can’t believe Henry Winkler knows how to water-ski.”

    My second thought was to add to the discussion with a new cultural meme that I use. The word is the TURDUCKEN. I cite wikipedia on this: “A turducken is a dish consisting of a chicken stuffed into a duck, which itself is stuffed into a turkey. The word turducken is a portmanteau of turkey, duck, and chicken or hen.” The proper use of this word is as follows: “Sylvester Stallone’s movie The Expendables is a real turducken.” And the meaning is that while the movie might actually have some tasty parts (good actors, exciting scenes) the overall effect is over-stuffed and leaden. Sly just tried too hard to put too much action, explosions, actors, bombs, girls, etc. into 103 minutes. Instead of feeling excited you feel like you ate seven big mac hamburgers. You see this same turducken happening with Thor, Green Lantern, Iron Man II, Transformers, etc. The producers of tent-pole $100M films think “more is better in every way” which may be true — but only up to a point (here the similarity to the jumping of the shark.) And this is the interesting question — where do you cross the line of “too much?” And what does the line consist of?

    In the Fonzie scenario, the line that was crossed was a rupture in believability and trust. Viewers were already pressed to the edge of credibility that a character like Arthur Fonzarelli could exist but hey — the show was a comedy, right? But why would anyone jump a shark in sky-blue swim trunks? It just makes no f’ing sense. So this was the moment that even the dumbest viewers of “Happy Days” could see the show crossed from nostalgic humor to shameless “watch me!” stupidity. Moreover, the “shark jump” on the show took place in September 1977, when America was still in the wake of a shark-mania spawned by the release of JAWS in ’75. So it’s obvious the producers of Happy Days sought to plug into the JAWS mass media feeding frenzy by adding a shark to a show about 50’s teenagers (WTF???) And in doing so, they dynamited the believability of Happy Days in another way, they killed the authenticity.

    Marketers talk about something being “authentic” if it is believable and real and human. There is no one thing that makes something authentic. You can’t just point to the plot or actors and say “that makes it real.” Some of this is implied in Malcolm Gladwell’s book BLINK, where he discusses how an art expert can tell if something is real or fake at a glance. Viewers of 80,000 hours of television become astute TV experts. And they get the entire gestalt of a movie or show and know if it feels authentic. A movie like AMADEUS makes you believe “Yes, Mozart was like this,” even if it’s not exactly historically accurate. The success of Happy Days came in large part by the presentation of a nostalgic simulated sanitized 1950’s teenager. Nobody sells authenticity better than Ritchie Cunningham (remember he was Opie, the all-american boy on Mayberry RFD!) You knew the 50’s weren’t really like Happy Days, but is was a pleasing fantasy (like Disneyland) and you could believe in that fantasy as long as they did not take it too far. When they borrowed the shark from JAWS, it was abundantly clear to viewers that they were being sold something that was not authentic, real, or human — and that’s a big turn-off and a violation of trust.

    • Well said! As for Stallone — I found myself standing next to him at a parking garage last year — well, I didn’t think it was him at first – at first I thought it was an older man who had too much plastic surgery and who had died his hair too black. Then I thought, uh, this man looks sort of like a stitched together version of a movie star…wait – that isn’t Stallone, is it? He wouldn’t be wearing one of those Tommy Bahama shirts, would he? Talk about a violation of trust!

    • Well said! As for Stallone — I found myself standing next to him at a parking garage last year — well, I didn’t think it was him at first – at first I thought it was an older man who had too much plastic surgery and who had died his hair too black. Then I thought, uh, this man looks sort of like a stitched together version of a movie star…wait – that isn’t Stallone, is it? He wouldn’t be wearing one of those Tommy Bahama shirts, would he? Talk about a violation of trust!

  2. And another thing…

    I realize the other cultural lever at work was the 70’s fascination with Evel Knievel. From wikipedia: In the winter of 1976 (months before Happy Days showed Fonzie’s jump) Knievel was scheduled for a major jump in Chicago, Illinois. The jump was inspired by the film, Jaws. Knievel was scheduled to jump a tank full of live sharks and would be televised live nationally. However, during his rehearsal, Knievel lost control of the motorcycle and crashed into a cameraman. Although Knievel broke his arms, he was more distraught over a permanent injury his accident caused to the cameraman (who lost his eye). The footage of this crash was so upsetting to Knievel, that he did not show the clip for 19 years until the documentary, Absolute Evel: The Evel Knievel Story.

    So one could argue that what killed Happy Days was that the producers felt they exhausted the 1950’s nostalgia that was the core value of the show. When they slammed together 50’s nostalgia with 70’s icons (JAWS, Evel Knievel) they ripped the show loose from it’s forgiving nostalgic setting and collapsed it into the present moment. You could forgive these shenanigans through rose-colored 50’s spectacles, but if you tried to make it “of the moment” to 1977 viewers it just felt stupid.

    • That is true and as I remember it I do believe that the Evel Knievel thing inspired them. I don’t know that they thought they’d exhausted 50s nostalgia so much as that sometimes people can’t resist referencing something in their present that they think is cool and hip – thus creating cultural overload. The latter could certainly be yet another blog subject.

  3. Personally, I prefer the more modern term, “Nuked the Fridge!”

    Loved the blog this week! Luckily, John Stewart has not jumped the shark yet. It’s insane that he seems to be the only voice of reason in our modern political/24hr news world. And that’s the real problem as I see it, the 24hr news cycle. Our news media freak show is what has jumped the shark. It’s polarizing the American public more and more everyday by feeding them constantly repeated inflammatory political rhetoric and talking points. And of course, only the craziest and loudest of political people make it onto the 24hr news, which further turns the polarization machine. Every two seconds it’s a democrat or a republican pundit blasting away with this rhetoric. Then you kind of get CNN attempting to play things balanced and more factual, but half the time they are focusing on absurdly moronic stories or gimmicks in their quest for ratings. Did you see that intro to their Tea Party Republican debate? The way overproduced intro that put labels on all the candidates before they spoke a word? Wolf Blitzer then announcing them and having them run up on stage like this is some variety show? It was disgusting. At least when Happy Days jumped the shark nobody was turning to Fonzie for their political education.

    As for Entertainment TV (let’s lighten things up), I’ve always thought that American shows simply go on far too long. At a certain point it becomes about ratings first and foremost, rather than telling a story and conveying character. I truly admire the “long form” narrative inherent in a miniseries or tv show and how it allows for exploring characters and worlds in more depth than a film could. Most shows just end up going past the point where the story ended, though.

    I love how the British original of “The Office” only went two seasons. Then, done. It wrapped up every character arc beautifully, and then the show was over. Compare that to the remake which had nothing left to say after Season 3. Back in high school, I really loved the show “24.” But, again, at the end of Season 3 every character’s journey was completed. The show even made a pretty deep, bittersweet statement that tied together everything we had seen up to that point. It felt like a finale…and then it kept going…and going… Every season after that just copied what Season 1, 2 or 3 had done and made it BIGGER (ok, it kind of worked in the second half of Season 5, but other than that the show was awful). None of those seasons had Jack progress as a character, and all of them started killing off characters that had nowhere else to go.

    I know you’re a big fan of Dexter, but personally, I felt like they copped out in Season 2 with a deus ex machina. Instead, they could have logically completed the arcs they daringly began at the season’s opening, which likely would have ended the show.

    In every show, what should matter the most are your character arcs. With every show there comes a point where the characters reach their logical endpoint, but the program is such a hit that they keep it going. Then, the only way to sustain the show is to make the plots/conflicts bigger and Bigger and BIGGER and more ridiculous until a point comes where you cross a line and “Jump the Shark.” You’ve gone too big. Then they try and go small and “back to their roots,” but it’s just dull and boring. It’s too late.

    “Lost” was probably the most painful shark jumping for me. Every character arc was completed in the Season 1 finale, but somehow they still found a way to sustain the show on plot alone for another 4 seasons. They were just one away from pulling it off! And then, in the Season 5 finale/Season 6 premiere, they jumped the shark. They had ALMOST made it.

    • The John Lithgow season of “Dexter” was one of the best (season 4?). But American TV, and movies for that matter, just can’t help themselves when it comes to “maximizing” a hit. We love to milk, milk, milk things to death. Beat ’em into the ground. And then stomp on them when, for some mysterious reason, they work no longer. It’s the American way. We want more, more, more until we don’t and then wonder how we could have ever wanted it in the first place – and then go on a campaign to actively hate that thing we used to really want. I agree – can’t some things just end? Like a great book or a good love affair? Also, it takes a huge amount of will power for most people to turn down millions of dollars in favor of artistic integrity. Though how many new kitchens and Masserati’s does own need?

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