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Jumping the shark 

by Kathy M. Newman


This year marked the relatively quiet exodus of several long-running television shows, including 3rd Rock from the Sun (NBC), Nash Bridges, Walker, Texas Ranger (CBS), Two Guys and a Girl (ABC) and Star Trek Voyager (UPN). To figure out where these shows went wrong, I had to consult the definitive fan Web site for assessing a show's denouement.


The site is called "Jump the Shark," and it was started by Jon Hein in 1997. The title of his site originated when his college roommate pointed out that Happy Days was never the same after the writers had Fonzie jump over a shark while on water skis. Hein's site -- www.jumptheshark.com -- allows fans to weigh in on the question of when a TV show, past or present, made a fatal casting/plot/hairstyle error. Assessing the precise moment when a show "jumped the shark" is a matter of public contention, and fans duke it out on the Web site.


Was Jonathan Winters the ungainly demise of Mork & amp; Mindy? Did Scooby Doo start to suck before or after the introduction of Scrappy? You can also check the horizon for shark fins where your favorite current shows (Buffy, The West Wing, South Park) are concerned. Here is the collective take on this season's biggest cancellations.


A majority of fans agree that their beloved alien satire, 3rd Rock from the Sun jumped the shark when Vicki (Jan Hooks) bore the alien baby of guest star William Shatner (who played the alien "Big Giant Head") in May of last year. Other fans argue (as did Lithgow himself) that the show could not withstand NBC's relentless time-slot shifting: 3rd Rock occupied 18 different time slots in five years.


Diehard fans say that Nash Bridges never jumped, but others agree that Nash jumped the shark when Yasmine Bleeth joined the cast. As one fan attests, when Don Johnson and Yasmine "had sex with each other," at the end of the fourth season, "I finally knew this show jumped the shark for me!" Other shark-jumping nominations include: changing the theme-tune to "I've Got a Friend in You," special guest star Stone Cold Steve Austin and Don Johnson never wearing a seatbelt!


Many contend that Walker, Texas Ranger never jumped, while others agree that when Norris started singing the opening theme tune, and changed his ride from a GMC to a Dodge, the show got "a little wussy." A more caustic fan argues that "this show jumped the shark sometime back in the '70s when someone convinced Chuck that he could act." Others defend the show to the bitter end: "[Chuck Norris's] acting is awesome! I like the theme song better than before. The rest of you suck."


I secretly liked Two Guys and a Girl until I, being a girl, lived with two guys in Boston (where the show is set) for three months. The two guys loved this show, and they also loved leaving hocks of hams on the counter overnight, half-drunk beer cans in the recycling bin and falling asleep on the couch holding half-eaten cartons of Haagen-Daas. Life sucked. So, after awhile, did this sitcom, especially, according to fans at Jump the Shark, when Pete never told Sharon how he felt about her and she ended up marrying a dork. Tiffani (Amber) Thiessen guest-starred on the show last spring, which fans failed to note as a sure sign of shark-jumping (think Beverly Hills 90210). ABC didn't help matters when they moved the flailing comedy to Friday night, thus forfeiting the show's 20-something demographic.


I tremble to go toe-to-toe with Star Trek fans, but the page at Jump the Shark for Star Trek Voyager is longer than all the other show's pages above put together. Feminist trekkies loved STV for its woman captain, Janeway, but fans at the site are evenly divided between "never jumped" and "jumped in the first episode." The bodacious borg-character quieted the complaining of many adolescent male trekkies, but Janeway was a hero only to some. Fans eagerly await next year's installment, Star Trek Enterprise, which will star Quantum Leap's dishy Scott Bakula as captain.


While I am often loathe to trash television, for the simple reason that it is too easy, Jump the Shark is a compelling fan outlet in which the faithful can debate the merits and demerits of plot, style and casting. As Hein argues, fans know when something occurs on a television program that is "inconsistent with the fictional world the show has created." At Jump the Shark, everyone's a critic -- but no one loses a limb.

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