10 Hit Television Shows that "Jumped the Shark"

10 Hit Television Shows that “Jumped the Shark”

In the television industry, the term “jump the shark” was conceived in the late 1970’s. It is defined as the moment when a hit television series takes that almost inevitable turn from greatness to mediocrity or worse. Most shows will “jump the shark” if they have been on the air for enough years but there are a handful that seem to live up to their greatness from day one.

What does jump the shark mean?

“Jumping the Shark” was born from an episode of the classic sitcom “Happy Days.” In a multi-episode plot in season five, the Cunningham family and gang joined Fonzie (Henry Winkler) in Hollywood, where he had a screen test to become the next James Dean. Soon enough, the Fonz mixes it up with some California beach bums, and they soon make a bet as to whether the Fonz and the head beach bum can water ski up a ramp and over a caged shark. The beach bum chickens out at the last second, but the Fonz feels he must go through with it to prove his “coolness.” Naturally, he successfully completes the jump but fails to become the next James Dean. It was then that the now familiar term entered journalistic consciousness in regards to television and has stuck.

Sitcoms seem to be the greatest victims of “jumping the shark” as comedy is the hardest medium to achieve great stature. Imagine how difficult it is to make an audience laugh week in and week out for several years while trying to keep it fresh. A few classics have pulled it off, such as Cheers and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Dramas are a little easier to maintain, as it is easier to create tension than humor. Gunsmoke and Bonanza were two long-running westerns that maintained their popularity even though some stories were recycled. NYPD Blue was another popular drama that remained strong, though a bit run down, and was one of the few shows that benefited from major cast changes.

Presently, there are some long-running shows such as The Simpsons, E.R., Saturday Night Live, and Law and Order that most fans would admit aren’t quite as fresh and entertaining as they once were, even if they are still enjoyed by their fans.

What causes a TV show to jump the shark?

Longevity is the obvious answer. There are only so many stories that can be told over the course of the years. Audiences are finicky about their favorite shows so if they change too much it’s a turn off to many.

Cast changes are another problem as well. More often today than before, stars of big hit shows often leave in search of bigger and better things on the big screen. This results in having to bring in new characters to an already successfully defined show, which often results in a lack of chemistry or audiences refusing to accept the change. This was less of a problem up to the 1980s as it was considered a major taboo to work in television, and most television stars were stuck in the medium, unable to make the jump to the big screen. Even when stars such as John Belushi and Bill Murray made the very successful transition, it was considered a fluke. Some of the biggest stars of the ’70s and ’80s, such as Henry Winkler, Carroll O’Connor, John Ritter, and Tom Selleck, failed to successfully make it on the big screen.

Sometimes, it shows simply running out of steam. Everything that can be done has happened, and you can almost see certain shows trying too hard to keep the fledgling series alive. Certain actors were wise enough to see this before it happened and have actually ended their series early so as to not fall into that rut. Bob Newhart ended his two big hits (The Bob Newhart Show; Newhart) despite strong ratings and weekly quality episodes. Dick Van Dyke and creator Carl Reiner agreed to end the hugely successful Dick Van Dyke Show after only five seasons for fear of a dip in quality. Some shows run a year or two too long simply because the networks pay outlandish amounts of money to their stars and creative teams to keep them going.

Here is a list of 10 hit television shows that “jumped the shark” and when that happened. This list certainly could be stretched to 20 but it has been condensed for length. There is a good possibility you could think of one or two others that are not included here.

ALL IN THE FAMILY (1971-1979)


No show in the history of television would break ground on taboo subjects as this show did. Following the lives of the Bunker family, headed by the bigoted Archie (Carroll O’Connor), subject matter such as rape, racism, breast cancer, draft dodging and politics were broached. Rob Reiner was cast as Archie’s son-in-law, Mike “Meathead” Stivic, a liberal who happened to be Polish and who happened to be a major thorn in Archie’s side. At the end of the seventh season, both Reiner and Sally Struthers (as Gloria, Archie’s daughter, and Mike’s wife) decided to leave the show to pursue other opportunities.

The Stivic’s were written out by having them move to California, where Mike had secured a teaching job. As is the case with other shows losing top players, a new character named Stephanie was introduced in the way of a little girl. Stephanie was abandoned by her father, and the Bunker took her in.

Audiences did not warm up to her character, and Archie lost a lot of his edge without Meathead there to verbally spar with. Despite a two-part Christmas episode that found the Bunkers in California visiting the Stivics and discovering that the Stivics were divorcing, the show had become stale and left the air at the end of the season.

The next year, O’Connor brought the character back to the ill-conceived Archie Bunker’s Place, which opened with the death of Edith Bunker, one of the most beloved female characters in television history. The show didn’t last.



One of the greatest sitcoms of all time, starring Andy Griffith and Don Knotts as the sheriff and deputy of Mayberry.

The character of Andy Taylor was introduced on an episode of The Danny Thomas Show, and the character got a show of his own in 1960. Knotts was cast as inept deputy Barney Fife, and Griffith soon realized it was Knotts who was the comic to his straight man, and the show took off. The “jump the shark” moment was less a moment than a change.

After five seasons, Knotts decided to leave the show to pursue a movie career that would result in hits such as “The Shakiest Gun In The West,” “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” and “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.” Barney’s absence was explained by his getting a job at Mount Pilot.

For its sixth season, the show was shot in color for the first time, and Knotts was replaced by Jack Burns as deputy Warren. Naturally, Burns couldn’t hold a candle to Knotts. Realizing the show was not what it once was, Griffith arranged for Knotts to return in each of the final three seasons.

At the end of the 1968 season, Griffith decided to end the show while it was still on top, and it left the air as the number-one show of the season.

THE COSBY SHOW (1984-1992)


Bill Cosby single-handedly saved NBC with the most popular sitcom of the 1980s. It was a simple story of the Huxtable family; husband Cliff and wife Clair and their five (four in the first season) children.


Cosby broke television ground by showing an affluent African American family for the first time in primetime. Cosby’s Cliff was a doctor, and their wife Clair (Phylicia Rashad) was a lawyer. Anchored by Cosby’s terrific performance, the show was an instant hit and stayed at the top for six years.

At the start of season six, Cosby believed that Keisha Knight Pulliam, as youngest daughter Rudy, had grown up too much to be considered “just cute” like she was when she started the series at age five. Cosby decided to bring in young Raven Symone, who was cast as the stepdaughter of Huxtable’s daughter Denise. Symone was obviously trying too hard to be cute and came off more often as annoying.

Two seasons later, Erika Alexander joined the cast as Pam, who was taken in by the Huxtable family. With her came a slew of new characters to play her high school friends, and before long, the cast had swelled to over one dozen. With the arrival of Pam came the departure of ratings, and Cosby decided to end the show at the end of the 1992 season, its eighth.

DALLAS (1978 -1991)

Dallas became the most successful nighttime soap opera in the history of television, lasting an astounding 13 seasons.

With its success came many other soaps, including Dynasty, Flamingo Road, Knots Landing, and The Colby’s, among others. The story involved the lives of the Ewing family, a group of rich folks with more problems than any two governments combined. Week after week, audiences clamored in front of their television to see the betrayals, infidelities, and illegal business practices of the largely talented cast. The real revelation was Larry Hagman as J.R., one of the greatest bad guys in television history.

At the end of the second season, what is now known as the cliffhanger was born. An unknown assailant shot J.R. Ewing, and audiences had to wait four excruciating months to find out the answer to the now-famous question: Who Shot J.R.?

Most fans correctly guessed ahead of time that it was his mistress, Kristen, but it didn’t stop the show from achieving the highest ratings for a single episode since David Janssen found the one-armed man in The Fugitive some 12 years earlier. Die-hard fans have long disagreed on the “jump the shark” moment, but many seem to agree that the final shot of season 9, when long presumed dead Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) is seen in the shower, thus negating the entire season. Despite that, the show would continue for four more years.

DYNASTY (1981-1989)


Dynasty was far and away the best of the post-Dallas “rip-offs.” Once again centering on the lives of a rich family, this time the Carrington’s, America couldn’t help but settle down each week and watch the lives of millionaires fall apart to lust and greed.

John Forsythe and Linda Evans headed the cast as Blake and Crystal, but the real coup was the casting of Joan Collins as the villainous, voluptuous, vixen-ish Alexis. Alexis was every bit the equal of J.R. Ewing with the added power of seduction. With “Who Shot J.R.?” setting the bar high for season-ending cliffhangers, it was the mission of every popular show to try and end with something strong to make the audience crave for the following season.

Season five’s cliffhanger happens to be the “jump the shark” moment for Dynasty when the entire cast gathers for a large family wedding that is interrupted by armed terrorists who open fire in the church at anyone and everyone. It was known as the “Moldavian Massacre” and was the start of some silly story threads that would stretch out over an entire season.

At the start of season 8, Linda Evans left the show after only two episodes, having tired of the storylines. This was the beginning of the end of what would be its final season.

HAPPY DAYS (1974-1984)


The show that created the infamous “Jump the Shark,” Happy Days, the story of teenage and family life in the late ’50s, may also be the truest example of a show that lost what made it a hit in the first place.

The initial pilot was as a short on the anthology series “Love, American Style,” in an episode titled “Love and the Happy Days,” which featured Ron Howard, Anson “Potsie” Williams, and Marion Ross in the roles they would later reprise in the television series.

Many believe that Happy Days came to life thanks to the enormous success of George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” when, in reality, the pilot was shown before “Graffiti” was released. Within a year of the series debut, Henry Winkler, as Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, became a superstar and television icon. While season five had the “jump the shark” episode, it was season six when the series really started to take a turn for the worse with a multi-episode story involving the cast at a dude ranch.

At the end of season seven, Ron Howard and Donny (Ralph Malph) Most decided to leave the show. To cover their absence, greater attention was paid to the budding romance between daughter Joanie and Fonzie’s cousin Chachi. Fonzie got a job as a high school teacher as writers simply forgot his past as a gang leader and top mechanic.

With ratings continuing to drop as the once great show fell well below mediocrity, Happy Days finally left the air at the end of its tenth season.

MASH (1972-1983)


Based on both the novel by Richard Hooker (pseudonym), who was a doctor in Korea and the 1970 hit movie by Robert Altman, MASH followed the antics of doctors, nurses, and soldiers during the Korean War. The war itself lasted only from 1950-1952, which makes the eleven-year run of the show even more impressive.

MASH is also one of the few sitcoms that have succeeded despite major cast changes. At the end of season three, both McLean (Colonel Henry Blake) Stevenson and Wayne (Trapper John) Rogers left the show – Stevenson to pursue other series in which he was the star and Rogers in a contract dispute. Harry Morgan (Colonel Potter) and Mike Farrell (B.J. Honeycutt) replaced them.

Two years later, Larry (Frank Burns) Linville left the show feeling his character had gone as far as it could go and was replaced by David Ogden Stiers (Charles Emerson Winchester). Lastly, Gary Burghoff, who played fan favorite Radar O’Reilly, left the show two years after that. Instead of casting a new character, Jamie Farr’s role as Max Klinger was extended. Interestingly, all three replacements lasted longer than the original actors who left.

By 1980, star Alan Alda had achieved greater creative control of the show and was writing and directing more episodes each season. Alda decided to move away from the outlandish humor that had made the show so popular and concentrated on more serious ideas intermixed with humor. Despite the dramatic change in tone, the show remained popular with audiences. At the beginning of the eleventh season, Alda announced that it would be the last.

The final season strained to come up with continued new ideas, and often, the episodes were considered “oddball” in their execution. It was decided the final episode would be an event and became a two-and-a-half-hour television movie titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” in which the war finally comes to an end and everyone goes home.

The film truly was an event and became the most-watched television show in history. 23 years later, that accomplishment still stands.

ROSEANNE (1988-1997)


Comedienne Roseanne Barr created a sitcom that was the polar opposite of the hugely popular Cosby Show by taking a lower-middle-class family and making them the object of each episode.

The Connor family was headed by hard-working but sometimes unemployed Dan (John Goodman) and Roseanne, who worked various jobs through the years, including in a toy manufacturing factory as a waitress, fast food cashier, and hair salon employee. With them were their three kids, who never seemed to appreciate what they had but always knew they should have more. Along for the ride was Roseanne’s sister Jackie, who went through a myriad of boyfriends before finally getting pregnant on a one-night stand and later marrying. Viewers identified with the Connors and their problems and tuned in weekly by the millions.

As the show wound down, as most do, the show “jumped the shark” at the beginning of its ninth and final season by having the Connors win the lottery and become millionaires. This led to a long, dragged-out story of Dan leaving Roseanne, having admitted he had fallen in love with someone else. All of a sudden, the Connors weren’t the fun-loving All-American family we had come to love.

The show ended with an odd episode in which it was revealed that most of what we had seen was fictional, all coming from the mind of Roseanne, who was a writer.

SEINFELD (1990-1998)


Has any show in television history ended with such a thud as Seinfeld did?

This was a one-of-a-kind sitcom about nothing. It was basically the four main characters each caught up in a strange situation, sometimes together (in a parking garage, at a movie, in a Chinese restaurant) and sometimes separate, with each story invariably and brilliantly tying together with the others.

After seven seasons, Jerry Seinfeld wanted to call it quits, correctly feeling the show had run its course. NBC, desperate for one of its few hits to remain on the air, offered a load of money to its stars to remain for an eighth season. When they agreed, it was announced that the eighth would be its last, and judging by the lackluster episodes, it was none too soon.

The finale, a two-part spectacle that promised much more than it delivered, was a ratings blockbuster that disappointed most fans of the show.

THE X-FILES (1993-2002)


Possibly the biggest cult hit of the last twenty years was this thrilling series about two FBI investigators investigating the paranormal. Agent Fox “Spooky” Mulder (David Duchovny) headed the X-files and was a true believer in alien life and ghosts, while his partner, Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), was assigned more so to watch over Mulder and disprove his wild theories. Through the course of the series, Scully became more of a believer but always had the skeptic side available to provide more reasonable answers to cases they had investigated.

Through the years, Mulder and Scully investigated everything from UFOs to ghosts to psychics to any other kind of unusual phenomena the writers could concoct. While the show remained popular, fans began voicing their displeasure that lingering questions (What really happened to Mulder’s sister?/What was the truth behind the black oil?) were not being answered.

At the end of season seven, Duchovny elected to leave the series to pursue a movie career while Anderson was still under contract. Robert Patrick was brought in to replace Duchovny, and while he did a serviceable job, he was missed. The series lumbered on for two more seasons, with Duchovny returning several times only to remind the show’s faithful audience how missed he was.

Author Gwen

Gwen is a freelance artist and writer for film, advertising, corporate projects, and web media. She feels his expertise in the entertainment industry provides a unique opportunity to engage the public through real-life stories and over a decade of experience and knowledge.