Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Five Great Shows That Almost Jumped the Shark

Between the firing of Dan Harmon on Community and the endless retooling (and eventual cancelation) of Up All Night, NBC has filled the current TV season with dread and frustration. But it wouldn’t be the first time a show has been in trouble. With that in mind, here are five great shows that nearly jumped the shark but managed to rebound and reclaim their former glory.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks may have been the water cooler event of the early-90s, but after a remarkable first season, showrunner David Lynch succumbed to network pressure and revealed Laura Palmer’s killer. With no central mystery tying the show together, Lynch exited, leaving Peaks’ writing staff without a clue on how to continue. So they did what any confused writing team does: They turned the show into a joke. Characters would routinely get amnesia, causing them to believe that they were confederate soldiers or in high school. Others were locked in literal and figurative romantic imprisonments, which prevented them from doing anything entertaining. It was a tragedy. The show that changed television was a shadow of its former self.

Sometime around the last quarter of season two, however, Twin Peaks got its groove back. Kyle MacLachlan retook center stage and dove back into the engaging and weird mysteries that originally defined the show. Rather than creating twelve diverging plots, Mark Frost, the show’s unsung hero, connected the town through another murder and brought some intrigue back to the Pacific Northwest. By the time the last episode rolled around, David Lynch was back in the director’s chair and the show jumped down the lucid rabbit holes that made the first season so great. Unfortunately, the dip in quality was too much, and the show was not brought back for a third season.

Arrested Development

A sacred cow, for sure, but at least Arrested Development was willing to admit that it came close to jumping the shark — and we’re not talking about Henry Winkler’s literal jump over a dead shark on his way to Burger King. Season three of Arrested Development follows its flawless predecessor with a slight retooling and a bizarre plot about a mysterious family. For five episodes at the onset of season three, the Bluth Family pretty much abandons the idea of staying together and joins an extended James Bond parody involving a new character, Rita, Michael’s mentally challenged love interest, played by Charlize Theron.

Even “bad” Arrested Development at this time is better than any other show, but compared to the rest, these episodes are easily the show’s weakest. Of course, this wasn’t entirely Mitch Hurwitz’s fault. Thanks to the tremendous lack of support from Fox, Arrested Development made cuts to the series as early as season two, causing the Mr. F arc to stick out like a sore thumb.

It wouldn’t last long, though. The final seven episodes are as good as any, with the final four parodying every Jumping The Shark trope in the book. Guest stars and 3D abound, Arrested Development finishes its initial run in fine form.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Seasons one through four saw great development in the mythos and budget of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The show, which started as homemade pilot, now had one of TV’s biggest stars, Danny DeVito, and a budget that could set characters on fire. But by season five the vivid colors of HD had replaced Sunny’s dark video grime. Then, the sponsors moved in. From a gag about a Coors sign reminding customers of the Paddy’s Pub’s fresh Coors to setting scenes under the shadow of Subway’s new breakfast menu to a plot about replacing American currency with Dave and Buster’s points, the gang had officially sold out.

Season six and seven got back on track. Kaitlin Olson and Glenn Howerton finally matched the energy of breakout star Charlie Day, and Rob McElhenney gained 25 pounds. Solid all around. Sunny may show signs of wear, but it has yet to fall back into season five’s worst moments.

30 Rock

30 Rock was a breath of fresh air when it premiered in 2006. Following the untimely demise of Arrested Development, no other show was as fast or smart as Tina Fey’s parody of her time at SNL, and for the first three seasons, it seemed like nothing could slow it down.

Then the show hit a lull. In 30 Rock’s attempt to actually capture an audience, the show added catch phrases, turned Jenna, Tracy, and Kenneth into caricatures, and ended every episode proving Liz Lemon’s corporate overlords right. A failed attempt at a live episode and some very formulaic character turns didn’t stop 30 Rock from becoming the very thing it used to parody.

The show was, for the most part, consistently funny, though. So for the final two seasons, Fey put the focus back on characters. As things wrapped up, the show put its best foot forward, with the final episode becoming one of the series’ best.

The Office

The American Office has been far more sordid affair than its British counterpart. After a dismal first season, the show went on to be not only one of the most popular on television, but also one of the funniest. As seasons three, four, and five pressed on, the show hit a comfortable groove and hit two suitable endings: Pam and Jim’s wedding and Michael Scott’s departure. Having lost its star and primary emotional arc, and despite massive speculation, The Office continued.

Drops in quality can be seen as early as the wedding, but the show really went into a tailspin after The Office lost its boss. As other series regulars began to leave, and every season seemed destined to be its last, it took an official final season to bring back original showrunner, Greg Daniels, to sort out this mess. It’s not perfect — primarily in the onscreen sound guy department — but it’s certainly an improvement.

The jury’s still out on whether The Office can hold it together, but it’s hard to deny the slight return to form of the last ten episodes.

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  • DickTt

    I think you mean Season 6 for it's always sunny right? The still at the top was from a S6 episode I believe, the premiere, and as a sidenote, IMO Season 6 was mostly terrible. S5 had some great episodes (Intervention, Flipadelphia, the Mortgage Crisis, Kitten Mittens, etc) but the way S6 started off the with the marriage and divorce episodes was terrible, and it never really rebounded, although there are a few funny eps toward the end of the season. S7 it got back on track.

    • DickTt

      Also this could just be my opinion. Comedy is always subjective but in my experience talking with friends and reading reviews on the AV club, it seems like the reactions to sunny episodes vary pretty wildly.

      Also RE: the quality of season 6, I believe at one point Daniel Tosh even called them out on tosh.0 saying something to the effect of "___ is more disappointing than the current season of It's Always Sunny".

    • 11

      Season 5 is generally regarded as one of Sunny's best seasons, so the guy is either mixing his seasons up or just has a silly opinion.

  • http://twitter.com/MatManz Matt Manzella

    This season of The Office has been tons better, I agree. A shame most of the audience has abandoned it. Can't wait for tonight's episode.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.furda Stephen Furda

    yeah, season five of Sunny may be my favorite, so that's an odd choice

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    Wow; I <3 the wonky commitment to the primetime soap format that Twin Peaks stuck with, & the "MR. F" storyline is one of my favorites. How about that.

    • Overnight Failure

      Agreed. In both shows, I believe any near-shark-jumping can mostly be chalked up to network interference. Twin Peaks was forced to solve it's core mystery; and AD was dealing with the pressure of a truncated last season…

  • Annie G.S.

    I cannot even watch The Office at all anymore. The characters are no longer real to me, and it is too painful to watch. And yes, I have tried recently. Last week, I had to turn it off after a few minutes.

  • sean

    How did 30 Rock have 'A failed attempt at a live episode?' Was the episode not broadcast? Please explain this failed attempt at criticism.

    • elmer

      agreed i thought this episode (or these, rather – both the east coast and west coast shows) were so funny and fresh

      • Brendan Jordan

        I agree it was not an outright failure, but it wasn't very good either. Their second attempt was far more successful.

  • Anthony Coro

    Despite what Alec Baldwin and some critics would have you think, I truly have never understood the feeling that 30 Rock was ever in a slump. Certainly, there were always comparatively weak episodes here and there, but the only period where it faltered creatively was at the very beginning. And really, by the fourth episode, it became stellar.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BusterAbbott Buster Abbott

    Could 'Cheers' be on this list? Diane leaving and Rebecca joining the show could've been an easy shark-jump moment and it took a while to really capture the Rebecca Howe character, but Cheers was still firing on all cylinders.

  • Jackie Officecouch

    Somewhat confused…30 Rock had 2 live episodes: one in Season 5 and another in Season 6. While both differed in quality, I would hardly consider them failed attempts.

    Then again, I'm a hardcore 30 Rock apologist (hence my name), so while the middle seasons weren't 100% awesome, they were still funnier than most anything on air.

  • Overnight Failure

    "… but the show really went into a tailspin after The Office lost its boss. As other series regulars began to leave, and every season seemed destined to be its last, it took an official final season to bring back original showrunner, Greg Daniels, to sort out this mess."

    Steve Carell left in season 7, 3/4 of the way through, ushering in an arc featuring Will Ferrell that I think still stands as the shows lowest ebb. Anyway, I guess by "every season seemed destined to be its last" you mean the 8th did, but there was a ninth and ultimately final season after all… I don't think there was much question the show would continue except around the time Carell called it quits. Say what you will about how the show has progressed without him, Yes, BJ Novak and Mindy Kaling moved on too, but I think they've done as well as could reasonably be expected.

    • Ben Culture

      Not only has The Office jumped the shark, but Dwight as a character has jumped his own shark.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasonfarr Jason Farr

    At the risk of sounding like a hipster doofus and internet jerk I would like to say that 2 of these shows shouldn't be on this list. But for very different reasons.
    30 Rock shouldn't because it didn't come close to jumping the shark. It stayed pretty consistently on it's creative level.
    The Office shouldn't be on this list because it has jumped the shark. I hate to say it cause a lot of people I admire were/are involved with the show. But I don't see how it didn't jump the shark.

  • Edo

    Community did jumped the shark with Season 4.

  • Brendan Jordan

    I have to disagree with Matt's saying The Office has improved at all this season. It honestly seems even worse than last year.

  • Froggage

    "The Office" has absolutely jumped the shark — more than once, if that's even possible. It lost its freshness about four seasons ago, and they probably should have pulled it when Steve Carell left; yes, it's an ensemble cast, but his character was central, and the show's been running on fumes ever since.

  • Ben Culture

    I just started watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, just finished Season 4. I'm surprised there has been as many as 10 seasons, because "The Nightman Cometh" really felt like a shark jump. I love the show, but I would've thought Season 4 or 5 would be the last. A sordid loser like Charlie Kelly suddenly composes a semi-coherent musical? No. No way. People don't go back to doing scut work in a bar after that (not that any of the characters seem to work, or even keep the pub open, anymore). You had to suspend so much disbelief for that episode to work. It really just felt like the actors wanted to show off talents their characters would never have. "The Gang Cracks the Liberty Bell" was pretty bad, too. But at least they shot someone in the head.