My recent blog entry on the precipitous decline in quality of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time has me wondering about those moments when a series of books, or a television show, or a film franchise, take that almost inevitable plummet from something we once loved to something that, at best, earns our disinterest, and, at worst, irritates us with how unabashedly its potential was squandered.
The contemporary pop culture vernacular calls these moments “jumping the shark.” This is an idiom whose meaning has expanded and evolved over the years, but it’s always boiled down to being a convenient shorthand for those moments in a franchise that mark the point-of-no-return from when it was great, to when it was not. For those who are not literate in the language of pop culture, “jumping the shark” refers specifically to that infamous episode of the sitcom Happy Days when Fonzie, on water skis, jumps over a shark, definitively marking the point where the writers had run out of ideas and were relying on gimmicks.
But when has something truly jumped the shark, and when has it simply veered into a new but perfectly valid direction that leaves some of its audience behind?
Some claim that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was never the same after Buffy and crew graduated from high school. True, it never was the same, but different doesn’t always equate to worse. Moving Buffy from high school to college, and then from college into the “real world,” allowed Whedon and company to explore other avenues of the show’s metaphorical nature. If monsters and vampires could be metaphors for the turmoils of high school, why couldn’t the show deliver similar metaphors for the confusion and pressures of higher education, or the scary, sobering realities of the responsibilities of adulthood? The arrival of Buffy’s sister Dawn was not a cheap plot twist to introduce a new character, but a clever use of the show’s mystical mythos and magical setting to force Buffy into a parental role. Pairing up Buffy with Spike was not a cynical move to have Buffy romantically involved with yet another vampire, but rather a logical character progression to illustrate how far Buffy had fallen into depression and self-loathing.
Battlestar Galactica didn’t jump the shark when its second season cliffhanger was followed by a four month story gap. It was simply a bold move to shake up the status quo and send the story into new directions. (Though the whole “final five” rigmarole might be a different matter.)
The Chronicles of Riddick was not a bad movie simply because it wasn’t trying to recreate Pitch Black. Say what you want about the quality of the film, but it would have been a mistake to simply emulate the original.
Tales from Watership Down does not fail as a sequel to Watership Down because it doesn’t live up to the epic nature of its predecessor. Quite the opposite. It succeeds because it doesn’t even attempt to capture the same scope and breadth of the original novel.
Unless a story gets completely gutted of its essential traits that made it stand out as something special in the first place, shouldn’t our first instinct be curiosity about where the story is going, rather than a knee-jerk dismissal of anything that doesn’t fit our comfortable status quo? Rather than being bitter about creative change, maybe we should consider the possibility that the creators are simply bold enough to try something new rather than cynically driving a property into the ground through stagnation.
You may prefer that brand of tea that you’ve become accustomed to, but maybe you’ll end up enjoying that mug of thick, hot coffee as well.