Good TV shows turning into bad (or lesser, or just different) TV shows is a phenomenon that all us TV watchers should be familiar with. It’s so common, in fact, that we have an irritating catchphrase for it. You know the one I mean. The internet hasn’t been able to go more than four or five paragraphs without invoking it for the last few years. (It kind of makes me want to go around jamming forks into the webbing between people’s typin’ fingers.)
I think it’s clear that the backlash is on for this expression. A Yahoo! search for “jump the shark has jumped the shark” returned 649 results; a search for the inversion “has jump the shark jumped the shark” came up with another 26, including an article that ran in Esquire under that title. So some meaningful but small percentage of us is already sick of it. But more to the point, “jump the shark,” as catchy and concise as it may be, is not the best way to describe what happens to a show you love to make you no longer love it so. I propose as an alternative: X turned into Bizarro-X. (Where X is the show that has suddenly lost its way.)
You see, Diane, I think this is exactly what happens. At some point the various external pressures exerting themselves on a show build up to the point that the show can no longer resist. It collapses, and then is reborn as something… else. Maybe it’s producer and network meddling; maybe it’s the actors getting bored and reinventing their characters; maybe it’s writing staff turnover; maybe it’s the core creative force shifting his or her focus over to newer and fresher projects (hello, Matt Groening and Joss Whedon). Whatever combination it is exactly, the end result is always the Bizarro-show. It looks and acts a lot like the show it used to be, but somehow it’s fundamentally different. It says “hello” when it means “goodbye.”
The best live example is – of course – “The Simpsons.” (Excuse me for one moment while I divert into a tangential rant. The response to this example is going to be split between vigorous head nodding of agreement, and finger wagging of dissent topped with a blast of hot air. The hot air will consist almost entirely of the phrase “it’s still better than 99% of the crap on TV.” I hate this idea down to its loathsome molecules. For one thing, it’s probably false. But more importantly, it’s a self-negating argument. You think that almost all of what is on TV is “crap,” which – without digging too heavily into the semantics of the metaphor – is most assuredly not worth watching at all because it sucks so hard; and yet your argument in favor of the new “Simpsons” is that it’s “still” [which I take to mean “at least” or more precisely “at minimum”] better than said worthless excrement? Well bully for the new “Simpsons”! What a precipitous summit it has scaled! I shall reprogram my DVR forthwith! …As you can see, this argument is fundamentally braindead. “The Simpsons” is still better than “Deal or No Deal” means there are two shows I won’t be watching, only I hate one of them a little more than the other; even crap can be graduated.) Ahem… YES, “The Simpsons” long ago lost its way. The exact date differs depending on who you ask, but most people of merit and intellect realize it was before the season numbering got into double digits. The show that now calls itself “The Simpsons” has superficially similar but atomically various characters from the ones that made it famous. Its plotlines and jokes hew closer to what is now known as “The Family Guy” Standard: random, grotesque, pop culture-regurgitating (but not “satirizing” or “skewering”). “The Simpsons” has become The Bizarro-Simpsons. And fittingly, when it means to say “hello,” it actually says “goodbye.” We concur; we wave our hand sadly and turn away. (If this were “The Family Guy” or a new “Simpsons” episode, this would cue “The Lonely Man Theme” from the old “Hulk” show. And our viewers would chuckle knowingly because hey, they recognize that music! Funny! This same comedic concept drives the inexplicable “Date Movie”/”Epic Movie”/”Scary Movie” meatwagon.)
It’s unpleasant when a show becomes its own Bizarro-version. It makes an astute viewer uncomfortable. To bring up another meme the internet has beaten into the ground, Bizarro-shows sit squarely in The Uncanny Valley. They resemble a good show in most ways but something is a little off, a little alien, about them. So we hear Homer explain that a panda bear raped him and we shudder with horror that seems to emanate from a primal place within. Homer doesn’t get raped by panda bears. Why does this character who looks and sounds like Homer act like Peter Griffin? Let Peter Griffin get bear-raped – seriously, let him get bear-raped – but for god’s sake, leave Homer alone. (Cue “Leave Britney alone!” guy joke. Viewer recognizes and laughs. Funny!)
I have said (twice now, I believe – not gonna go back and check) that when a show becomes its own Bizarro-version, it has lost its way. This is a helpful metaphor. Think of a show like a locomotive. It’s common to say that when a show becomes bad or less watchable than it was before that it has “gone off the rails,” a common-enough train metaphor for the disastrous loss of what was once positive forward momentum. But I think what has actually happened is an unanticipated and unwanted track switch. Someone threw the lever dealie that flipped it over to another set of rails, and now instead of going to some place awesome (like Vegas) we’re going someplace similar-looking but crappy (like Atlantic City). We end up at CiCi’s instead of Giordano’s. And it’s only after we’ve choked down a plateful of $2.99 buffet pizza that we realize, hey – something ain’t right.
At that point, Diane, the choice is yours. Stay at CiCi’s and eat crap, even if it’s better than 99% of the other crap; or tell the waitstaff to go fuck itself and go on an epic quest to find Giordano’s. When you get there, trust me – it will have been worth the walk.