When Good Media Goes Bad (or Tonight on Fox: When Jumped Sharks Attack)
by Jason B. Bell

Some of you may be familiar with a phrase that's being used more and more lately in media-related talk: "jumping the shark." It refers to that episode of Happy Days where the Fonz wanted to prove that he was still cool, that he still had "it," so he did a big stunt where he jumped over a shark on his motorcycle--and of course proved that the show itself no longer had "it." At least, that's what I hear happened in that episode. I, like a lot of viewers, had already lost any interest in the show by then. I'm not one to use that phrase much myself, but this past Sunday's (April 21, 2002) Fox lineup not only dared for that phrase to be used, but lived up to it quite well.

It's become painfully clear to many of us over the past few years that The Simpsons no longer has "it" anymore, and is mostly just going through the motions. It's just not really funny or entertaining anymore... it's just there, going on, as our site's own Noby Nobriga once commented, just because everyone expects it to. With this week's episode, the show's writers literally tell us that they have reached the same conclusion. At the end of this clip show episode, there was a series of still images of alleged story ideas for upcoming episodes--including one of Homer ski-jumping over a shark--while a voiceover sings sarcastically about how the show is just going to go on for years because they still have lots of great ideas left. So... at least they know they're running on momentum alone. Still doesn't make it any better, though. And it could be argued that one of the reasons the show is floundering is because the writers are relying too much on in-jokes and self-referential humor like what happened here.

Oh, and someone correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't this week's Simpsons the first time that the aliens Kang and Kodos have appeared in a "real" non-Halloween episode? Not to mention that at least one of the clips used in the flashback scenes was actually from a Halloween episode... That's my last big criticism of where the show has gone lately. Where the show was once a satire of American suburban family life, it's now become a series of one ridiculously outrageous situation after another. It's getting hard to tell what the difference is between the Halloween episodes and the regular ones, if there even is any these days.

As if that weren't enough, that same night's episode of The X-Files (actually titled "Jump the Shark") was just sad. And I don't mean how the deaths of the Lone Gunmen characters were emotionally sad, because they weren't. Don't get mad at me for spoiling it for you if you haven't seen the episode yet. The episode spoils itself just fine on its own with non-stop foreshadowing so blatant and heavy it's like being hit over the head repeatedly with a brick that has the words "The Lone Gunmen Are Going To Die" carved on it. By the time it was over, I was almost glad the Gunmen were dead, just so I wouldn't have to listen to another heavy-handed melodramatic speech about how it's all over for them, and how their time has come and gone, and how guys who never give up never really die. When they finally did die, and at the funeral scene at the end, I felt absolutely nothing for these characters that I had enjoyed watching for so many years (and hey, I'm one of the few people who actually liked the short-lived Lone Gunmen series, despite all its flaws). The stupid and needless way they died didn't help too much--I mean, you'd think Frohike could have easily allowed Byers and Langly to escape before shutting himself in with the terrorist guy about to release the deadly plague, but it was as if the characters had read the script and just ignored all logic in order to get their dramatic death scene. The way the whole passing-of-the-torch was so obviously engineered and practically spelled out in Byers's last words, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Jimmy, Yves, and Kimmy (and probably even Fletcher too) become "The New Lone Gunmen" for future X-Files movies or spinoffs or comic books or paperback novels. (Assuming that the original Gunmen themselves don't get brought back somehow first.)

When it comes down to it, there was no poignancy to the deaths of the Gunmen. There was no dramatic reason for it, as the entire episode was so transparent in its being written solely for the purpose of shutting up fans who wondered how the Lone Gunmen series finale cliffhanger would be resolved and to put an end to the Gunmen. If they had died when they were attacked while protecting Scully's baby a few episodes back, then maybe that would have at least had some dramatic impact and purpose. Unfortunately, this episode seemed to exist for no real reason other than to just attempt to shock longtime viewers, and as a result, I couldn't feel the least bit of sympathy for these characters in the end.

This leads me to the main point I'm trying to get at here. Sure, it's a trend to jump on the bandwagon to bash something once its popularity has started to wane. I'm not really a fan of that trend (which is why I kind of hate that my first article for the site here has to be like this), and it's easy to start to sound like the kind of obsessively critical fan that the Comic Book Guy character from The Simpsons parodies. Unfortunately, it's inevitable that when, like the Fonz going out of his way to prove himself, creators become more concerned with proving that they can be clever than with being true to storytelling and characterization, then the audience is going to turn away.

When a work of fiction is well-made, whether in a TV show or a book or a movie or whatever, the characters feel like more to us than simple automatons being strung along by their puppetmasters. That's the magic of storytelling--the tendency to get caught up in the fun, the excitement, the drama, and/or the humor of worlds that may not be real, but can be related to. When the creators of a work of fiction get tired, when they run out of ideas, when they stop trying, when they stop caring, when it becomes more about the creators than the creations themselves, that's when those fictional worlds become places we don't get caught up in anymore. That life, that magic, that "it" that's present in all good stories has been pointlessly tossed away for ego's sake. Just like Byers, Langly, and Frohike.

Hopefully the next thing I review won't force me into rant mode... I really do like media. That's why I hate so much to see good media go bad.

Copyright 22 Apr 2002 We Like Media.
You may email Jason B. Bell.

Click here for the actual Jump the Shark site.