Jumping the Shark and Surviving: A Reappraisal of the Fifth Season of ‘Happy Days’

“Jumping the shark” may be a fun trope in popular culture, but its truth in relation to the Happy Days episode from which it gets its name is questionable.

Happy Days: Season 5
Garry Marshall

After much waiting and a strong belief that it may never happen, Happy Days season five was released on DVD by Paramount and CBS towards the end of May. What does season five, which originally aired from 1977-1978, hold for a viewer? Chachi joins the cast as Fonzie’s nephew. Richie meets Lori Beth. Their romance, which will culminate in marriage and kids, begins here.

Potsie and Ralph move into a small apartment together. Fonzie goes in for a tonsillectomy on Halloween. Joanie gets her first kiss and briefly goes out with Peter Brady. Leather Tuscadero, played by Suzi Quattro, makes her first appearance. An alien named Mork from Ork visits Richie (or is it a dream?). Joanie imagines the entire cast involved in Valentine’s Day-related musical numbers. Chachi sings “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” with a group of showgirls twice his size. The Fonz and Richie dress as college coeds. Richie almost becomes a Hollywood superstar. And, the Fonz, in competition with a snooty water skier, jumps a shark.

Now that I’ve mentioned that infamous scene, the context of the season falls into place for many people, most of those being people who haven’t really watched Happy Days or only remember it from a distance. That damn shark. The Fonz in a leather jacket and white shorts waterskiing over it in slow mo. This moment in TV history originally happened in the first half of the episode titled (on the DVD) “Hollywood (Part 3)”. It aired on 30 September 1977. I don’t know the exact rating the episode received, but I do know that in that season of television, Happy Days was the second highest rated show on the air behind Laverne and Shirley.

The “received wisdom” for season five, and specifically this episode is: the moment Fonzie jumps the shark is when the series began to decline greatly in quality. This was a time when critical and viewer positivity would begin to decrease. The earlier seasons of the show, according to this wisdom, were about realistic adolescent situations from the ’50s. But, since the start of the third season, the Fonz’s character had grown in stature. At the beginning of the series, he was a vague thug who hung around the edge of the show. By the middle of season two, in an episode entitled “Guess Who’s Coming For Christmas?”, we see the human side of The Fonz and he becomes a “real” character. However, at the start of season three and a major format shift in the show was introduced: “the Fonz” gradually became more superhuman, sort of Milwaukee’s own superhero. Apparently, the fact that he jumped a shark is the last straw for some people.

I stand behind the usefulness (and eventual profitability for its creator) of the phrase “jump the shark.” I think it’s a lot of fun to use the concept behind this phrase for other TV shows. However, I also think that this iconic moment in TV history from which the idiom gets its name doesn’t live up to the trope it would become. As a fan of Happy Days for most of my life, I can assure you here that this infamous moment is in no way the moment when the show took a turn for the worse.

There are several varying reasons for my belief.

Season Premieres: This is the “softer” of the reasons, but one that is valid. The fourth, fifth and sixth seasons of Happy Days (from Autumn 1976 to the Summer of 1979) was when the show was at its peak popularity, constantly in the top five and generally in the top two or three in rankings. In the 1976-1977 season, it was the #1 show in America.

This was the time period when the Fonz became an icon. Each of those three seasons began with an hour-long episode that was a “special event”. Whether it was Fonzie falling in love, going to Hollywood or visiting a dude ranch, these were big season premieres in an era when this sort of thing really didn’t happen. Each of these episode ends with a cliffhanger resolved in a half-hour episode that aired during the next week.

Furthermore, each episode has elements that seem completely out of place in regular episodes. There is a soft focus romantic montage between the Fonz and Pinky Tuscadero. There is the Fonz riding a crazed bull to save some distant Cunningham relative’s dude ranch. And, above all the others, there is the Fonz jumping that shark. Although it is outrageous, it’s no odder, to me, than that montage or seeing the Wild Western Cunningham family. And, if you think about it, The Fonz jumping a shark is one icon (The Fonz) meeting another (Jaws). That’s as natural as Richie meeting aliens later in the season.

The Actual Ratings. There’s no sign in the ratings of the show or the continued love for the Fonz (and the show) in American society that shows that the shark jump damaged Happy Days in any way. Ratings wouldn’t begin to drop for approximately two years. But, of course, ratings don’t tell the whole story.

Other Examples Within the Season: To me, the fifth season has at least three other moments that are obviously more outrageous than a character that has become a superhero jumping a shark. The first is in the episode following the jump, “Hard Cover”. Richie meets Lori Beth. They go back to her dorm room but Richie stays past the curfew. The Fonz shows up. The guys have to dress up as college girls to keep from getting in trouble with the house mother. Potsie and Ralph Malph show up to steal their panties. The Fonz and Richie dressed in women’s robes and shower caps giggling isn’t even part of the same show as the previous episode’s shark jump.

The second possible episode is “Be My Valentine”. Joanie is alone on Valentine’s Day and imagines the main cast members involved in musical numbers. Some are OK. Potsie does fine. Some are a bit to twee, like Mr. & Mrs. Cunningham’s performance. But it is Chachi’s off-key singing with showgirls that leaves me sitting with my head tilted and mouth open. Having the Fonz jump Jaws is one thing; imagining that America wants to see the Cunningham family in musical numbers is a strangeness topped only in season nine when they do it again, and it’s even weirder that time around.

The third contender is “My Favorite Orkan”. If the show was originally about normal adolescents living in ’50s America and The Fonz’s rise to prominence somehow betrayed that, then surely our audience identification figure, Richie Cunningham, spending an episode with an alien is a betrayal of something. (Even if it’s a dream here and only becomes reality later.)

The Origin of the Phrase Itself: “Jumping the shark” was thought up by a bunch of guys in college. One of them did not like the Fonz jumping the shark, and the phrase spiraled from there and became part of pop culture. If most folks who use the phrase and believe that its origin is true have watched more than that scene from Happy Days within the past ten years, I will eat my hat. Until then, it seems to me that this notion is “received wisdom” at its most spurious. Although I love the phrase and use it myself, I simply think it a minsnomer in terms of the event from which it draws its name.

Other Examples Within the History of the Show. Happy Days ran for 11 seasons, from January of 1974 to August of 1984. There are about 250 episodes. The program began as a reaction to all of Norman Lear’s cheap, topical, very popular shot-on-video sitcoms. Then Watergate happened, and people wanted to escape reality again. So, the first two seasons of Happy Days were shot with a single camera and had a laugh track, like ’60s sitcoms had been. Each episode was a mini-film. Those episodes are very “realistic”; the majority of them deal with Richie trying to “pick up chicks”.

During season three, as the ratings were falling, the show became like most other sitcoms of the time, except shot on film. There was an overly raucous studio audience and realism pretty much went out the door; I don’t think I’ve ever seen the tops, bottoms and edges of as many sets as I’ve seen in Happy Days.

At the end of season seven, Richie and Ralph leave. The audience identification figure is gone, and the show weathers on without him. At the end of season nine, Joanie and Chachi leave for their spinoff. The show introduces many new characters or boosts the presence of secondary ones for season ten only. K.C., Jenny Piccolo, Roger Cunningham, his brother Flip, Eugene & Melvin Belvin, Ashley Pfister and her daughter Heather. In season 11, all these new characters are gone (with the exception of Roger); meanwhile, Joanie and Chachi have returned.

When a show is on for this long, things happen that could never have been anticipated. The emphasis shifts. No one had any clue that little Joanie from the early seasons, cracking wise and being sassy, would become the focus of the show in the end. We didn’t think Richie would be so absent from the show. Who knew the Fonz would end up with an adopted child? That’s the nature of this sort of show.

And any one of these moments could be a “jump the shark” moment. I used to think the show jumped when season three began. Nevertheless, I love The Fonz; I love his superhuman strangeness, sense of fun, and his faux code of honor. Joanie and Chachi leaving for their own show was a bigger worry because Scott Baio was a teen idol. The Fonz had an excellent running plotline with Ashley and her child. But, as this was an ensemble, in season ten, we spent a lot of time with folks we simply didn’t care about. K.C. never became a real character. As much as I love Jenny Piccoloas’ sitcom sleaziness, she never should have been a lead in the show. When Joanie and Chachi came back, Happy Days was once again done well, leaving the last season to finish the show off right.

All of these moments were big show changers. It’s moments like these that cause declines in quality. Not one outrageous moment by a character who was, frankly, already outrageous in the best possible way.

The Richie Problem: If Richie hadn’t left the show, the true “jumping of the shark” would have begun in season four, specifically the “Nose For News” episode. Richie is, in his pursuit of a story for journalism class, completely oblivious to the feelings of his best friend, Fonzie. In fact, Richie is almost nasty about prizing his story over hurting The Fonz’s feelings. If this is what Richie is going to grow up to be, I’ll pass; it feels weird that Richie would upset The Fonz in this way.

This problem gets worse in season five. Richie and Lori Beth love one another, which makes it disheartening that Richie becomes so jealous and suspicious of her. It starts happening in this season (especially during the “Fourth Anniversary Special” and “Rules To Date By”), and it doesn’t get better from there on out. Why the writers and producers thought that our lead character should suddenly become a jerk has always confused me. Luckily, Richie leaves after season four; otherwise, his attitude would have wrecked the show.

The Episode that Truly Fulfills the “Jump the Shark” Premise: We can actually see a point two years later where this actually happened. “Shotgun Wedding (Part 1)” the opening episode of season seven, which was a crossover with Laverne and Shirley. In the episode, everyone goes to the woods, during which The Fonz and Richie go trolling barns looking for farmer’s daughters. This episode has a scene where The Fonz and Richie disguise themselves inside a cow costume to get across a pasture, in a moment that is rather similar to a scene from the 1984 film Top Secret! I adore Happy Days, but that is the moment where I said, “Holy crap! What’s happening now?”

Simultaneously, the ABC network moved Laverne and Shirley to a new timeslot. From January 1976 to the summer of 1979, Tuesday nights was Happy Days at 8PM and Laverne and Shirley at 8:30PM. Then, the network switched Laverne & Shirley with the relatively new show Angie. In the 1978-1979 season, Laverne and Shirley was #1 and Happy Days was either #3 or #4. In the 1979-1980 season, because of the time change —and possibly that cow outfit —Happy Days was #17 and Laverne & Shirley didn’t place in the Top 30.

The Laverne and Shirley ratings improved a bit when the original schedule was restored, but they went back down not long after. The Happy Days ratings hovered around 15 and 16 for a bit and then dropped, never going back into the rarefied air of before. So, it seems to me that the more likely “jump the shark” moment was either that cow outfit or a bad scheduling choice from the network. The ratings bear this one out.

“Received wisdom” is not the best thing to rely on. Examples of this include Genesis stank after Peter Gabriel left, Get Smart faded rapidly once 86 and 99 got married and had kids, all ’80s slashers are garbage. All three of these are, frankly, false. But because they are things that someone has said, and someone lazier than that first person picked up and carried on, there are people that believe these things without even bothering to examine the truth.

Season five of Happy Days is now under the same banner: mention “jumping the shark” and The Fonz and that’s the end of it. People are assured that that’s the moment Happy Days went downhill, despite the fact that there are any of a dozen moments throughout the show when it more conceivably “jumped the shark” in the truest sense. And the actual jumping is a moment that occurs in the first half of an episode whose real focus is whether Richie should stay in Hollywood and become a star.

I think Happy Days did jump the shark, but not in season five. There’s no discernible difference in quality between this season and the ones around it. There are good episodes (“Fonsilectomy”, the “Fonzie and Leather” two-parter, “Richie Almost Dies and Our Gang”). There are not-so-good episodes (“Grandpa’s Visit” and “Spunkless Spunky”). Each episode has a few good laughs, and some of them have many. Like most shows of this time, you have no clue when something big in an episode will actually reoccur. Mork comes back. Spunky the dog returns from the previous season but never again. Potsie gets a reoccurring girlfriend. But, Joanie can’t keep a boyfriend. And, Ralph fights Reb Brown in the boxing ring for Audrey Landers. He wins her heart. She never appears again. That’s as frustrating as all the other shows of this time.

The show’s character identifications weren’t built through arcs; they were built by characters repeating actions for a long time until the viewer suddenly realized—oh, this character is supposed to act in this way. The Fonz adopting a child in the series finale only feels weird if you’ve never met Spike, Chachi or Bobby.

If you liked Happy Days already, you’ll like this season. If you’re unable to get into the show, this is the show at its popular height so if there’s nothing here you like, then this isn’t for you.

Happy Days did something that I think other long running shows have done—save for Doctor Who, which did this about ten times—something extraordinarily difficult: The show jumped the shark and then got back up again, reclaiming its former glory. The format changed for season three and lost those who wanted American Graffiti. But, what it lost in reality, it gained in laughter, ensemble stories and actual viewers. When Joanie and Chachi left, things seemed to spiral away. But, then that couple returned at the end of season ten in a very good two-parter, and the show held its head up high until the end.

So, if Fonz jumping the shark is a “jump the shark” moment, then five episodes later, with the introduction of Leather and a very good two-part story, it righted its own errors. I don’t know if there is as ubiquitous a term for this—“Polishing the Leather?” “Singing with Quatro?” Or, perhaps most fittingly given the show in question, “Punching the Jukebox”?

The show’s history and the quality of the episodes within this season show that any perceived problem was only temporary. The Cunningham family was still going strong, and the Fonz was still cool. Not only was he cool, but he also could tell people that he jumped a shark.