Where Did It Come From?
Maybe you’ve heard the phrase before, and maybe you have not. Jon Hein coined it a few years ago. If you have an extra 15 minutes, it’s an interesting internet search, but if not, here’s the skinny.
“Jumping the shark” refers to the event within a television show that provides the incriminating evidence that the series is no longer any good. It’s that moment of ridiculousness when plot is so threadbare and the characters so clichéd, that you roll not just your eyes, but your whole body grimaces. Are you kidding me? He just jumped a shark.
The genesis of the phrase comes from an episode in the 5th season of Happy Days when Fonzie, while waterskiing (in his leather jacket!), actually jumped over a shark. I know—full body grimace.
It’s not clear to me if the phrase indicates the moment where the journey uphill is crested, and afterwards it’s all downhill; or rather, if “jumping the shark” is an indication that freefall has already commenced. I suspect the latter.
When I heard the phrase for the first time, it seemed to hold true for the handful of shows I have watched. In comedy sitcoms especially, main characters—over time—invariably become caricature of themselves.
Take a character like George Costanza. At his best, he is a caricature of a tragic, sad, unfortunate man. That’s funny. There is some humor there. But then, over time, George became a caricature of his own caricature. Laughs came only with more difficultly, exaggeration, and convolution.
Think also of the cast of Friends—Phoebe started as a caricature of a quirky friend, and Joey a caricature of a somewhat dim, and overly masculine, man. But over time, they became these things on steroids—caricatures of a caricature. I believe the pattern holds for the Dwight Schrutes and Michael Scotts as well.
Can a Genre Also ‘Jump the Shark’?
The other night I was flipping through the channels and I saw Ted Danson was in a cop-detective show. (Later, I learned it was the latest reprise of CSI. How many seasons and cities have there been?)
Apparently, solid characterization quickly drifts into caricature, not simply with individuals in an individual sitcom, but it also happens in shows across similar genres.
Here’s what I mean: I only caught a few minutes, but it was enough to observe a genre in freefall. Gone was ‘subtly,’ and in its place was ‘overt’; gone was ‘slow-cooked, rising tension’; instead there was ‘fast’ and ‘extravagant,’ and violent twits of plot splashed with sex—in other words, not grill master tenderloin, but McRibs slathered in sauce. An early Law and Order episode (a forerunner in the genre, I believe), would look boring in comparison—better, but boring.
What’s this All About?
At this point, you might be thinking, Here we go—another ‘they don’t make them like they use too’ rant.
Not so. It’s not wise to talk like that (Ecclesiastes 7:10).
I think there is more to all of this than the slow degradation of characters in sitcoms and the degradation of shows in genres—more than the relationship between airtime and diminishing returns.
No, there is more going on here. This is the trajectory of sin.
Sin always promises to taste good (cf., Genesis 3:6; Proverbs 9:17). And most of the time, there is some truth in the promise.
But then, when the meal is consumed, sin is still not satisfied. It continues to consume. It eats the styrofoam plate the food was served on. And then the arm that feeds it.
Sin will eat you until there is nothing left. What looks pleasing to the eye, will end in fig leaves and shame. The original caricature is fun, but at some point, the caricature of the caricature is absurd.
This is the picture of sin in Romans. When people go deeper into sin, when we exchange the glory of God for McRibs, things get bad, then worse. Paul writes of “thinking” that becomes “futile” and hearts that become “darkened” (v. 21), and then of the “degrading” of bodies (v. 24).
This is the trajectory of sin. At some point, it jumps the shark. Sin makes people less human and beast-like, and those watching from the outside can often see it more clearly.
Consider the depths that addiction takes people, and what a person will do for a high—whether one from drugs or career advancement or some other ‘high.’ And consider the way sexual immorality often must keep escalating to offset diminishing returns. And consider the legalism of the Pharisees—it got deeper and deeper into its own rules. These are just a few examples; others could be multiplied.
Is it Different with Godliness?
But, godliness, on the other hand, does the opposite.
Life with God makes one more human over time, not less. For those who push themselves to grow in their relationship with God, for those who immerse themselves in the gospel, and for those who surround themselves with strong accountability in the form of other Christians in the local church, this tends to make us the types of humans we were meant to be: humble, dependent, and happy creatures of our God.
Or as Jesus said it, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Or as Paul wrote in Ephesians, in the coming ages, God will be continually showing his children the “incomparable riches of his grace” (2:7). That’s a show that doesn’t get old because the Glory of God never jumps the shark.
While sin bits off our arm and still wants more, life with God is a life of increasing joy, not diminishing returns.