They say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and that you learn more from failure than success. While I find that these statements hold some weight, one must always be receptive to a lesson before anything can truly be learned.

 

I imagine that most people are familiar with a great show that outlived its welcome and became a shadow of its former self before it was finally taken off the air. I mean there are plenty of people who saw Heroes and that show…well, if you saw it you know what I’m getting at. The point is, there are two ways that a show can really tank. The first is a term you might be familiar with, Jumping the Shark, and the second is something I’m going to call Spoiling the Soup.

Hey, for all we know, Robin Williams is actually an alien. Have you seen his standup?

No, you don’t have to remind me that Mork from Mork and Mindy first appeared on Happy Days.

 

For those of you who don’t know, or for some reason love my brief, condensed history lessons, jumping the shark refers to a show that has passed its prime. The expression originates from the show Happy Days, when the smooth-talking and ever-charming Arthur Fonzerelli literally jumps over a shark on a pair of water skis being pulled by a speedboat. The entire concept is pretty outlandish for a show that was largely based in reality.

 

Not that long ago a friend of mine hosted a bad TV party and we watched the episode where Happy Days jumped the shark. Perhaps the most remarkable thing I noticed, was the level of commitment to making it happen. That episode is part of a story arc that was several episodes long. Back then story arcs weren’t especially common in television, so this was a special event and the jumping of the shark didn’t occur until the final installment. This was no fluke, the entire ordeal was painstakingly planned, so no one must have known what a monster they had created.

 

Spoiling the Soup is a term I’ve coined to contrast to Jumping the Shark, so to my knowledge its history begins and ends here, with me rambling in my typical fashion. While some shows lose credibility with a large, flashy display and never recover, some shows experience a more gradual decline. These can often be subtle to the point that a dedicated audience may not realize the drop in quality for a while after it has begun.

 

I call it Spoiling the Soup because it’s like someone experimenting with a familiar recipe. It uses all the familiar ingredients you’re used to, but perhaps you add a dash of something new. As the soup cooks you can taste it, and re-season it to try and eliminate an offending taste, but you can also choose to ignore it, and hope that whoever is sampling your dish will do the same. As I said, this refers to a gradual process, so there is still time to fix it before it offends your patrons to the point of storming out of your hypothetical restaurant and writing an angry review on Yelp.

 

I guess supercomputers do funny things to people. Of course, you would already know this if you were reading about Code Lyoko.

Wow, just looking at this screenshot makes me nostalgic for the humble begins and great heart this show used to showcase so casually.

My most recent struggle along the divide between Jumping the Shark and Spoiling the Soup comes from NBC’s Chuck. For those of you unfamiliar, Chuck is about an underachiever who was kicked out of college and works in an electronics store similar to, but legally distinct from Best Buy. One day he gets a cryptic message that turns out to contain a program for turning him into a human computer-slash-CIA database, and he becomes the world’s least conventional intelligence asset.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about where this show went wrong, as it used to be my favorite show on television, with a lot of personal significance to me, and at this point I only continue to watch because of how important it once was to me, combined with a morbid curiosity about how they plan to wrap everything up. I have concluded with some certainty that season three is when the show started to fail, but if you hadn’t guessed by the fact that I made up a term for this blog entry, the decline has been a gradual one, and one of the least consistent show failures that I can recall.

 

The problem I have in wrapping my head around Chuck, is that even now, in its fifth season, with easily the most questionable plot elements to date (at the very least, the most questionable since writing out one of my favorite characters), they’ve still managed to have a few gems that hearken back to simpler times when the show was still good every week.

 

I think I’ve pinpointed an overarching problem with the series as a whole, as well as the reason that same problem that has existed since the beginning plagues each season with increasing obviousness. At its heart, Chuck is a series about an underdog with no drive to make anything of himself, being confronted with impossible situations with his quirky friends backing him as he finds the confidence to change his life for the better. Heart is a really important element to this show, as both its science fiction and its dramatic spy aspects fall short of being realistic. The chief element keeping my suspension of disbelief in check on this show was its offbeat dramedy tone, that set this series apart from the multitude of spy dramas on TV and made its world feel like a bit of a live action cartoon.

 

Ever since season three, however, the show has been taking itself more and more seriously, trying to become a serious spy show and doing everything in its power to leave behind comedic elements like the cast of the Buy More, that made up the heart of the show, and were a critical part of its tone. At the beginning of season three, Chuck tried to take his position with the CIA more seriously, and the show simultaneously tried to shift to a more serious tone.

 

At least Seinfeld would be more useful to the Justice League than Aquaman, most of the time.

Two of Earth's greatest heroes, if my random example has anything to say about it.

The problem with this plan was twofold. First, the dramatic elements to the show were as unrealistic as ever, but they stuck out more when the show didn’t hide behind its comedic relief. Secondly, the comedic tone of the series was a highly defining characteristic of the series. It’s sort of like trying to imagine Seinfeld, a self-proclaimed show about nothing, taking on some epic story arc where Jerry has to save the world by seducing a super model. It just doesn’t resemble the show where Kramer stumbles into Jerry’s apartment with another offbeat rant or crazy idea.

 

I keep using the word tone, but a casual observer of television might not know to what I’m referring. It’s sort of a difficult thing to describe or even illustrate as it has to do with an emotional response. Generally, I’d say that the tone of a piece (be it a book, poem or television with an inexplicably overbearing Subway product-placement tie-in) describes both the mood and attitude of the characters within its world, as well as the emotional feel that the piece is meant to impart on its audience. Chuck was never a show that had the dramatic tension of something like 24, where Jack Bauer was actually putting his life on the line against cutthroat terrorists to save the world on a regular basis. As a result, when it started trying to reflect that type of tone, it felt both unnatural and unfamiliar.

 

To me, tone is a very important element that defines a TV show. It’s the chief reason why I can’t bring myself to watch the remake of Battlestar Gallactica, despite all the praise I hear and my own interest in science fiction. Its tone is so bleak and miserable that I find myself wanting to cry myself asleep in the fetal position after half an episode rather than watching more of the series. Tone along with characters and the world really create an identity for a television show, and I think a lot of shows that decline in quality do so because they’ve lost sight of what the show is truly about.

 

Believe it or not, Fonzie and the Shark are never on the screen at the same time, despite the iconic imagery. That's what we call movie magic!

You didn't think we were going to go this whole update without a picture of the Fonz jumping the shark, did you?

In the case of NBC’s Chuck, the writing staff seems to either be resisting the tone the show had once created, or to have forgotten it all together. Personally, even though I have plenty of negative things to say about the show in recent years, I think the problems is the former. The staff wants Chuck to be a more serious show, but I think the show took on a life of its own and some point and is fighting back. Chuck is definitely a case of Spoiling the Soup, since even now they’ve managed to produce a few episodes that reflect the greatness that the show once embodied. And since these episodes have come so late in the game, I do hold out some vain hope that these last few episodes will be a worthy sendoff to a show I once loved.

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