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October 2, 2013

The Couch Potato: Maybe Fonzie jumped the shark, but ‘Sunny’ still shines

NEW CASTLE — It’s pretty hard for any show to maintain consistency over a long period of time.

Whether it’s a comedy or drama, keeping the laughs coming or the tension realistic as the episodes pile up is the hardest thing to do with a long- running series.

There are countless examples of shows losing their edge and there is even a name for it — “Jumping the Shark.” Everyone has heard this expression at some point, but its origins are less well-known. 

As the classic sitcom “Happy Days” progressed through the seasons, the plot of individual episodes started to become more convoluted and less realistic. In the fifth season premiere, Henry Winkler’s character, the “Fonz,” literally jumped over a shark on water skis in an attempt to prove his toughness to his friends.

While Winkler was actually an accomplished water skier, the moment was viewed as an end to “Happy Days” relatable, family centered experiences and the beginning of outlandish stunts and ridiculous plot points. 

So the phrase “Jumping the Shark” was coined and used to describe the moment when any show strayed from its roots due to creative decline and “jumped” into absurdity.

(Side Note: As another classic sitcom, “Arrested Development,” navigated through constant threats of cancellation from Fox in the early 2000s, Burger King was brought on board as a show sponsor. In a wink to the ever growing prevalence of product placement in television shows, “Arrested Development” had lawyer Barry Zuckercorn (played by none other than Henry Winkler), confess his love for Burger King while standing on a dock at the ocean. As he told the other characters that he was off to the restaurant, he jumped over a dead shark lying on the dock, thus completing the circle of “shark jumping” he created.)

I bring all of this up to make the simple point that during its ninth season, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” continues to hit all the right notes.

“The Simpsons” are in season 25 and in my opinion, “Jumped the Shark” many years ago. However, producers have always stated that patriarch Homer got dumber as the show progressed. They had to do this so that Homer could continually get into situations that produced laughs.

“It’s Always Sunny” has done things a little differently. The characters started out as dumb as could be in season one, but there have been subtle changes. The most notable is the evolution of “Sweet” Dee (the only female lead) from moral compass of the show to its most deluded and sometimes indefensible character.

The addition of comedy heavyweight Danny DeVito in season two has only made the show better throughout the years. DeVito continues to bring a dark humor to the show that he has mastered during his long career.

The show refers to the five main characters (Charlie Day as Charlie, Rob McElhenney as Mac, Glenn Howerton as Dennis, Kaitlin Olson as Deandra and DeVito as Frank) as “The Gang,” who all work at and/or own a run-down, bad-neighborhood, South Philadelphia bar called Paddy’s Pub. “The Gang” is always up to something with their schemes to make money or get back at some real or perceived enemy.

“The Gang” constantly makes horrible decisions as their pettiness and unethical behaviors are on constant display. The show is a comedy, but is nonetheless dark, as many times peripheral characters are badly hurt (physically or financially) and have even died. 

Some critics compare “Always Sunny” to a modern, black humor Seinfeld, due to its characters’ lack of regard for others outside the group. Most of the comedy comes from the mistreatment of others, but also lies in the way “The Gang” treats each other.

Which is to say, horribly.

I highly recommend checking out the fifth episode of season nine as it airs at 10 p.m. today on the new FXX Network, which is a spinoff of the FX Network.

While the show has certainly evolved from its early days, it hasn’t yet “Jumped the Shark.” But if you happen to see Henry Winkler as a guest star, it might be time to move on.

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