On Sharks, And How To Jump Them Successfully

SPOILERS for Death in Paradise, Grey’s Anatomy and X-Files

Tonight, the truth will be revealed. Or, you know, it won’t. It’s hard to say. I mean, FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully have been looking for it since 1993 and haven’t found it yet, despite having lost pretty much all members of their families, been impossibly impregnated, survived alien cancer, brought down numerous government conscpiracies, stopped vampires, ghouls, poltergeists and chupacabras, and been abducted by extraterrestrials at least twice between them. After all that excitement, you’d think that everything that needed to be said about aliens would have been said – but here they come again, with a new mini-series of The X-Files starting in the UK on Channel 5 this evening.

I meet this news with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I love Mulder, I love Scully, I love Mulder/Scully, I love Skinner (see this earlier blog post), I love the witty repartee, I love the music and I LOVE a good mystery. But having watched the whole show, in order, years after it was originally broadcast, I quickly started to get frustrated with the whole alien thing. Monster of the Week episodes – yes. Increasingly absurd and nonsensical myth-arc which grew more ludicrous and more tedious by the week – no. In The X-Files’ defence, I have a terrible memory, so it wasn’t entirely the show’s fault that I spent quite a lot of time in the latter seasons going, “Who’s that? Is he an alien? What did she do before? Didn’t he die? Why’s she doing that? Is that Mulder’s dad? Is THAT Mulder’s dad? Was he that guy with the thing? Who’s that? Who’s THAT? Why can’t that guy with the waterbed come back?” Deficits of my brain notwithstanding, I really feel like the last few seasons were specifically designed to confuse and alienate viewers (pun very much intended), for reasons I can’t begin to fathom. So, bringing it back now, eight years after the concluding film… Has The X-Files jumped the shark?

This phrase, as you may know, comes from an episode of Happy Days in which the Fonz, out for a casual water-ski one sunny day, literally has to jump over a shark. Cue applause, many rounds of ‘Ey!’, and groans from audiences all over the country who decided that this was quite frankly absurd and that enough was enough. The producers didn’t listen to the groans and delivered six more seasons, but the deed was done, and now that poor shark is immortalised in pop culture as a symbol of a show past its sell-by date – when something so ludicrous happens that you know the show is never going to be the same again.

And it’s not that hard to argue that, indeed, The X-Files jumped the shark some time ago. One major category of shark-jumping (according to TV Tropes, fount of all film and television knowledge) is to do with plot. A show can push its own self-destruct by, among other things, radically altering its premise, drastically and suddenly changing its mood, throwing in endless plot twists, or absolutely refusing to tie up its main storyline, leaving it hanging about, getting more and more complex and inexplicable, until viewers lose not only the will to watch but the will to live. I’m not saying that’s the case with The X-Files or anything, but let me just note that the official TV Tropes designation for this occurrence is ‘The Chris Carter Effect’ – Chris Carter being the guy who, um, created The X-Files

Of course, shark-jumping isn’t all about plot. Another major kind of shark-jump – possibly the most common – is cast changes, including but not limited to the removal of a popular character, a new character that everyone hates, replacing an actor and claiming it’s the same character, or replacing a character with a totally different character who’s actually exactly the same. I highly recommend that you go and check out the various lists of occasions on which these have occurred (assuming you have a spare week to get hopelessly lost in an endless web of pop culture titbits) but today I’m concerned with a few shows in particular that have undergone these changes, starting with Death in Paradise.

Series 5 of this desert-island murder mystery is currently showing on BBC1, and, cast-wise, it bears little or no resemblance to series 1, which I adored. It’s still a cosy mystery set on a beautiful tropical island and all that jazz, but of the four main characters who began the series, only one is left, and it’s the worst one. (Sorry, Danny John-Jules – loved your work in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, though). The first heartbreaking disappearance was Ben Miller’s pernickety English detective with a penchant for paperwork and inappropriately warm suits, replaced by Kris Marshall’s goofy English detective who’s decided to really just embrace this whole Caribbean thing. Initially I was very upset by this, and considered giving up there and then; but I battled through, and Marshall won me over. But then – BUT THEN. The next character to leave was Fidel, the lovely young sergeant played by Gary Carr; and then, travesty of travesties, Sara Martins’ suave French lady detective went as well. Quelle désastre, as they would say on Saint Marie.

And the thing about that is – OK, actors leave. But in Death in Paradise they haven’t been replaced by new exciting characters that will take the show in a different direction. They’ve been replaced by almost identical characters who look like them and sound like them but just aren’t them. It’s weird and I can’t get my head around it.

What other tropes should we avoid, then, if we want the shark to stay firmly unjumped? Here’s one: overuse of gimmicks, such as special guest stars, musical episodes, clips shows or the release of a movie. What show am I about to talk about…? Yep.

Poor old Simpson family. From humble beginnings as a short section on someone else’s show, they went from strength to strength on the basis of being really damn funny. But times are a-changing, and now there are other cartoon for grown-ups, so what choice do they have but to keep on pushing or give up completely?

You could fill a book with analyses of the celebrities who’ve cameoed on The Simpsons (in fact, someone probably has. If not, they should – can you say ‘money spinner’?!). Simpsons vocal alumni include Stephen Hawking, Glenn Close, Buzz Aldrin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Justin Bieber, Richard Dawkins, Eric Idle, Julian Assange, Richard Branson, Paul and Linda McCartney, Elizabeth Taylor, Pete Sampras, Tony Blair and, of all people, Cat Deeley. True, the fact that the show can get such a raft of glitterati involved is impressive – but you do have to wonder what it’s trying to distract you from with all these famous voices.

Likewise, what are they hiding beneath all the musical numbers? I have to say, I actually feel kind of unfair complaining about this, because The Simpsons’ musical episodes are by and large utterly glorious. There’s a whole generation of people who only need to hear the opening chords to Mr Burns’ ‘See My Vest’ in order to jump up onto a table and start belting out the most beautiful nonsense about grizzly bear underwear (and don’t even get me started on the bundle of delight that is Spider-Pig. That came from the movie, though, and we all know that releasing a movie is a Sure Sign of sharks being jumped). Nonetheless, you can’t keep a show going on music and funny voices alone, and the slow but steady decline of quality in the actual storylines of The Simpsons is basically a fact of life now (allow me to insert a link to a particularly apt episode of my favourite podcast here), and the fact that it still keeps on rolling is a cause of wonderment to pretty much everyone, not least, I would imagine, the show’s producers.

But that’s the thing – a shark jump is not necessarily a death sentence (however much people – including me – might whinge about it). Here’s a classic example: over the last few weeks, I’ve been catching up with the most recent season of Grey’s Anatomy. “Grey’s Anatomy?!” I hear you cry. “Is that still a thing?!” Why yes it is, dear reader, and I’m still watching it, slowly, bit by bit, as new DVDs trickle over from across the pond, since all British TV networks appear to have given up on it some time ago. Yet, on a hospital-shaped set somewhere in LA, a group of actors are still putting on white coats and saying things like, “This guy’s going to crash, we’ll have to do an emergency heart transplant, prep OR 1 stat and tell my spouse and/or children that my work comes first, I’m a surgeon, dammit!”

Grey’s has basically run the gamut of shark-jumps. It’s killed off or otherwise thrown out numerous beloved characters (George, Denny, Cristina and of course the one and only McDreamy); introduced odious new replacements (Arizona. There, I said it. She irritates the hell out of me and I’m not sorry); completely changed the personalities of key figures (George, the sweetest person in the world, cheating on his wife? Come on now); resolved all manner of sexual tensions (Meredith and Derek, Cristina and Owen, Callie and Arizona, Jackson and April, to name but a few); and thrown an absurd number of outlandish scenarios at the main character (hurricane, fire, secret sister, other secret sister, shooting, drowning, call from President, best friend moving to Switzerland, plane crash), from which she has emerged with no more personality than at the start of the series. It’s also had a musical episode and a spin-off, which you will by now recognise as classic examples of shark-jumping. But I STILL LOVE IT. The most recent season had me laughing, weeping, booing, cheering and, crucially, wanting to watch more.

So maybe there’s hope for The X-Files as well. I shall sit down tonight, snacks in bowl and notepad in hand, ready to embrace Mulder, Scully, Skinner and even Cigarette-Smoking Man, open to the idea that it might still be worth loving.the-x-files-i-want-to-believe-print

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