At some point or another, most TV shows jump the shark. And from there on in, you just know the end is nigh.
Our favorite programs, those that have stood the test of time, know how to avoid that one little slip. But if they jump, they somehow manage to pull on their big-boy water skies and jump right back over the shark cage.
But jumping the dark, that’s another thing entirely. We’re not talking about situations like the old pedophile neighbor on Family Guy. Somehow that guy’s a recurring character that we all just accept and even laugh at. Other shows like Game of Thrones or Walking Dead are supposed to be dark and brutal.
I’m talking about great television (well, except for The Brady Bunch) that just tried a little too hard to be deep, yet ended up mired in quicksand.
Here are some of television’s finest masterpieces (well, except for The Brady Bunch) — including something from Masterpiece, actually — that really just didn’t need to go there.
When Vincent Price abducts the Brady Bunch boys on their Hawaiian vacation
After rummaging through Greg’s pants pocket, Vincent Price exclaims “Oh you naughty, naughty boys.”
I think every person of a certain age knows what they were doing the day they saw Marsha Brady in a bikini. Events like that are dramatically etched in our collective consciousness. Often ignored during that particular hormonal outbreak, though, was what happened to her adopted brothers. While trying to break the spell of the cursed tiki statuette, Bobby, Peter and Greg slip away at night (or during bright daylight, but with those horrid “nighttime filters” they try to pass off as realistic looking) take a bus to the middle of Oahu and enter the lair of schlock horror-meister Vincent Price.
With a blunt-end spear, old Vincent Price — aka Professor Hubert Whitehead (yuck, right?) — somehow captures three strapping young Brady Boys and ties them up to primitive tribal totem poles clearly carved from exquisite ancient styrofoam.
Forget all the contrived plot twists. 1972 was a different era where we believed anything a narrator told us, including something like “Mike’s boss foots the bill for the whole family, including Alice, to vacation in Hawaii.”
Don’t worry, all’s well that ends well. Carol, Mike and the gang forgive the abduction and it all ends in a luau. Cue the sappy, early 70s closing music.
FUN FACT: Vincent Price talks to a statue named Oliver. In the very next season, Cousin Oliver comes to stay in Bradyville, finally cursing the show into oblivion (or syndication). Coincidence?
When Sam Beckett is forced to become Lee Harvey Oswald on Quantum Leap.
Why couldn’t I have just leapt into the body of Patton Oswalt?
Quantum Leap was a remarkable mixture of humor and science fiction. The show was perfect for the late 80s/early 90s. And it was humming along just fine as Scott Bakula got himself into all manner of mischief by randomly popping inside people’s bodies. Yeah, just go with it.
Then there was that one episode. Bakula’s character, Sam Beckett, leaps into the body of none other than Lee Harvey Oswald and suddenly we’re supposed to just go along with that pathology.
He fights it though. It takes two whole episodes with Al, his mentor-from-the-future played by Dean Stockwell, trying to help him out of that incarnation of evil. But lo and behold, in the end he grabs a rifle, stumbles through Dallas and whacks the 35th president of the U.S. of A.
Nope, going against every single viewer’s wishes, he doesn’t stop the assassination. The whole plot line goes against the show’s credo and opening narration, “To put right what once went wrong.”
The show’s creator, Donald Bellisario, actually served in the Marines with Oswald so maybe that lets him off the hook a bit. But then they try to toss the stricken audience a bone at the end, supposedly making things right by explaining he did good, real good, because the original Oswald killed Jackie O as well. O For God’s Sake!
When Ginsberg slices off his nipple and gives it as a gift on Mad Men
When flowers or a Hallmark card just aren’t enough to say “I love you.”
Artist Vincent Van Gogh had nothing on this disturbed character from Sterling Cooper & Weiner. We’ve loved every stinkin’ episode of Mad Men and we’re as sad to see it leave as we were happy when the networks canceled Selfie.
As fantastic as it was, there are times, though, that left us scratching our chests, wondering what in the hell was going on. Why would a plot line include having a creative soul get all Cyclopsy on his own nipple? And if someone really had to pop a nip, why couldn’t it have been Lou Avery?
When the Korean woman smothers her baby on M*A*S*H
Which came first, the chicken or the baby?
In the show’s finale, we initially think the Korean peasant is just quieting her pet chicken so as not to give away their position to the enemy. But no, it’s much, much worse!
From 1983 until the Superbowl in 2010 supplanted it, the M*A*S*H finale: Goodbye, Farewell and Amen was the most watched broadcast of all time. The episode was 2 1/2 hours long and had a powerhouse plot line — well — except for that one little gruesome bit about Alan Alda’s character, Hawkeye, asking the young mother to silence her chicken (which we find out later, was really a baby).
Hawkeye doesn’t remember it happening, until his psychiatrist helps him dredge it all back up, reminding him to ⌘+Find+Replace “chicken” with “baby.”
M*A*S*H was one of the best television shows ever. It distresses me to say anything bad about it. But the show led us along a fantastic, layered path throughout its run. Why was its parting shot so disturbing? People will argue with me, surely, saying war is hell or this was a culminating dramatic moment of epic television. My response is simply, “Dude, she killed her own baby.”
When Frank helps Zoe catch her train on House of Cards.
I didn’t say you were going ON a trip, I said you were going TO trip.
Remember when you giddily sat down with your buttered popcorn, a weekend with nothing to do and you fired up Netflix to watch House of Cards, Season Two? Only half a bowl in, Frank Underwood pushes Zoe Barnes in front of the subway and suddenly your weekend looks worse than Underwood’s chances for the Nobel Peace Prize. (If you haven’t watched Season Two yet, sorry, that’s not my problem.)
That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. The rest of Season Two was pretty interesting, albeit a little more contrived than Season One. (NOTE: I can’t bring myself to watch Season Three yet due to the negative comments I’ve read about it. I’ve even heard “He’s the president, but he’s really Keyser Söze.”)
With Jacqueline Kennedy originally getting killed in Quantum Leap and then this with Kate Mara’s character, the misogyny gets a bit overwhelming. I think it would’ve been a bit better if Zoe’s sister in real life — actress Rooney Mara of The Girl Who/With series — got her revenge on Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood: The Girl Who Kicked the Vice President’s Ass.
But speaking of misogyny, man-oh-man, does it get worse.
When Brock is poisoned and Andrea murdered on Breaking Bad
Don’t you remember when we were on Friday Night Lights together?
Yes, I know the whole story arc of Breaking Bad was about a guy turning bad. It wasn’t called Breaking Good or Walter White and his Pretty Panda Pets. Still, when Brock was poisoned and his mom executed, one of the best shows ever just went way, way too dark.
It was never crystal clear to me how Brock actually was poisoned:
A stray candy bar left on his stoop Brock just ate some bad chicken Consuming Lily of the Valley berries Dragging on a ricin-filled cigarette
Regardless, it all went one toke over the line, Sweet Jesus. You get the feeling that Vince Gilligan stepped out to get some Pollos Hermanos at the time and wasn’t in the writer’s room. When he came back wearing a Heisenberg t-shirt, the rest of the team railroaded him like a tanker full of methylamine. (Vince Gilligan, you are a God to me; I know it wasn’t your fault!).
Things broke from bad to disgusting when near the end they assassinated Andrea, Brock’s mommy, right in view of Jesse. Come on! That just leaves a hole in our hearts that not even ice blue meth can fill. It didn’t have to go that way. They could’ve menaced her with a bicycle lock or told Jesse that if he didn’t agree to be chained up in a hole, she’d meet a more sinister death — possibly even with Splenda. Heck, couldn’t they have just gone off to live on Gilligan’s new show, Battle Creek Better Call Saul?
And hey, they didn’t have to kill Gomie either, but I’ll just have to let that one go.
When Anna is raped and then arrested for killing her rapist on Downton Abbey.
Why won’t the writers just freakin’ let us be?
The misogyny culminates with Anna’s assault. There’s absolutely nothing funny about rape. You could argue it doesn’t even belong on a snarky comedic list. But you could also argue it didn’t belong on Downton Abbey either. When Anna got raped, there was a collective WTF from the normally staid British viewers. Then six months later, we in America had to find out the awful truth.
Come on, we watch the show for the witty sniping, the period costumes, the car chase scenes and to marvel at the technological wonders like “radios.” We’re not in it to see the misogyny, the horrific violence perpetrated on women. That’s what The Bachelor is for.
When her assailant died, Bates was the suspect. And then they go and arrest Anna for crying out loud. In my world, Anna and Bates would travel to Germany looking for Edith’s lover, stopping only to kill Hitler. Then they meet Albert Einstein and ask him to save Lord Grantham’s dog, Isis. (Yeah, I know why they killed off Isis. It was an unfortunate name choice, but how were they to know?)
The series would end with Anna and Bates living happily ever after, having a bouncing baby boy and them both laughing while saying, “you know everyone’s gonna call him Master Bates.”
When the CSM murders MLK on The X-Files
The X-Files’ William B. Davis (not to be confused with Ann B. Davis, Alice from the Brady Bunch )
But the worst and most unnecessary story line in otherwise wonderful television shows was when the Cigarette Smoking Man (or CSM as his fans called him) turned into the guy who shot Martin Luther King. Who in their right minds thought this would make for quality viewing? Maybe X-Files creator Chris Carter had seen the Quantum Leap/Lee Harvey Oswald episode and wanted to mess with us even worse.
That was some sick, twisted TV. All through the episode, a young Cigarette Smoking Youth listened to Martin Luther King being broadcast somewhere in his shadowy underbelly-of-the-law lair. But when the great civil rights leader says something — I forgot what and don’t want to research it — our foil shakes his head in a supposedly emotional scene and pleads to no one, “why did you have to go and say that?”
We’re lead to believe he really admires the man, but his hand was forced by something MLK said. Of course, the only remedy in this evil, absolutely sucktastick plot line is to kill the guy and maybe set up someone else, I don’t remember. It was outrageous and in this case too, I think the writers were really trying to show how bad a dude he was. But couldn’t his origin story have involved — I don’t know — slapping around some puppies or maybe a dramatic scene where he decides NOT to donate to the inaugural Jerry Lewis telethon?
Anything would’ve been better than forcing us to go through the horror of MLK’s death again. And yes, I finally gave in to my dark desire and looked up the episode. Oh yeah, great, he helped Oswald kill Kennedy too. What, couldn’t they have fit in any more famous murders. Weren’t any Che Guevara or John Lennon impersonators available the day they filmed it?
The assassination aside, I still feel let down and a little empty inside when Chris Carter didn’t really explain what was going on with all those aliens on The X-Files. The truth is still out there, I guess. But where? When he announced there’d be half a dozen new episodes, I met it like an addict meets a gin and heroin sex smoothie. I wanted more, but knew in the end it would abuse me and leave me lying in the gutter begging for Scully to resuscitate me.
Bill Murray interrupts Saturday Night Live to say Russia has taken over Poland
On that December evening in 1981 when Russia declared martial law in Poland there was a lot of confusion. Obviously before Twitter and Facebook, people got their news from smoke signals, semaphores and something old folks call “newspapers.” Since this was late on a Saturday night and CNN was still a fledgling operation, wires were crossed and Bill Murray told the national audience — at least on the East Coast, they do two broadcasts — that Russia had invaded Poland. Further sending us down the rabbit hole, he pointed to the singing choir of Yale Whiffenpoofs on stage and said, “These poor stiffs from Yale think this is the biggest night of their lives and now they gotta go in the army.”
Gary is killed off on Thirtysomething
For about a year of episodes, viewers watch Nancy (Patricia Wettig) deal with cancer. In February of 1991 everyone thought Nancy’s cancer was about to come back. But surprise, she was cured, it’s remission accomplished. But just as the audience recovered with joy, BAM, they kill off audience favorite Gary (Peter Horton). The show then took up the rest of the episode — which everyone thought was going to be a joyous retrospective, by showing cast members hearing the terrible news and sobbing maniacally.
Look, there is a time and place for darkness on TV. I get that. But these previous examples felt gratuitous at best. They were violent for the pure shock value and marred otherwise fantastic entertainment.
I’ve never written for television and it’s a good bet that after this little story, TV shows won’t be lining up to employ me in the future. But if I ever am invited into a writer’s room, I’d treat my audience and loyal fans a bit better than some of those who’ve gone before me.
Are you listening Tina Fey?