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Jumping the Shark: 10 Great TV Shows That Took a Turn for the Worse

From ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ to ‘True Blood,’ these were the moments when our favorite series started to take a nosedive

True Blood and Dexter

Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer in 'True Blood' and Michael C. Hall in 'Dexter'

John P. Johnson/HBO; Randy Tepper/Showtime

It was supposed to be an invigorating, can't-miss moment: The coolest character on television, clad in a leather jacket and shorts (?!?), would strap on some water-skis to perform a dangerous stunt. But Arthur Fonzarelli, a.k.a. the Fonz, wasn't going to wow the crowd with just any death-defying act, mind you — he was going to leap over a Great White shark. Take that, Jaws! In your face, Pinkie Tuscadero!

When Happy Days forced its most iconic character to stoop to such desperate measures, it left behind a legacy it could not have predicted: a phrase for the moment that a TV series crosses the Rubicon of audience respect, losing both its integrity and the plot. The term "jumping the shark," as coined by Jon Hein for his Website devoted to the devolution of television shows, signals a pivot point in which a writer' room starts resorting to desperate measures to maintain viewers' interest. Such last-gasp measures didn't start with Garry Marshall's nostalgiafest, of course — the less said about the Great Gazoo, the better — but it was the Fonz's date with an aquamarine predator that gave us an iconic moment in which to sum up the beginning of the end.

TV history is littered with JTS moments, and the fact that we're now living in a new Golden Age of Television (TM) hasn't stemmed the tide. So we've brought together a crack team of boob-tube-ologists and asked them to pinpoint some recent examples of unfortunate series shark-jumping. These were all beloved shows that, for one reason or another, took a left turn for the worse. Strap on your waterskis, folks.

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‘Battlestar Galactica’

"All Along the Watchtower" (Season 3, Episode 20)
Cylons! They live among us. They look just like us. They're…strangely drawn to sitar covers of Bob Dylan songs? We were willing to roll with a lot of Battlestar's punches, because they usually propelled us to somewhere weird, dark and awesome. But Ronald D. Moore's show lost us in the third season finale, when it answered the series' burning question — who are the final five Cylons? — by drawing them into a room together because they all inexplicably had aural hallucinations of "All Along the Watchtower." At the same time, the recently deceased Kara "Starbuck" Thrace returned from the dead as…an angel? A really grumpy angel? The show's final season continued to traffic in this type of half-baked quasi-spiritual contrivance, culminating in a baffling, uncomfortably preachy final episode. But it was the "Watchtower" moment that first had us saying "oh, frack this."  JS

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‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

Buffy comes back from the dead…again (Season 6, Episode 1)
For longtime fans of Joss Whedon's landmark show, it was agonizing to watch Buffy Summers throw herself into an interdimensional portal and get the life sucked out of her. But let's face it — it was, in a way, a good ending for the slayer, complete with pathos, valiant sacrifice and the perfect epitaph. ("She saved the world. A lot.") Naturally, we were glad to see her rise from the grave in the very first moments of Season Six, but Buffy never quite found its footing again. Though the final two seasons had their moments, it started to be less of a tragicomic coming-of-age allegory and more of a supernatural soap opera. That umpteenth resurrection moment was the final nail in the show's coffin — though to be honest, we'd put up with any number of gratuitous rise-from-the-grave moments if it meant we still "Once More, With Feeling," the sixth series' sublime musical episode. JS

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‘Dexter’

Au revoir, unholy Trinity (Season 4, Episode 12)
Facile argument: Dexter was ruined the moment its second season revealed itself, early on, as a weak re-brew of everything those first 12 episodes had so beautifully concocted. (Kill, cover-up, stalk worse killer, rinse, repeat.) But the true shark-leap was the moment that distinguished gentleman actor John Lithgow was knocked off at the end of Season Four. Many memorable stars came and went in Showtime's serial-murderer drama, but in his single-season run as the Trinity Killer, Lithgow repeatedly stole the show — and then was forced to vacate it (at the same time as some crucial co-stars), leaving a huge void in his wake. You knew it was coming, yet the series never really recovered from the loss, and only worsened in its damnably formulaic approach as it bled out over four more long seasons. ZD

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‘Downton Abbey’

Matthew Crawley meets a milk truck (Season 3, Christmas Special)
It was something the ratings gods never could have predicted: Americans were completely taken by a staunchly British show fueled by historical soapy intrigue, polite class warfare and the perfect deployment of an acidic Maggie Smith in a froufy hat. But as the show grew in viewership, Julian Fellowes seemed pressured to up the dramatic ante, and we had our concerns when Matthew's forgettable fiancé literally died of being emo in Season Two. But Downton could not recover from the laughably melodramatic demise of one of its main characters. (We get that it's 1921 and all, but who drives a car while staring up at the sky?) The show lost our trust with this Christmastime kicker involving Matthew, a milk truck and an abrupt exit, and then proceeded to lose our interest with a fourth season that veered between deadly dull and just plain awful. The upcoming Season Five may turn the tide, but we think it may be time to vacate the estate. JS

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‘Friends’

"I take thee, Rachel…" (Season 4, Episode 24)
Ross saying Rachel's name during his wedding vows with Emily in London at the end of the Season Four cliffhanger was a giant, neon-light indicator that this must-see-TV show might continue to be your favorite for its remaining six years — but that it would never be something you could fully respect again. Sure, you'd still get lots of Chandler quips and Central Perk shenanigans before the show bowed out (it would still be therrrrre for yooooou), but that nuptial-ceremony snafu was the proverbial "shark" and point of no return; that Freudian slip is Friends essentially admitting that it would be always be as manipulative and back-and-forth-y with these beloved characters as it could be, forever. ZD

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‘Glee’

A self-made marriage (Season 2, Episode 8)
Like a shooting star, Glee burned bright and faded very fast. The Fox phenomenon was an early shark-jumper, showing cracks in its foundation by Season Two – and then, eight episodes in, sharp-tongued coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) married herself in a groan-worthy subplot and openly gay character Kurt (Chris Colfer) transferred schools due to bullying. Until this point, the show's over-the-top antics were "charming." After this episode, it often moved into eye-rolling territory. By the Season Three finale, ratings were down, the series had lost its luster at awards shows, and much of the original cast was scattered to the wind. Still, we'll always have New Directions' memorable rendition of "Don't Stop Believin' " to help hold on to that original pop-culture feeling. KK

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‘Homeland’

Terrorists hack the Vice President's pacemaker (Season 2, Episode 10)
Yes, that's right: A show that beat the likes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones to take the Emmy for Best Drama its first season out of the gate, not only featured a storyline where terrorist hackers remotely shut down the pacemaker of the Vice President of the United States — they did it in an episode called "Broken Hearts." [Groan] While many of Homeland's problems stem from the decision to keep Marine sniper turned terrorist sleeper agent Nicholas Brody alive following a failed suicide bombing at the end of Season One, his chemistry with CIA nemesis/true love Carrie Mathison kept the show ticking artificially. (Kinda like a, well, you know.) The pacemaker twist, however, is where the show's plausibility finally took one licking too many. STC

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‘Lost’

Take you pick! (Seasons 2-6)
Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse's twisty, ridiculous, occasionally brilliant series practically made a sport out of shark-jumping. It hooked us with compelling characters and high-grade mysteries, then proceeded to raise more questions than it could ever hope to answer. No one agrees when exactly Lost lost its mojo, because there is no one JTS moment that stands above the rest. Was it when the survivors met the Others and they didn't make any sense? Or when the infamously annoying Nikki and Paulo materialized on the scene? Or when Claire got amnesia? Or when the Island traveled back in time? Or when Locke was resurrected? Or when it turned out that all the evil in the world was being held back by a literal cork? Or when… The point is, Lost disappointed us at least as many times as it bowled us over. This show was a crazy mess and we loved…well, about 50 percent of it. JS

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‘The Office’

Jim and Pam tie the knot (Season 6, Episode 4)
In its heyday, Greg Daniels's mockumentary sitcom was one of the best comedies on television, balancing cringe comedy and sweet-natured character studies. But that perfect blend began to sour around the same time as those crazy kids Jim and Pam finally got hitched; they consequently morphed into being annoying jerks, and we lost our audience surrogates into this world of socially delayed salesmen and bumbling accountants. The stakes became so low that the show had to start jumping through hoops, and the cringe humor became just plain cringeworthy. By the time the show's boss Michael Scott (and Steve Carell) departed for greener pastures, The Office was already a shell of its former self. JS

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‘True Blood’

Welcome to Faerie-Land (Season 3, Episode 7)
"I'm a faerie? How fucking lame!" Indeed, Sookie Stackhouse, indeed. True Blood was already starting to get away from itself — too many characters, not a firm enough grasp on any of them — when it revealed that the source of Sookie's occasional flashes of psychic power, not to mention her irresistible vampire magnetism, was…faerie blood. Is this any more ridiculous than werepanthers, or the idea that a Republican-controlled House of Representatives would pass vampire equality legislation? Not necessarily. But the corny, silly faerie world, costumes, and special effects made the series look unwittingly cheap and stupid rather than knowingly trashy. For a show trying to walk the fine line between camp and crap, that kind of failure is the true death. STC