In 1977 one of the most iconic characters of the classic TV show Happy Days played by actor and former waterskiing instructor Henry Winkler, the Fonz put on his little swim trunks and signature leather jacket to get ready for a sick stunt. A crowd gathered as he zoomed behind a speedboat toward a ramp that led to a shark pinned in place by some buoys. He soared effortlessly over the notoriously dangerous creature for no reason other than the fact that it looked cool.
Over a decade later, two guys at the University of Michigan John Hein and Sean Connolly used this scene as an example to decry various random, pointless, attention-getting moments in television shows. Thus, the term “jump the shark” was born. Since the phrase caught on, people have been using it to refer to shows that are simply doing ridiculous things just to get people talking about how ridiculous it is so that they get more viewership and, ultimately, keep the fame and fortune flowing.
CW’s Riverdale is a show that jumps the shark at least ten times an episode. Heck, you could even say that they’ve been doing it for so long and so consistently that it’s not even jumping the shark anymore; it’s just what the show is. I hate a lot of the ideology behind the show, most of the characters annoy me, and the plots by and large are nonsensical and unengaging, but despite all that, I can’t pull myself away because it’s ridiculous. The trainwreck draws me in and keeps me engaged.
That’s because, you see, what’s missing from most accounts of the origins of “jumping the shark” is that Happy Days went on for seven more seasons! By the time Fonzie hopped on the skis, they were about only a third of the way through the series. Not to mention that Happy Days would go on to spawn a myriad of spin-off series, six of which happened after the shark-jumping incident. Jumping the shark often implies that a show is headed downhill, but I’d dare to say that most of the time, shows have jumped the shark on their way to the top, not in their dying throes.
When people hear that a show has jumped the shark, I think it also implies that the show had some grace to fall from. The thing with Riverdale is that they wanted to establish the dark and gritty tone and distinguish themselves from the source material, so they jumped the shark from the start. They wrote in that Archie Andrews (KJ Apa) has an affair with his teacher, that Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) goes into a weird, murderous fugue state and almost kills a man while attempting to extort information from him, Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) gives a speech about how weird he is for always wearing a hat, and another character burns down her family mansion because her parents are evil and directly involved in the brutal death of her brother. All of this happens in the first season, and trust me when I say that it’s not even half of the ridiculous stuff that happens in season 1.
I even joke that it’s impossible to spoil Riverdale because you could tell me literally anything happens and I would believe you. This is because Riverdale is a show that absolutely demands attention for 22 hour-long episodes across what has been nearly six seasons so far, and that is a really, really difficult amount of content to produce. Their solution is to take that one shark-jump and pile more sharks on top. The goal of being so absurd is to get you to talk about the show, because if you talk about the show, more people are likely to watch the show. If more people watch, then they get to keep making the show. This is especially effective online, where it only takes the right wacky thing to blow up.
It’s the perfect grift, right?
Well, it turns out that everybody involved in the show apparently wants out so much so that some of the actors have taken to comparing being in the show to prison. The cast and crew just simply can’t do anything else with their lives. It turns out that when you’re shooting and editing over a hundred hour-long episodes across 5 years, you don’t have a lot of time for other projects or leisure.
Not to mention that many of these actors are known almost exclusively for being on Riverdale, so they can feel their careers tethered to the show’s success, for better or for worse. Many of these people are in my mind forever stamped as the dopey serial killer dad or hilariously over-the-top creepy mortician, and that’s not what all of these people want to be known for. This is especially true as the show has to keep piling on more and more ridiculous things for these characters to be inevitably associated with.
But perhaps bigger than this is that the show is inevitably going to have to or (want to) make statements about the human condition or current events. Sure, the show started ridiculous and continued getting more ridiculous, but eventually the show realizes that it’s playing with sensitive subjects and they just absolutely do not have the time, resources, or tone to handle these thoroughly or meaningfully. The show has made statements on Satanic panic of (pseudo) Dungeons & Dragons, gang warfare, prison exploitation, drug epidemics, racism, homophobia, sexism, the allure of cults, rape culture, and so, so much more.
The result of these things being in Riverdale is that each and every one feels like just another plot point to move us from one shock to the next, or to establish some trait about a recurring character. It’s insultingly reductive, even when they devote an entire episode to a character experiencing firsthand a century of her family’s legacy in relationship to American anti-Black racism enacted through overt and implicit laws and customs, policing, zoning practices, and more.
They clearly put in a lot of work to make episode 11 of Season 6, Angels in America, feel deep and meaningful, but every single point the show comes close to making is undercut entirely by its setting, tone, and execution. When the main character of the episode Tabitha Tate (Erinn Westbrook) dedicates herself to racial and economic solidarity even in the face of violence at the hands of the literal American government, the show’s solution is to have her place an angry phone call to the director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover and blackmail him with her time-traveler-from-2022 knowledge of his then-1968 illegal surveillance of US Government officials.
Tabitha’s struggles in this episode are extremely real to millions of people, but when placed next to the same episode’s revelation that the main villain is actually an immortal time demon who is in the possession of the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus, the racism seems as trivial as a teen lovers’ quarrel or whether or not Mothman exists and is an alien, especially when the problem turns out to be less tenacious than any other problem in the show.
If you want to experience a similar rollercoaster in 12 seconds, watch this clip of Archie having a conversation with another juvenile inmate, or read it below.
When they’re piling sharks onto the shark-jumping pile, eventually questions start coming up. Where are they getting all these sharks from? Are they okay? Is this causing some kind of ecological event? Am I too deep in this metaphor? Probably.
Grasping at things for shock value means they eventually play with fire but they don’t have the foundation to handle it safely and effectively, and, of course, they don’t want to dwell on the social issue for more than an episode. These things cease to have any meaning, especially to the viewers with next to no personal experience with the issue in question. The issue feels resolvable, simple, and abstract. Yeah Jughead was homeless for a little bit, but once his novel kicked off, it was smooth sailing and New York apartments aplenty! Oh, sorry, his life wasn’t actually suddenly great because he had several addiction problems, but he turned his life around by simply deciding not to drink or do drugs!
Everything is on the same level: Maximum. Nothing is deft or subtle.
But the problem is that I can’t stop watching it.
The thing about constantly doing ridiculous things is that it’s so fucking compelling and it gives me so many funny things to talk about. It’s something I can just put on and know I’ll feel something, even if that something is intense disgust and shame.
So I’m glad that one of my most watched and talked about shows of all time is ending with season seven, meaning I have probably under 30 more hours of Riverdale in my lifetime. I’ll both miss it and be unfathomably glad to have it torn from my life.