The Fonz and the Shark

This afternoon at 5:30 p.m. CST, MeTV will repeat the iconic Happy Days episode, “Hollywood, Part 3.” For those of you who don’t have episode titles of Happy Days memorized, this is the opening trio of episodes from season three when the Fonz goes to Hollywood for a screen test to become the next James Dean.

Oh yeah, he also water skis and jumps over a shark.

That moments has become iconic in pop-culture history thanks to Josh Hein and his college roommates coming up with popular phrase “jump the shark” to define the moment when a piece of pop culture (mostly TV shows) peaks and begins to decline in quality. And while I may not think the “Hollywood” trilogy of episodes is the best example of Happy Days at it’s best, I’d argue that the Fonz jumping the shark wasn’t the moment the series started to decline. (It’s the moment Ron Howard left and the show elevated Scott Baio to leading man status).

I’m not alone in this feeling either — the episodes’ writer Fred Fox made the case for this as well a few years ago. The episode was also the focus of a Mental Floss post earlier this month — almost as if someone there looked at the schedule and knew this episode would be on my mind this week.

I unabashedly love Happy Days. I enjoy the repeats on MeTV and I’ve got all the seasons available for purchase on DVD. (I’m still not sure why they released all but one of the Ron Howard seasons.) And while I would never put this Hollywood trilogy up there in my top tier of episodes, I do think the trilogy and Happy Days as a whole gets a bad rap for a memorable pop-culture moment.

Kicking off season five, the Hollywood storyline is meant to lure in viewers the way the three-part story with Pinky Tuskadero did a season four. It’s built on stunt casting (Lorne Green cameos, for heaven’s sake!), lots of location filming (the cast seem to be having a fun vacation and occasionally filming), and highlighting the cast in ways the show normally didn’t (Henry Winkler apparently told producers he could water ski and they wrote it in).

But the central dynamic of the friendship of Richie and the Fonz is still in place (it gets tested here when Richie gets a movie offer and Fonzie doesn’t).

At this point, the Fonz was the central marketing feature of the show, thanks in large part to Winkler’s charm and Howard’s understanding of pop culture and entertainment.

Early on, the Fonz was a bit of a harder character with a definite edge to him. Even in season three when the show reboots a bit from a single-cam show about being a teenager in the 50s to a multi-cam show with the Fonz living over the Cunningham’s garage, the Fonz still had an edge. In “The Motorcycle,” we see that edge as everyone tries to protect Ralph from Fonzie beating up him up over a destroyed motorcycle. Or in “The Other Richie Cunningham” we see it in the Fonz’s plan to allow Richie to double date with Ralph while having Potsie stand-in for him on a blind date Howard has set up and then Fonzie’s solution when the whole thing goes sideways thanks to Potsie getting handsy.

Probably my favorite example is from “Richie Fights Back.” After being humiliated by bullies and Joanie besting his at karate, Richie turns to the Fonz for help in being “tough.” Fonzie gives him a few pointers, including acting tough and using an intimidating voice. It all comes to a head when the bullies come back to Arnold’s and Richie decides to stand up to them. When the intimidation factor doesn’t work, Richie asks Fonzie why, to which Fonzie replies that at some point you have to have to actually have a reputation to back it up.

The Fonz would slowly lose this edge in the back half of season three and much of season four. He’d become a bit more super-hero like as the show progressed, though seasons once Howard left attempt to show some character growth from the Fonz (he enters a long term relationship and wants to become a father in the final seasons).

But, the jump the shark moment isn’t quite the decline that pop-culture would have us think it is. The show would get a bit sillier as seasons went on (the gang taking on the mob and the Fonz faking his own death are not a highlight). And it’s not just the Fonz who would lose his edge as the series went along. (I’d argue that Ralph Malph’s character becomes increasingly one-note as the series goes along. If you look at him in seasons one and two, Ralph has an edge to him that just becomes Ralph is easily scared by the time Don Most departs).

So, I don’t necessarily think this is the beginning of the end for one of my favorite shows. If you’re tuning in today, there’s still a lot of good stuff left to come (among my favorites, the Fonz’s date checklist) and there’s some moments that dim the Fonz’s edge a bit more (his own song and dance in season six, for example). But I’d argue that the show’s real decline comes when Chachi is included in the opening credits. But that’s a story for another time.

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