One of my favorite American idioms is “jumping the shark,” which refers to the moment when something that was good becomes rubbish. It derives from an episode of the popular U.S. sitcom “Happy Days,” in which The Fonz, a character who was supposed to be the very epitome of cool, jumped over a shark on water skis. Why? Well, the writers had run out of ideas and wanted to revitalize the show. Instead, the image of The Fonz in swimming trunks and leather jacket suspended in mid-air over a shark became crystallized in the popular consciousness as the moment when the series lost all justification for its existence, beginning a slow decline that lasted a further five years until merciful cancellation.
Since The Fonz’s fateful slow-mo leap in 1977, many actors, directors and TV shows have jumped the shark. For instance: Robert De Niro. Once upon a time he was great, but now he’s rotten - apocalyptically bad. What was the last film he did that was even watchable? Probably Casino, and that came out in 1995. Since then, Machete, Stone, Little Fockers… ugh: seventeen years of taking the paycheck in exchange for strapping on the metaphorical water skis and leaping over sharks.
He’s not the only one: Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino - who both peaked at the same time as De Niro - slipped into tight fitting trunks and took the leap around twenty years ago. And then there’s Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather Part Three. Coppola’s peer Martin Scorcese hovers eternally on the verge of the great leap, but hasn’t quite made it yet.
The interesting thing is the anger and disappointment fans feel. Nobody cares if Steven Segal makes a duff film, or if Tom Cruise knocks off another mega-budget boring commercial blockbuster. That’s what they do. But when it comes to great artists, there’s a sense that they are betraying their talent, their integrity, their audience. Robert DeNiro owes his audience nothing, but still it’s depressing to see him squandering his gift on garbage in exchange for cash. We expect more.
Is “jumping the shark” restricted to the world of popular entertainment? Not at all: I think it has applications in the world of politics also. It would be too glib to apply the term to the career of a tyrant like Bashar Al-Assad, but when it comes to less lethal political regimes like the comedy bumblers of the EU then I think it’s quite useful.
For many years I maintained a typically British attitude to the EU - the visa free travel was nice, and the open market stuff sounded plausible, but the utopian goal of a federal United States of Europe was risible. In short, I viewed the EU as rubbish but an essentially benign organization. But then came the fiasco over the European constitution, which was rejected in referenda by the French and Dutch (Gordon Brown denied the British a vote). It was duly renamed a treaty and passed via national parliaments, thus circumventing the will of the people. Even then, the Irish rejected it, and so they were forced to vote again, until the people produced the result their masters in Brussels wanted.
At that point, the EU totally jumped the shark, and everything that has happened since then - appointing a comedy Belgian as “president,” lecturing other countries about democracy, dumping billions of euros into a series of gaping black holes - has been a series of footnotes. The sad thing is that, like the final five seasons of Happy Days or Robert DeNiro in Analyze That, it’s not even funny.
But is the EU the only political organization to have jumped the shark? It’s difficult to say. Ever since protests erupted against Vladimir Putin late last year, pundits have speculated that the Russian president is about to strap on his skis. I don’t see it happening yet, but what about all this Pussy Riot business? It’s bizarre to witness the full might of the state being deployed against three clueless young women whose protest was so asinine. Hardly anybody thinks their treatment is fair, either inside or outside Russia. Putin himself recently dropped hints that the process might have gone a bit far. At the end of the day though, I don’t think the Russian authorities will suffer much should the members of Pussy Riot wind up in prison for several years. The opposition already hates the state; its reputation is not at stake.
The Orthodox Church, however, that’s a different matter. In the 1990s, most of Russia’s intelligentsia had a more or less favorable attitude to the church. But with the ecclesiastical hierarchy endorsing severe punishments for Pussy Riot, they seem to be at risk of alienating educated opinion once and for all, signaling a return to 19th century attitudes, when most “progressive” intellectuals saw the church as a corrupt tool of the ruling authorities. If the church has not yet jumped the shark, then Patriarch Kirill and his colleagues are surely preparing to hurtle over another aquatic creature at least - like a tuna, or perhaps a very big catfish.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.