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Why do TV and movie characters jump the shark?

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Did TV's "Homeland" jump the shark Sunday, December 15th? In its third season finale it did some things that should give its audience great pause. The actions of its central character Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) defied credibility, storytelling sense and strained audience good will. Unfortunately, this kind of narrative nonsense has become all too common in TV and movies as well. So why do so many characters change into absurd caricatures of themselves, becoming ridiculous insults to their audiences?

We’ve all heard the term ‘that show has jumped the shark’. It comes from the notorious episode late in the run of "Happy Days" when Fonzie performed in a water ski stunt show, still wearing his famous leather jacket, and jumped over a man-eating shark. The show, and the tough biker character, never recovered from that ludicrous storyline. The legacies were tarnished immediately and continue to be by the term ‘jumped the shark’, which is now applied to similar lapses in storytelling taste and judgment from Hollywood.

And last night, the Showtime TV series "Homeland"came dangerously close to doing just that. The lead character of Carrie Mathison did in many ways, and will have to fight back to regain audience faith in her again. Interestingly, Showtime has had a huge problem with this sort of thing before, with their lead characters doing 180’s and becoming virtually unrecognizable. That’s what happened with serial killer "Dexter" in season five. He stopped being the murderer driven by bloodlust and turned into a cuddly ‘super dad’. His ‘jump the shark’ moment happened when the show’s writers wrapped up the Trinity Killer narrative and chose to let Dexter escape scot-free without any real fallout from that bloodbath.

The Carrie character's 180 is as unfortunate. She’s gone from a smart, calculating CIA analyst to a silly schoolgirl crushing on a bad boy in its three years on TV. What happened to the shrewd government operative that was so suspicious of returning war hero Brody (Damian Lewis) in season one? She knew there was something off about him and even though she compromised herself by sleeping with him midway through that first year, she still exposed his guilt as he was about to blow up the Vice President in a CIA bunker.

Since then though, Carrie has only taken Brody’s side, even though he’s given her no constancy to believe in. His actions have been all over the map, literally and figuratively, and he’s betrayed his country more than once. He's also betrayed his wife and family, and Carrie as well. Oh, and he eventually succeeded in killing the Vice President by inducing a heart attack as he cut off the man's pacemaker. So why did the writers continually ask us to root for Brody and for Carrie's belief in him? Her blind allegiance to him over cause and country has made this once brilliant drama seem too much like a soap opera.

And lest we forget, because the writers of the show certainly have, the whole driver of Carrie’s actions and the plot of the series from the start was supposed to be her guilt over not stopping 9-11 from happening. It’s there in the credits every week, for heaven’s sake. So what happened to all that? A career CIA analyst is spun into a tizzy by one or two rolls in the hay with a dangerous double agent and that makes sloppy storytelling acceptable? The sex is so astounding that it makes a character ignore everything else including direct orders from her boss Saul (Mandy Patinkin) to foreign policy moves at behest of the President? How absurd a character is this we’re supposed to be investing in?

And then last night (spoiler warning) before Brody was going to be executed, he requested one last thing of Carrie and that was for her not to attend his public hanging. So what does she do? She not only appeared at the early morning spectacle but she rather conspicuously climbed the surrounding chain link fence to scream out his name once last time so they could make eye contact before he dies. She put everything in jeopardy by doing that – the mission, the embedded spy they had in the Iranian government, our nation's foreign policy – and all for one last look into Brody’s baby blues? And then four months later, she’s rewarded for such shenanigans by being promoted to run the whole Istanbul station. Do the writers have as much contempt for their their audience as they do their characters?

Of course, it’s not a whole lot better in the movie world these days either. Just look at what's happened with the "Die Hard" franchise. This year’s fifth installment of the series was utterly unwatchable as "A Good Day To Die Hard" turned the once vulnerable and relatable Detective John McClane into an unstoppable Rambo. You’ll remember in the first film, McClane was a ‘regular guy’ cop from New York visiting his estranged wife and kids for Christmas in LA. While at her office party, the high-rise was taken over by terrorists and McClane was the hostages' only hope. As he battled to save them and take out the baddies, he was virtually alone, upset, stressing, even crying over his dilemma. And he got injured time and time again, leaping from one action set piece to another. He famously cut his feet to ribbons fighting against those Euro-trash villains in the destroyed office space, and we in the audience empathized with his every agonizing step along the way.

But now, he acts like every other Bruce Willis action hero – squinting dismissively, whispering his acerbic dialogue like it’s all in a day’s work, throwing himself into harm’s way with nary a care, and coming out with little more than a few scratches. McClane is too cool for school now and thus he’s become a bore. The average man has become Superman and the character and franchise have jumped the shark. (Oh, and where is McClane’s hair? Must every Willis action role now be played completely bald?)

There are dozens of examples of this kind of character betrayal in movie franchises. You can see it in everything from Freddy Krueger being turned into a laughable goon battling Jason Voorhees in the umpteenth "Nightmare on Elm Street" sequel to the Jigsaw killer from "Saw" offing innocent cops when he’s supposed to be targeting bad guys who have it coming. The writers don't know what they've got. Thank God James Bond has at least remained almost wholly consistent to Ian Fleming’s vision. Bond may be a ruthless assassin and a heavy-drinking womanizer, but at least we know where he stands.

TV may be the worst culprit for character shark jumping as a series go on for years and years. Too often characters evolve to where they no longer resemble their origins. Look at how increasingly sympathetic the original villain Margaret Houlihan became during the later seasons of "M*A*S*H", even crying over not being invited by her fellow nurses to coffee. Paulie Walnuts started out on "The Sopranos" in 1999 as a cold killer but was mostly the comic relief by its 2007 season. Carlos, Gabby’s husband on "Desperate Housewives", went from hapless husband to crime boss, even though he was hardly the Walter White type. And perhaps the most notorious of all was the transition of Luke Spencer from Laura’s rapist on daytime drama "General Hospital" to the love of her life months later. They went on to become soap’s most popular couple in the history of the medium. Sometimes audiences can be too accepting.

And it is all about keeping the audience, I grant you. And engaging a fickle lot with their finger on the remote 24/7 is no easy task. And the longer a TV series or movie franchise goes on, the harder it is to keep things fresh. But that’s the challenge for filmmakers and show runners and they need to demand more consistency in what they're doing. Their characters need to stay true to themselves, and the audience. When "Homeland" makes as many miscalculations with Carrie as it did this season, it turns a great character into a caricature, and a sterling drama into near farce.

At least now with Brody gone, there’s hope for the show again and that Carrie will return to focusing on terrorists. Although the fact that she’s about to deliver Brody’s baby gives one pause. It's all too easy to imagine her going from clingy, crazy girlfriend to manic baby mama, isn't it?


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