Are you familiar with the phrase "jump the shark?"
It's become a TV cliche, but it was based, as most good cliches are, in a certain amount of truth. In this case, it was based on an episode from the Happy Days TV series — which began its existence as a nice, nostalgic look at growing up in the 1950s, but it ran out of material so, when the fifth season began in 1977, the familiar characters left their homes in Milwaukee and went to the West Coast, where Fonzie literally jumped over a shark while water skiing.
Many years later, the phrase "jump the shark" was first used to describe the point when a once–popular TV series is losing viewers and resorts to ludicrous story lines in a desperate attempt to revive interest.
In the case of Happy Days, it actually may have helped the show remain on the air for several more years, but, as I say, this phrase is almost always used to describe the rapid descent of a TV show. I think it could be used to describe some movies (and their numerous sequels) as well.
I'm thinking of one in particular — the "Rocky" film series, the fourth of which made its debut today.
Like everyone else, I cheered when Rocky Balboa, a "ham 'n' egger from South Philly," got his chance to fight for the title in the original movie back in the mid–1970s. It was make or break for Sylvester Stallone, much like Rocky's title shot, and it really paid off handsomely for him. I've heard that the film cost less than $1 million to make, and it earned back more than 100 times that at the box office. Rocky didn't win that fight so there was an obvious opportunity to cash in on the movie's popularity — with a rematch.
And, so, "Rocky II" came along a few years later to satisfy the audience's craving for more. All the stars were back, and Rocky got his rematch with Apollo. Obviously, moviegoers wouldn't sit still for seeing essentially the same story — in which Rocky comes close but doesn't win — in the sequel. This time, Rocky had to win.
And he did.
And, in the eyes of most viewers, that should have been the end of that particular film franchise. But it wasn't. Not by a long shot.
Part III came along a few years later. Rocky and Apollo had joined forces after Rocky's trainer died while Rocky was preparing for his bid to reclaim the title from the thug who took it from him, Clubber Lang (played by then–popular TV star Mr. T).
The film was astonishingly successful — and impressive (by second sequel standards) — but everyone I knew said this certainly must be the last installment in the series, the third and final chapter of the Rocky "trilogy."
But Rocky wasn't finished. Thus, it was on this day 25 years ago that the "Rocky" franchise officially jumped the shark, in my view.
It was in the midst of the Reagan administration, the Cold War, the anti–Soviet hysteria, and "Rocky" promoted the kind of feel–good political propaganda that was so prevalent in those days — that America and democracy were better than Russia and communism because one American could beat one Russian in an American movie about boxing.
I refused to contribute to the "Rocky IV" propaganda fest — out of principle. I did see the movie — eventually when it came to TV. I've never seen it on the big screen. At the time, it was virtually a point of pride.
In hindsight, though, that may have been hypocritical of me. Perhaps the "Rocky" franchise always specialized in exploiting the audience's emotions. It just wasn't always blatant about it.
If "Rocky IV" came off as calculating in its exploitation of U.S.–Soviet tensions, wasn't the first film in the series equally guilty of pushing all the right (and timely) emotional buttons with its theme of a perennial underdog getting a shot at the grand prize on the nation's Bicentennial?
And didn't the second film do much the same thing by rewarding viewers with a tangible victory instead of merely a moral one in the sequel? Surely it wasn't coincidental that Rocky, in the words of Perry Seibert of AllMovie.com, "stopped being one of the common men and became an icon" in that second film — released, as it was, in a year marked by a nuclear meltdown, gas lines and, eventually, the hostage crisis in Iran.
In 1979, Americans felt battered. "Rocky II" lifted their spirits and made them feel things were possible.
Certainly the third one did — with the one–time rivals, Rocky and Apollo, working together to put down the young and roguish (and aptly named) Clubber Lang.
From there, of course, we came to this day 25 years ago, when politics was introduced into the mix.
I wish I could say the "Rocky" series ended in 1985, but it didn't. There was a "Rocky V" in 1990. I never saw it, not even on TV, but I saw ads for it.
Rocky had been staggered in his fight with the Russian (a political metaphor, perhaps?) and was realizing, like many athletes, that his talents were leaving him as he aged so Rocky, reluctant to leave the sport entirely, ran a gym and promoted a young protege. He and the protege had a falling out, and Rocky disappeared from movie screens.
The series seemed to be over.
But then, in 2006 — 30 years after the original film was released — Rocky returned in "Rocky Balboa," I never saw it, but I have been told it was a pretty good movie. Maybe, but it sounded a little implausible to me.
Nevertheless, that was the fifth and supposedly final sequel.
I still think Rocky jumped the shark 25 years ago today.