‘Jumping the Shark’, ‘Fridging the Girlfriend’ and 8 Other Pop Culture Idioms Explained


When lurking around the internet and talking about movies, TV shows, comics and the like there are some odd terms that get thrown about by trendy folks who like to sound clever (like me). You may have heard some of these and been a bit fuzzy on what they mean or where they come from. Well, it’s your lucky day! I’m here to fill your head with useless trivia that makes you sound like a right smarty pants!

Jumping the Shark

Let’s begin with what is no doubt the most commonly used: jumping the shark. Whilst this term can be applied to any long running series it most commonly applies to television. The ‘shark’ refers to the point of no return in a long running series, the exact moment it became clear that what made it worth watching was lost forever. These moments often come in the form of new characters being introduced, main characters exiting, sudden location changes, reliance on guest stars, major members of the production team leaving or a combination of the above.

The original shark jump was quite literal. The idiom refers to Happy Days season 5 episode ‘Hollywood, Part Three of Three’ where fan favourite character Fonzie (Henry Winkler) jumps over a pool of sharks on a water ski. Although it didn’t have a major impact on the show ratings at the time, it was seen as the point where Happy Days got irreversibly silly.

Fonzie jumping over the shark at the beach on Happy Days

Key Examples: The Office, Two and Half Men and That 70’s Show forcibly continuing after the departure of their lead characters, the suburb burning down in Weeds and escaping the prison in Prison BreakRoseanne winning the lottery, cousin Oliver joining The Brady Bunch, the London wedding in Friends, when Larry David left Seinfeld…then there’s Lost, which made shark jumping an Olympic sport…the list goes on…

Nuking the Fridge

This carries the same meaning as ‘jumping the shark’, but is applied to movie franchises rather than TV shows. It refers to the moment in a movie when it becomes clear that what you’re watching isn’t going to be as good as previous installments and may require a complete reboot to repair the harm.

As you may have guessed the terms refers to the scene in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull where the ridiculous prologue sequences featuring prairie dogs and a psychic and communist Cate Blanchett is capped off with Indy surviving a nuclear explosion by hiding inside a fridge.

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Key Examples: Peter Parker’s street dance routine, Jar-Jar Binks, James Bond surfing into a covert mission, Sofia Coppola’s first scene in The Godfather Part III, dragging out every minor cast member to share centre stage in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and pretty much every second sequel in 3D.

Growing the Beard

The logical opposite of ‘jumping the shark’ or ‘nuking the fridge’ is ‘growing the beard’. This refers to a series or franchise that makes a significant change for the better. Suddenly the series finds its feet, sets the course and goes from ‘meh’ to cult classic.

As with the previous two idioms, this one takes its name from a literal example. Star Trek: The Generation struggled under expectation and a sense of identity to separate it from the original show. The sudden improvement and popularity of the show coincided with Commander Riker growing a beard.

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Key Examples: Dropping Brendanawicz while making Ron and Andy more prominent grew Parks and Recreation a fabulous beard. Red Dwarf went from good to great with the inclusion of android Kryten as a main character. Buffy the Vampire Slayer lay down its dramatic potential in the second season with the Spike, Drusilla and Angelus arc. Making the Penguin a more central character worked wonders for Gotham. Quality levels of The Walking Dead can be charted by Rick Grimes’ beardiness.

Fridging the Girlfriend

Why is it fridges cause pop culture so much trouble? When a female character is ‘fridged’ it means they have been killed, depowered, raped or otherwise removed for the sole purpose of motivating the male protagonist. This is especially common in comic books, wherein a strong, established female hero gets bumped just to give her male counterpart a reason to fight the badguys. Meanwhile male superheroes tend to gain more noble, meaningful death scenes.

As you’d expect, the origins of the expression is in comic books. Kyle Raynor, at the time the Green Lantern, finding his girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt is unceremoniously murdered, dismembered and jammed into a fridge. All to give Green Lantern more reason to go and fight ‘Major Force’. Gail Simone coined the term to bring to creators and readers attention that this was a disturbing narrative trend that gets used with alarming frequency.

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Key Examples: Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, was shot and left to die by the Joker in order to motivate Batman to hunt down the madman and…then share a joke with him in The Killing Joke, only for the next writers to reveal she was paralyzed and not killed to prevent her from being ‘fridged’. But really, if you want examples check out Gail Simone’s list.

Ashcan Movies

Sometimes a studio has to release a movie. Not for public demand or because it’s a story that demands to be told, but because the contract says so. When the rights to a film is bought it often comes with the stipulation that a film be released in set time or the rights revert to the original owners, so a cheap, crappy, filmed the night before minimal requirement gets made to meet contract requirements.

The term comes from ‘ashcan’ formally being a common term for a trashcan. That’s all.

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Key Examples: The most infamous is the 1994 Fantastic Four made by Roger Corman. Although the cast and director were not in the know, there was never any intention to release it. Made on a tiny budget it has laughable effects, terrible production values and is only worth watching for the cringe. Still, better than the last one. There’s also a barely animated 1966 version of The Hobbit plus the ninth Hellraiser movie made in only two weeks.

Lampshading

This handy device is a way for creators to defuse the obvious use of a clicheé or familiar trope by addressing it directly. Whenever a character notes that the plan they have is crazy and will never work, that’s hanging a lampshade over the whole thing. It’s a wink and a nod to the audience that we all know this is overdone, but we’re doing it anyway.

Key Examples: “Dawn’s in trouble. Must be Tuesday.” and “It’s the apocalypse.” “Again?” are two fun examples from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Austin Powers films like this technique, shrugging off the complexities of time travel plots with, “I suggest you that you don’t worry about these things and try to have fun!” (said by a character named ‘Basil Exposition’). In the same vein is Galaxy Quest, which pokes fun at many sci-fi tropes. When Malcolm tries to juggle two simultaneous dates in Malcolm in the Middle he comments that “This is like that episode of… well, everything.”

Killer App

Whenever a new console, handheld, phone or gadget is announced they like to talk about the specs and technology behind it. But let’s face it, we don’t buy things for the specs any more. We leave it to the early adopters to find all the bugs. We want a tangible reason to buy a new system. A particular game or app that makes it worth getting is a ‘Killer App’.

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Key Examples: Goldeneye for the N64 and Super Smash Bros Melee for the Game Cube, Metal Gear Solid 2Gran Turismo 3 and Final Fantasy X all contributed to the Playstation 2 being the best selling console in history and Halo helped put the X-Box on the map.

Development Hell

Getting a movie from a concept to the screens is a ridiculously complicated process even before the cameras start rolling. In between studios, producers, directors, marketers and investors you have a large number of camps with different goals and ideas about what the film should be and what it should achieve. Hollywood being Hollywood means we that have plenty of dirty tactics at work, leaving scripts and ideas going through endless changes and unable to pull together a crew to make it work. Movies can languish in this process of rewrites, reimaginings and recasting for years. That time is called ‘development hell’.

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Smaug, as seen in Del Toro’s ‘The Hobbit’, lost to Development Hell.

Key Examples: A number of Star Wars and Buffy spin-off TV shows have failed to materialise past the conceptual stages. Guillermo Del Toro is particularly susceptible to this trope, having his adaptations of The HobbitAkira and At the Mountains of Madness fall through the gaps. National Treasure 2 and Get Smart 2 have been in limbo as the casts have been busy elsewhere. Dozens of video game adaptations including Peter Jackson’s Halo, a Brad Pitt starring Red Dead Redemption and Gore Verbinski directed Bioshock have failed to appear. It’s an endless and growing list.

An Alan Smithee Film

Ok, not quite an idiom but an official term used by the Directors Guild of America. When a director does not wish to take credit for a film, or can prove that they did not have sufficient control of the project, they can enter the pseudonym ‘Alan Smithee’ into the credits in the place of their own name. So ‘Alan Smithee’ can be used to describe a particular bad movie or other media that the creators want to discredit.

It was first used on the film Death of a Gunfighter, where Don Siegel felt that first director Richard Widmark did as much of the work as he did, and the latter didn’t want to be credited.

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That’s a funny way to spell ‘David Lynch’.

Key Examples: The biopic of Mister Burns in The Simpsons is credited to ‘Alan Smithee’. The assistant director on a segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie used Alan Smithee after three actors died on set. Sequels to The Birds, Hellraiser and Might Ducks have all been chalked up to Alan Smithee. Some alternate cuts of films have been given over the Smithee, including David Lynch’s Dune.

Franchise Original Sin

In short, this is when a series makes a mistake. A small mistake. One that can be ignored in favour of the superior aspects of the media or that is fine in small doses. But over time it comes back time and time again. Maybe the good elements fade leaving the sin more exposed. Perhaps it all started as a random, one-off joke or event that people liked so they did it again. Then they kept doing it and suddenly people are sick of it. We’ve got examples of all of these sins.

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What do you mean, the joke has been played out?

Key Examples: Urkel springs to mind. He was a popular side character who got given more and more importance he eventually sunk Family Matters. Both Lost and Heroes staked their reputations on their mysterious, eventually piling more and more mysteries onto the shows that they would never see satisfying resolutions. Glee sunk itself trying to cash in on tribute episodes and guest stars rather than focused storytelling. Community seemed smart enough to avoid these mistakes, but running the ‘Inspector Spacetime’ gag into the ground without having seen Doctor Who annoyed fans of both shows. The random all-singing, all-dancing musical number in American Horror Story: Asylum was well received, so AHS: Freak Show had five without any contextual reason.

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