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The term jump the shark was coined by Sean Connolly and Jon Hein in 1985, based on their premise that the scene that marks the beginning of the decline of the American television show Happy Days occurred in the episode in which The Fonz jumps over a shark on water skis. The phrase caught on and is now widely used, not only for TV series, to describe a far-fetched, ridiculous event that is indicative of a decline in quality.

An article I read today quotes someone saying that they stayed with Donald Trump until election night 2020...

"...when he came out and said the election was stolen. It was that night on ABC that I broke from him ... because here was the president of the United States using the trappings that had been given to him by the people of this country to create doubt on the fairness of our democracy. And to me, that just went beyond anything that he had done or said before. That was when he jumped the shark for me, and I was done."

I like 'jump the shark'. I'm also surprised I can't think of an older idiom that could serve in its place. 'The beginning of the end' is close but it lacks the explicative "ridiculousness" element; why it's the beginning of the end.

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    This isn't an expression that I've heard in UK. We did get Happy Days on TV but it wasn't exactly part of our culture. I might say that the then president "lost all credibility" but for the fact that he never had any in my book. But it was a jaw-dropping moment nonetheless. Jul 1, 2023 at 17:05
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    I don't think JtS is quite right in that quote. It's merely about tastefulness. For example, those Trump NFT's might be jumping the shark. Because of that I think you're getting answers which would fit in that quote, but don't mean the same thing as JtS. Likewise, the answers which are similar to JtS don't fit in the quote, since JtS didn't. Jul 1, 2023 at 23:11
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    I see such plot moves as acts of desperation, not necessarily lowered quality. Novelty substituting for substance. Jul 2, 2023 at 2:19
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    @WeatherVane - I have been familiar with it (UK) for more than 30 years. I did have to explain it to someone at work once about 5 years ago when I casually used it in conversation. Jul 2, 2023 at 14:14
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    How did they get the water skis on the shark?
    – Kirt
    Jul 4, 2023 at 0:52

11 Answers 11

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(Go) off the rails

Off the rails

Out of the proper or normal condition, off the usual or expected course.

1848 G. E. Jewsbury Let. Mar. (1892) 242 I was very worried, and I felt as if the least thing would throw me off the rails.

2007 Guardian (Nexis) 7 May (Sport section) 12 There we were bound for glory and suddenly it all went off the rails. [OED]

Go off the rails

To lose control and start to behave in a way that is not normal or acceptable M-W

As you point out, jump the shark (much less common and probably not widely known) usually refers specifically to a loss of credulity/quality in a TV series, film, book, movement, etc. on the part of viewers/readers/observers/followers often triggered by a specific outlandish event/episode. To go/run off the rails is much broader in applicability. It can conjure up the often disastrous consequences of an event as serious as a train derailment, although, as some of the Google Book examples illustrate, it can overlap with jump the shark and refer to judging a loss of credibility, quality, etc.


But the movie truly jumps the shark with its tacky, supposedly comical, finale that sees two werewolves in silhouette having sex (doggy style, naturally), and a jokey final coda that negates the very nature of the only two characters we care anything about.
...
But indeed it does offer some heart in the seemingly doomed relationship between the two likable leads—at least until it goes off the rails at film's end. Bryan Senn; The Werewolf Filmography (2017)

Then his story started to go off the rails. They had a listening device in his ear & sometimes used it to tell him things. Jeff Wade; Tales From the ER and other Places (2019)

As you must see, I disapproved. I regretted what happened. It was just one of those cases where a project by intense people who are under pressure runs off the rails. But there was no question that we had run off the rails. Andrew. St. George; Hearings, US House (1970)

No wonder the show went off the rails as soon as E. Wade's existing books had all been adapted. Olivia Dade; All the Feels (2021)

And yet I digress, since what matters to me is not really where Maya goes wrong but where filmmaking does, and I think this film goes off the rails when Bigelow and Boal carry out their belief that putting audiences in a scene helps them to understand something about it. David LaRocca; The Philosophy of War Films (2015)

Conscience is a gift. But it can become a merciless slavemaster. There is no doubt that anger at self usually runs far, far off the rails. It can become a fruitless, self-destructive routine, in the same way that anger at others can become a fruitless other-destructive obsession. David Powlison; Good and Angry (2016)

One of the girls added that even between friends, when it came to someone "going off the rails" on cocaine, for example, when someone is in obvious distress and showing signs of self-destruction: Felicia Garcia; Coping and Suicide amongst the Lads (2016)

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  • Very strong contender, except that 'jumping the shark', as I understand it, is something that someone (the script-writers/Trump) does to themselves; there's an element of self-destruction!
    – Dan
    Jul 1, 2023 at 17:41
  • But who is going off the rails? The person in the question making the speech, or the once-stalwart listening to it? Jul 1, 2023 at 19:53
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    @WeatherVane To go off the rails doesn't mean to lose faith. The OP is asking for something similar to jumping the shark.
    – DjinTonic
    Jul 1, 2023 at 21:34
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    @Dan I've added two of the many examples in Google Books that mention the self-destructive component frequently present.
    – DjinTonic
    Jul 2, 2023 at 10:31
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    A variant is "going off the deep end", which meets the requirement that it be an intentional act which makes no sense, the implication being that the person going off the deep end cannot swim.
    – JohnHunt
    Jul 3, 2023 at 21:12
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He Crossed the Rubicon. This is from the Romans, but it is idiomatic in English.

The phrase "crossing the Rubicon" is an idiom that means "passing a point of no return". Its meaning comes from allusion to the crossing of the river Rubicon by Julius Caesar in early January 49 BC. The exact date is unknown. Scholars usually place it on the night of 10 and 11 January, based on speeds at which messengers could travel at that time.

His crossing of the river precipitated Caesar's civil war, which ultimately led to Caesar's becoming dictator for life (dictator perpetuo)... (wikipedia)

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    I agree. Something like "Rubicon moment" clearly conveys an irrevocable transition, while alternatives like "go off the rails" also have emotive implications of mental instability which are best avoided. It's unfortunate though that Julius Caesar is probably as obscure to the last couple of generations as The Fonz is to those of us who are older. Jul 2, 2023 at 10:31
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    Caesar was making an irrevocable choice when he crossed the Rubicon, and it wasn't a bad choice either. I think this is different from jumping the shark, which is where we look back and see something inadvertently went bad Jul 2, 2023 at 15:39
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    Yes, crossing the Rubicon sounds a bit too portentous and calculating. Caesar may have been reckless but he was not ridiculous!
    – Dan
    Jul 2, 2023 at 21:01
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The wheels fell off

Evokes a rickety vehicle shakily rushing down a hill until whatever is holding the wheels on falls apart. It seems to be popular in baseball when a struggling team reaches a point where they completely fall apart.

Video

The Skylarks had been struggling at 35-37 by midseason, but the wheels came off when their best pitcher was injured.

The earliest reference I can find is a 1967 Country-Western hit called "The Wheels Fell off the Wagon Again", written by Ray Buzzeo and performed by Johnny Dollar.


The scales fell from his eyes

This is a reference to Acts 9:18 where Saul (St. Paul) is cured of the blindness he incurred when the Holy Spirit appeared to him on the road to Damascus:

And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.

This episode brings to mind another religiously-colored idiom: the come to Jesus moment, which comes from 19th Century evangelical tent revivalism.

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I suggest that the then president's speech was a

pivotal moment

Collins Dictionary gives some usages:

The year 1989 was a pivotal moment in world history when one era ended and another began.

It was a pivotal moment in my life, and not just musically.

There are synonyms to be found in thesaurus.com and WordHippo such as

  • tipping point
  • point of no return
  • turn of the tide
  • turning point
  • moment of truth

etc.

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    None of these is limited to describing the point after which there is necessarily a worsening or decline of some kind.
    – DjinTonic
    Jul 1, 2023 at 21:17
  • @DjinTonic By themselves they don't, but it's likely to be obvious from the context. E.g. "I used to be a fan of Donald Trump, but January 6 was a turning point."
    – Barmar
    Jul 3, 2023 at 15:55
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People sometimes use one or the other of two expressions from Charles Dodgson—"through the looking glass" and "down the rabbit hole"—to indicate "ridiculously or mind-bendingly off the rails" or "departing reality and entering fantasyland," either of which meanings has some elements in common with the sense of "jump the shark" as it is broadly used.

For example, from an unidentified article in The Economist from October 18, 1958 [combined snippets]:

Yet the policy which Mr Amory appeared to be adumbrating at Blackpool to some extent went through the looking glass compared with the general forecast. The impression left with most of his audience was that Mr Amory may go on living down to his — hitherto admirable - nickname of Derick-or-little-by-little this winter (when industrial capacity may be unnecessarily under-utilised), but that he hopes to give a lot of money away next spring in time to restimulate activity later in 1959 (when things might conceivably be getting less disinflationary on their own).

And from "Responses to Questions Asked by Senator Lloyd Bentsen for Response by Waste Management, Inc. Concerning Ocean Incineration" (July 9, 1985), in Ocean Incineration: Hearings Before the [U.S. Senate] Subcommittee on Environmental Pollution of the Committee on Environment and Public Works (1985):

The Coalition witness went through the looking glass in describing a workshop held in June 1984:

A regulation development workshop was held in June of 1984. Representatives from the Attorney Generals' offices of three states and numerous environmental groups were invited to provide input. Prior to the meeting, a fully developed set of regulations leaked to the opposition participants. When the EPA officials were confronted with the document, they denied any knowledge of its existence.

During the rather emotional revelation, a member of industry leaped to his feet and was overheard exclaiming, "That's a privileged document. Only industry is supposed to have it." Senate Hearing Transcript at 50.

CWM representatives were present throughout this meeting. To our knowledge no advance copy of draft proposed regulations was leaked to any industry representatives. CWM had no advance copy prior to that meeting.

From an unidentified article in Newsweek magazine from 1988 [snippet view]:

Douglas Ginsburg's Supreme Court prospects went down the rabbit hole after someone remembered his youthful experiments with pot. No one was entirely prepared for this blood sport.

And from Rafael Alvarez & David Simon, The Wire: Truth Be Told (2004/2009):

"I {tried to} make him [Omar] believable by playing him from a sensitive perspective, not just as an alpha male. I played him very vulnerable. When you hurt Omar's feelings, he acts a certain way," said [Micheal] Williams.

"In Season One he was happy and in love with Brandon. Then he went into a dark depression when they killed Brandon. He fell in love again in Season Four but went down the rabbit hole after they killed {his confidant} Butchie.

I would caution however, that "jump the shark" has a TV trope sense in which it may apply specifically to "a program that was formerly of high quality but now has become unwatchably absurd." Broadened beyond the context of television, that sense of the expression might find its best traditional equivalent in "gone to pot." Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) offers this entry for that expression:

go to pot Also go to the dogs. Deteriorate, decline; come to a bad end. For example, My lawn has gone to pot during the drought, or The city schools are going to the dogs. The first of these expressions dates from the late 1500s and alludes to inferior pieces of meat being cut up for the stewpot. The second, from the 1600s, alludes to the traditional view of dogs as inferior creatures.

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  • Nice! The Lewis Carroll 'looking glass' especially comes very close to providing an alternative term for a ridiculous exagerration of a previously accepted pattern of behaviour. But it does not suggest the start of an imminent chronic decline.
    – Dan
    Jul 3, 2023 at 19:50
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beyond the pale

To be 'beyond the pale' is to be unacceptable; outside agreed standards of decency.

The pale is an almost obsolete term for a stake or a stick with a sharp point; the site The Phrase Finder further reveals

The paling fence is significant as the term 'pale' came to mean the area enclosed by such a fence and later just figuratively 'the area that is enclosed and safe'. So to be 'beyond the pale' was to be outside the area accepted as 'home'.

Examples taken from news reports

  1. BBC News: 24 May, 2022

Former justice secretary Robert Buckland told BBC Radio Wiltshire that: "If there's a deliberate lie, I can't see how anybody, including this prime minister, can continue."

"There are things we say honestly and genuinely at the time that we believe to be true... now that's one thing. Going and deliberately saying X is Y knowing that is the case is, of course, beyond the pale."

  1. Sky News: June 1, 2023

Tory MP 'angry and disappointed' and describes partygate report findings as 'beyond the pale' and a 'slap in the face'

  1. The New York Times: July 14, 2019

Even though Mr. Trump has repeatedly refused to back down from stoking racial divisions, his willingness to deploy a lowest-rung slur — one commonly and crudely used to single out the perceived foreignness of nonwhite, non-Christian people — was largely regarded as beyond the pale.

  1. Foreign Policy.com: August 31, 2010 [all emphasis mine]

These bouts of outrage confirmed what we already knew: Blair has been exiled from polite and right-thinking discourse in Britain. He, much more than Bush, is beyond the pale; he is the man of whom we do not speak. Bush, the fashionable line insists, was an ignoramus, but Blair should have known better. […]
These days, Blair’s name is mud on the eastern side of the Atlantic. The former prime minister has been entirely disowned. He stands accused of selling his soul and, worse, his judgment to a cowboy American president and, worse still, doing it on the cheap.

The expression beyond the pale, summarises succinctly, the public's mistrust of these political leaders whose irresponsible actions eventually lead to either their resignation or failure to be re-elected.

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OED

tipping point n. the point at which a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to cause a larger, more important, and often irreversible change.

1957 Sci. Amer. Oct. 34 White residents who will tolerate a few Negroes as neighbors..begin to move out when the proportion of Negroes in the neighborhood or apartment building passes a certain critical point. This ‘tip point’ varies from city to city and from neighborhood to neighborhood.

1988 Jrnl. Interdisciplinary Hist. 18 605 The critical point arrived when the Spartans began to believe that time was moving against them and in favor of the Athenians. A tipping-point or fundamental change in the Spartan perception of the balance of power had taken place.

This is neutral as it lacks the implied "and goes into decline" but the context should do that.

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    This is a bit like 'the beginning of the end'... except, as you say, it does not say explicitly that it IS the beginning of the end. It also makes no mention of a ridiculous event that has caused the changed mind.
    – Dan
    Jul 1, 2023 at 13:58
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A bridge too far

As an idiom, 'a bridge too far' means

an act of overreaching- going too far and getting into trouble or failing.

This is often used in the simple sense of losing because of audacity - flying too close to the sun, biting off more than you can chew.

However, it can be used in the OP's sense of making a claim so bold or so outrageous that even those predisposed to believe you can't accept it. Here (emphases mine) is a Walking Dead fan explaining that the episode 'Slabtown' was too ridiculous for them to persist in the fandom:

[SPOILERS] "Slabtown" - a bridge too far?
(both literally and figuratively...)
My problem with "Slabtown" wasn't the writing or the pace; it was that the episode required too much suspension of disbelief, even within the context of the TWD world...[goes on to list specific worldbuilding faults and plot holes in the episode]...It was just too much; by the end I felt like I'd just watched an episode from soap opera.

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  • Nice... except, in itself, a bridge too far doesn't suggest something ridiculous is the cause.
    – Dan
    Jul 4, 2023 at 20:10
  • @Dan "When he came out and said the election was stolen...that was a bridge too far for me." True, it 'lacks the explicative "ridiculousness" element; why it's the beginning of the end.' But I think it is pretty close - clearly something about the claim is too much, and I think the absurdity of it is a more intuitive reading than anything else.
    – Kirt
    Jul 4, 2023 at 20:37
  • You got +1 from me!
    – Dan
    Jul 4, 2023 at 21:34
2

There is the informal expression nuke the fridge:

informal
(of a film, etc.) to lose credibility following a particularly ill-judged scene or plot development (Collins)

According to Wiktionary the expression comes

From a scene in the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where the main character survives a nuclear detonation by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator.

Otherwise you could simply replace it with lose credibility.

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    I'm hoping for an alternative not grounded in TV/film.
    – Dan
    Jul 1, 2023 at 13:59
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    I wouldn't expect very many people to be aware of that idiom.
    – gidds
    Jul 2, 2023 at 8:20
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    That's clearly newer than "jump the shark", and the question explicitly asks for something older. Jul 3, 2023 at 13:45
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An alternative which unfortunately still has some media connotations is lost the plot. Wiktionary's first definition is

To cease to behave in a consistent and/or rational manner.

Other online dictionaries have more low-key definitions, but it can be modified to say something like completely lost the plot.

Another alternative in a comment from @JohnHunt which I think deserves to be in an answer is go/gone off the deep end, which Collins defines as

If you say that someone has gone off the deep end, you mean that their mind has stopped working in a normal way and their behaviour has become very strange as a result.

Gone off the deep end is used in a similar way as your example, for example, in this article entitled "How Elon Musk went off the deep end"

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  • These are the expressions I've most commonly heard used to refer to a person. "Lose the plot" can't really be used to refer to a story/show/film, and "go off the deep end" would be a bit out of place referring to those, but you probably wouldn't get too many strange looks if you do use it as such.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 4, 2023 at 11:13
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deus ex machina (Latin: “god from the machine”) fits to describe a far-fetched, ridiculous event that resolves a dramatic plot.

it's a person or thing that appears or is introduced into a situation suddenly and unexpectedly and provides an artificial or contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.

Since ancient times, the phrase has also been applied to an unexpected saviour or to an improbable event that brings order out of chaos (e.g., the arrival, in time to avert tragedy, of the U.S. cavalry in a western film)

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