The phrase "jump the shark," referring to the point at which a television show went into decline, came from a season five episode of Happy Days in which the Fonz jumped over some kind of marine animal on water skis. After four years, this nostalgic look at the 1950s was one of the most popular shows on television. After Fonzie made his jump, alas, things were never quite the same.
Ron Howard still had top billing during season three of Happy Days (which aired on ABC in 1975-76) but Henry Winkler now came second in the opening credits, and had clearly become the real star. Arthur Fonzarelli, a leather-jacketed tough guy so cool he could start the juke box simply by hitting it, was introduced as a supporting character in season one, but he was popular enough to save the low-rated show from cancellation.
Winkler struck just the right balance between making the Fonz menacing but likable, and played the role with absolutely perfect comic timing. It's easy to see why he became so popular, but the producers were really starting to overdo it by this point. He'd moved into an apartment over the Cunninghams' garage, and had basically replaced Chuck Cunningham (Remember him? Not many do…) as Richie's big brother.
Whenever the writers couldn't think of any other way to end an episode, they simply got Winkler to snap his fingers or something, and everything came out alright. In the episode where Richie and his pals try to meet girls by staging a fake beauty contest, for example, the guys are about to get strung up when the contestants find out the grand prize – a trip to Hollywood – doesn't actually exist. Fortunately, the Fonz shows up and appeases the winner with an even better prize: a month of dates with the Fonz, of course!
Still, the real heart of Happy Days was the interplay between all-American high schoolers Richie (Howard), Ralph Malph (Donny Most), and Potsie (Anson Williams). Howard and Most hadn't left the series yet – that's when some say the show really jumped the shark – and Happy Days was still one of the funnier '70s sitcoms, in no small part because of the chemistry between its cast members. Tom Bosley and Marion Ross, in particular, remain the very model of TV parents. The third season also gets bonus points for actually looking like the 1950s. (Compare it to some of the later seasons, when the characters were wearing distinctly '80s hairstyles.)
But you can see the sharks start circling as Fonzarelli gets more and more overexposed each week. He didn't jump over any sharks, but an early season two-part episode – in which he jumps over 14 garbage cans on his motorcycle, on the TV series "You Wanted to See It" – illustrates how the show was getting gimmicky and Fonzie-centric.
The third season certainly deserves a better DVD treatment. The set features no special features at all, except for a "second anniversary show" – in other words, a clip show – which originally aired in January, 1976. The framing device? A birthday party at Arnold's restaurant for one character. Guess which one.