‘Little House on the Prairie’: The Episode Melissa Gilbert Says Was ‘When the Show Jumped the Shark’
“Jumping the shark” is known as a ploy used by television series when their writers have reached the end of their creative rope and decide to introduce some sort of novelty or far-fetched storyline.
The phrase came about after a 1977 episode of Happy Days when actor Henry Winkler’s character Fonzie really did jump over a shark while he was on water skis.
It would only make sense that a long-running series like Little House on the Prairie would eventually have a figurative bout with shark-jumping. As the show’s former star Melissa Gilbert shared, it happened late in the show’s run.
The ‘Little House on the Prairie’ TV series tried to be honest about life on the prairie
The television drama, of course, was based on the autobiographical books set in 1800s Minnesota by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“The story was straight out of the classic series of books, narrated and seen through the eyes of 9-year-old Laura,” Gilbert wrote in her own memoir, 2009’s Prairie Tale. “The Ingalls family – Charles, Caroline, and their three daughters – moves from their little house in the Wisconsin woods to a new home on the prairie.
“Leaving their family behind is hard, but the family’s resilient spirit, as led by Charles’ instant affection for the new land, despite its dangers, mirrored that of the rest of the country.”
The episode that jumped the shark
Life on the prairie was hard enough; one wouldn’t think that it would even be necessary to jump the shark for a show so filled with near-death experiences, heartbreak, and pain.
And yet, Gilbert said, Little House on the Prairie not only tried to jump the shark. In her opinion, it succeeded when the cast filmed the episode titled “Days of Sunshine, Days of Shadow.”
“In terms of ratings,” the Laura Ingalls actor wrote of the episode, “it was that season’s savior. Viewers were riveted as Laura and Almanzo faced a tidal wave of disasters, maladies, and mishaps, a juggernaut of doom and gloom not seen since Noah said, ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat.’
“I contended that episode was when the show jumped the shark.”
Did the real Laura Ingalls Wilder actually suffer so much hardship?
As Gilbert recounted about the episode, “Almanzo had diphtheria, our first crop was destroyed by hail, and Almanzo had a stroke and suffered partial paralysis; then Laura gave birth, a tornado destroyed the house, and Almanzo got terribly depressed until Pa arrived and slapped him back to reality.”
While Gilbert “learned that all those things did actually happen to Laura and Almanzo,” what bothered her about the two-part episode was “we made it seem like it all happened in a matter of two weeks.”
It really was an enormous amount of suffering to endure in only a half a month’s time, even if it was in the 1800s on the prairie.