Occasionally, long-running television shows will beget seasons that stand as complete anomalies within the context of the series. The Twilight Zone had a season where its episodes ran for a half hour extra, and The Donna Reed Show had two seasons where Bob Crane played a starring role. Then there was that season of Married with Children with that kid who soon disappeared.
In the 11 seasons that made up the 1970s and ’80s sitcom Happy Days, it’s the tenth season (1982-83) that doesn’t fit in. Fans that even remember this season from the show’s post-Ron Howard days usually think it doesn’t blend because it was artistically weak. After all, the Joanie and Chachi characters were mostly removed from the show to create the spinoff series Joanie Loves Chachi, and a bunch of newcomers were introduced.
But season ten can be looked at in another way. When the show’s writers had the ever-popular Fonzie suddenly become monogamous and date a single mother, it took Happy Days in an innovative new direction and gave it some much-needed sociological significance. At that point, they could have broken new ground and turned the series into something new (in the way The Andy Griffith Show was turned into Mayberry R.F.D.). Instead, the show’s producers retreated when the season ended, bringing back Joanie and Chachi when that spinoff failed and making like the changes in Fonzie’s love life had never happened.
To understand why season ten was important in the trajectory of Happy Days, you have to go all the way back to its humble beginnings, when it was introduced midway into the 1974 season as something of a novelty show. Happy Days creator Garry Marshall conceived the show as a nuanced and somewhat realistic look back at ’50s teen culture. Its first two seasons were shot on film and have a look and feel that’s fairly authentic. Henry Winkler, who played tough guy/greaser Arthur ”Fonzie” Fonzarelli, appeared only briefly in the early episodes, and his low-key moodiness seemed modeled on characters of that era played by James Dean.
We all know what happened after that. Winkler’s character caught on in a big way, and ”the Fonz” became a TV icon. Unfortunately, the character also became something of a cartoon. Since the show’s first two seasons were shot on film, the actors were able to be subtle. The third season introduced a live audience. When they did that, all the subtlety went out the window and the actors started yelling and mugging to please the audience. No actor did this more than Winkler, whose character devolved into a morass of silly catchphrases and clichÁ©d gestures.
By the fifth season, the script writers had the Fonz jumping a shark on water skis, which — as all TV fans know — is how the phrase (and website) ”jumping the shark” came about (although watching the show all these years later, it looks more like the show actually jumped the shark when it went to video).
Happy Days also stopped having its characters adhere to ’50s-era styles when they introduced new actors, such as Scott Baio and Ted McGinley. By the time season ten rolled around, leading actors Ron Howard and Donnie Most were long gone, and in their place a bunch of even newer faces appeared.
One of those faces belonged to Linda Purl, who had appeared on the show previously in the second season as Richie Cunningham’s girlfriend Gloria. In season ten, she played the single mother Ashley Pfister, who Fonzie gets to know since she’s the accountant for Arnold’s (Fonz was co-owner at that point). Ashley is supposedly divorced, yet we never see her ex-husband. She also apparently kept (or took back) her last name of ”Pfister,” which is the name belonging to her socialite family, which was also referenced in the Happy Days spin-off Laverne and Shirley. So for all intents and purposes, Ashley is presented a single mother.
Fonzie falls in love with Ashley in the season’s first episode, ”A Woman Not Under the Influence.” This brought about changes in the character. In this episode, he loses his ubiquitous cool when Ashley rebuffs his advances and he begins to realize he has no ”power” to make Ashley like him.
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Two important things happened here. First, the show (perhaps unwittingly) became grounded again in reality. Fonz was no longer a guy who could snap his fingers and expect to have all women ”obey” him. He now had to work at it, and this made the character move away from being a caricature. Viewers now began to see for the first time an aging greaser attempting to grow up. Second, Winkler began to imbue his character with some depth. At several points in this season, the Fonz’s character almost completely disappears and the neurotic, Woody Allen-ish Henry Winkler we see in the movie Night Shift surfaces.
The tenth season didn’t center exclusively around this relationship. But when it did, it often had the Fonz in a father figure role, playing against the late actress Heather O’Rourke (the little blonde girl from the Poltergeist films) who played Ashley’s daughter Heather.
As a counterpoint to the newly-mature Fonz, several younger characters were given bigger roles, notably Billy Warlock, who played Flip, the younger brother of McGinley’s character Roger. In one episode, ”I Drink, Therefore I Am,” Flip falls in with a bad crowd and ends up drunk driving and nearly killing Heather. This plot has the Fonz playing the adult ”heavy,” trying to straighten up the irresponsible teens — a complete role reversal from the days when it was the Fonz who was getting lectured by cops.
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If this seems like the description of a show very unlike the Happy Days we remember, that’s the point of why this season is so interesting. What the show’s powers-that-be had done in the tenth season is create an alternate show — one that would have been worthier pursuing in one form or another than some of the shows that ”Happy Days” actually did spin-off.
This alternate show’s premise was one in which a street-smart guy dates a college-educated parent (from an upscale family, no less) and learns to be responsible. This set-up was relatively new to TV and they probably shattered some sort of taboo in having a main character get involved with a single mother, at least on a highly-rated TV show.
But any hope the show had of becoming groundbreaking went out the window when Joanie Loves Chachi was canceled and those characters were brought back to Happy Days for the final season. Purl and O’Rourke were dropped from the show without even a goodbye. They simply disappeared. It wasn’t until the final season’s third episode that audiences even learned about Fonzie and Ashley’s breakup, which the writers wimped out about, since they had it occur off camera.
Shortly after Happy Days signed off in mid-1984, the sitcom Who’s the Boss? began its long prime time run. The show now seems silly in retrospect, but at the time it was innovative in that it was the first-ever TV show in which the female character played a main breadwinner in a family situation. Although that wasn’t strictly the case with Fonzie and Ashley (he co-owned Arnold’s, after all!), the blue collar guy/white collar woman dynamic of the couple was similar to the one on Who’s the Boss? Had anyone at Happy Days looked beyond the obvious, they could have given the Fonzie character a new life and sent the public a message about changing families by altering the show’s focus or spinning it off.
Instead, Happy Days slogged through one last season, which proved to be about as forgettable as season ten was memorable. No one, it seems, jumped at this show’s one chance to un-jump the shark.