UCR: Movies and Culture

Some thought Happy Days had literally jumped the shark in 1977, but the once hugely popular TV show didn’t have its official curtain call until May 8, 1984. That followed a slow decline marked by the departure of beloved characters and some questionable storylines.

Set in the mid-'50s, the period sitcom debuted in January 1974 and was nearly cancelled as it endured a brief struggle to define the cast and then find an audience. Ultimately, Happy Days became a monster hit for ABC, spawning multiple spin-offs. It was ranked in the Top 5 in the Nielsen ratings for three straight years, peaking at No. 1 for the 1976-77 season.

Viewers began to turn away as the '80s dawned, however, and Happy Days dropped out of the Top 20 in 1982-83. Firmly resting on the chopping block, the program plummeted to No. 63 the following year, meaning there would never be a Season 12. Some of the cultural changes of the new decade didn’t quite align with the squeaky-clean era Happy Days represented, and the show had moved away from the foundation on which its success was built.

Long gone were Richie Cunningham and Ralph Malph (played by Ron Howard and Donny Most respectively), as their characters joined the Army at the conclusion of Season 7. Left with little to do with his two best buddies gone, Potsie Webber (Anson Williams) was relegated to a supporting – and often minor – role for the remainder of the series.

Henry Winkler’s Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli now did all of the narrative heavy lifting, with assistance from his younger cousin Chachi Arcola. Played by Scott Baio, Chachi had a budding romance with Joanie Cunningham (Erin Moran), and the pair left in Season 10 for the ill-fated spin-off Joanie Loves Chachi. At one point, there was a complete shift in the character of the Fonz: He went from snapping his fingers to make the girls come running into a committed relationship with a single mother of a six-year-old daughter.

Watch the Final Scene from 'Happy Days'

When Season 11 commenced, Fonzie was back to being a bachelor, and Joanie and Chachi returned. Happy Days was also given a temporary ratings spike when Richie and Ralph came home from serving their country for a tear-jerking two-part episode. They didn’t stick around, though: Howard's character jetted off to Hollywood to chase his dreams of becoming a screenwriter, while Malph went back to college.

Happy Days ambled along somewhat aimlessly from there. The hour-long series finale used an age-old storyline to wrap things up, as Joanie and Chachi finally tied the knot. Richie – along with his wife Lori Beth – showed up just in time to see the nuptials take place, though Potsie and Ralph didn't make it.

A subplot followed along as the Fonz became a Big Brother to a young orphan who he later decided to adopt. Unfortunately, the adoption board had an edict barring single parents from taking in a child, so they ruled against Winkler's character. That led Richie's dad (Tom Bosley) to explode: “If your policies can keep a guy like Fonzie from being his father, then I say to hell with your policies!” Not surprisingly, the Fonz gets to adopt the boy in the end.

As the show neared its conclusion, Bosley gave a wedding toast, breaking the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera: “Thank you all for being part of our family," he said. "To happy days.” A brief montage of highlights from the series followed, as a soundalike sang Elvis Presley’s “Memories.”

Oddly, that wasn't the last we heard from Happy Days. Five additional episodes followed later in 1984, during the summer sweeps week. Though technically new, they were actually unaired shows that fit in sequentially before Episode 14 of the final season.

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