Appreciation: 21 Jump Street

Adam goes to bat for an underappreciated slice of ’80s pop culture.

In addition to new content, I’ll be regularly posting old writings, videos and other things that might be interesting for people to look at.  This essay about the TV show “21 Jump Street”, from the period in my life when I was spending a lot of time in my room, was originally posted on a different blog on June 29, 2010.  It’s a little out of the realm of this website, but I think it’s a pretty good essay about a show that’s been largely forgotten.

Being the pop culture Luddite that I’ve been lately, and wanting out of that, I’ve gotten into the habit of finding one show on the ‘net and following it from beginning to end (or until I get bored) in the wee hours of the morning when I’m winding down with a glass of wine, yoga stretches or an ice pack. I tend to alternate between current shows (Bones, superb) and old shows I missed the first time around (I Spy, Robert Culp was a fucking genius). The latest one I’ve been watching, on (and, for the fourth season, youtube), is the ’80s crime drama 21 Jump Street, which is slated for a big-screen reboot in 2011 with Jonah Hill at the helm.

Jump Street is notable for launching, from humble beginnings, two of the great media giants of the new millenium: the Fox Network and Johnny Depp. It’s remembered vaguely for the glittery, scrubbed look of its stars: a sort of younger, prettier version of Miami Vice. I myself had never watched it in its heyday; I didn’t have cable then.

In fact, I had only ever seen one episode front to back, quite by accident, and it was the memory of this episode that peaked my interest, because it was a jaw-dropping hour of television, one of the best single episodes of any show I had ever seen, not to mention an acting tour de force by Depp. It was this one ep — more on this later — that prompted me to start watching the series last month, as well as maybe wanting to cure myself of any lingering ’80s nostalgia for my teen years.

The pilot episode introduces us to the Jump Street quartet — fresh faced, naive Tom Hanson (Depp), big lug Doug Penhall (Peter DeLuise, Dom’s son and now Stargate director), African-American preppy-hottie Judy Hoffs (Susan Robinson [Peete], later of Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper), and Asian pretty boy Harry Aoki (Dustin Nguyen, now a martial arts star here and in his native Vietnam). Mentoring them all for the first five episodes is an annoying ex-hippie type played by film actor Frederic Forrest.

The Jump Street program is supposedly a pilot program run out of an old church that puts young-looking police officers into undercover situations in an unnamed American city that seems to hop from the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast and then into some kind of alternate-universe annexed part of Canada (the show was actually shot in Vancouver and there are endless, obvious shots of British Columbia licenses plates throughout the series’ run).

The city itself seems to have an unlimited number of school districts so that our heroes can “transfer” in, make friends with the students in an impossibly short span of time, crack the case and get out…something the series begins to address towards the end of the second season, by which time our crew has been in, oh, about 40 school districts.

The above paragraphs sum up the premise, and the inherent flaws in it, pretty well. And the pilot episode, shown in two parts, was absolutely godawful. Imagine if you will a Johnny Depp that cannot act his way out of a paper bag, and who gets no help from the rest of the cast, nor the hackneyed TV-movie script. The opening and closing credits were cheesy beyond belief (this was Fox’s first hit show, and the money presumably wasn’t there for something better) and as for the music — I know that much of the original, period music was changed out for the DVD version, but enough remains for me to tell you that the guy that did the music cues for the show definitely owned a Roland Juno-61. The opening theme song did give us an admirable display of team spirit — Robinson sang the idiotic lyrics, with Depp and DeLuise doing an enthusiastic job on the backup vocals. The theme song, along with a lot of other things, got revised in the second season with a better vocal and the most egregious lyrics dropped.

The series limped along for its first few shows, with Depp still not being Depp and Robinson’s extreme cuteness being the only really watchable thing going among all the cheeseball afterschool special-ness. I wondered how this could possibly be the same show that spawned the one episode I’d remembered seeing years ago — had I been drunk?

And then, a funny thing happened. Six episodes in, in an unexpected show of chutzpah the series was to display more and more frequently, they killed off one of the main characters. Forrest’s annoying ex-hippie was worm food, and in comes temperamental badass (and much more believable undercover cop) Adam Fuller (Stephen Williams) to clean house, and the tomb-like Jump Street chapel that previously housed just the five main characters becomes a bustling hub of activity for all manner of kiddie-faced teens in blue. The four well-scrubbed cops who up to this point had lived a pleasant, poorly-written idllyic existence were about to come face to face with gritty ’80s reality.

No sooner had they heaped dirt on Forrest’s tie-dye T-shirt than Hoffs and Hanson (and later Penhall, who gets inside by delivering pizzas!) had to contend with being undercover in an entire school being taken over by gang members. The still-green Hanson blows his cover almost instantaneously and is reduced to making tut-tut platitudes to wear at the increasingly frayed nerves of the gang leader, and it’s up to Hoffs to hoochie him up and get herself into the getaway car, where she makes the bust on her own. (Robinson is the most consistently watchable part of the first season…unfortunately, she’s also the first of the characters to wear out her welcome, and she’s the only person in the series for the entirety of its five-year run) It all felt pretty contrived, but even so, the spectre of the virginal Hoffs character having to play a game of sexual chicken with the loony gang leader to maneuver herself, and then him, into a vulnerable position is pretty gripping stuff.

The series ups the ante again very soon afterward, with “Blindsided” — a good title because throughout the first half of the episode I couldn’t believe they were going to go where they went with it. Hanson, undercover as one of the “McQuaid Brothers,” amusing JD personas Depp and Deluise would reprise regularly throughout the show, gets approached by a female high school student to kill off her dad. Depp, incredulous, begins to do some background checking, and it slowly becomes apparent that her father is both a highly-ranked police officer but is also molesting her. The show slowly ramps up to a gripping conclusion where Hanson goes to bust the dad, and winds up in a struggle where he accidentally shoots him. Depp’s character starts to get interesting at this point…his Tom Hanson had started his metamorphosis into the highly conflicted, deeply compassionate but rigidly stoic character that Depp’s portrayal would make so fascinating as the series progressed.

The show steadily improves for the remainder of the first season and into the second, but remains incredibly uneven…almost every show had moments of greatness that alternated schizophrenically with moments of head-slapping cheesiness. One early highlight was the Depp showcase first season closer “Mean Streets and Pastel Houses,” where Hanson goes undercover to investigate the punk rock subculture, and finds himself strangely drawn to it and genuinely curious about the motivations of the people in it. The plot is crap, but the tonality of the scenes and shots and the slice-of-life interactions between Depp and the other punks feels more like a low-budget indie film than a prime time TV show. Agent Orange even did the music…and we for the first time start to glimpse the alienation and nascent disillusionment that would make the Hanson character more and more interesting, even as Depp’s interest in the part waned.

Indeed, as the series starts to deepen, moral choices become murkier, and the actors find their feet in the middle of season two, the genuine strength of 21 Jump Street begins to manifest. All four of the main characters seem pleasant, vacuous and well balanced on the outside — but they all are basically products of dysfunctional or non-existent family environments (only Hoffs had an intact family unit; all the others had experienced a violent death of a parent), and for all their ’80s preening and glitter, they really were just very moral, fundamentally lonely people who wanted most of all to believe in and work towards the best of humanity and create a new, stable family unit for themselves.

That’s what makes the 21 Jump Street brand of grittiness in its own way as compelling as, say, NYPD Blue or one of its brethren. You have these four kids who want to believe the world, and the people who live in it, are better than the circumstances they grew up in…and as their job proves them wrong, time and time again, you see the initially spunky, playful characters — the kind of people who you would expect nothing bad to ever happen to — wear down before our eyes.

No one epitomizes this better than Depp’s Hanson character, and the series — and Depp — rocket into greatness in the middle of season two with the show I had accidentally witnessed years earlier, “Orpheus 3.3.” The show had already aired several strong eps that upped the characterization ante, including “Christmas In Saigon” (where Ioki was revealed to not be Japanese [duh] but Vietnamese, with much of the show flashbacking his experience as a refugee). There was also “A Big Disease With A Little Name”, a deeply affecting episode about AIDS which surprised me by revealing, midway through the episode, that its sympathetic main character had contracted the disease through gay sex and not through a blood transfusion. At that time, this distinction was a big deal — setting us up for a Ryan White situation, cutting it out from under us, and then daring us and Depp’s character, to draw a moral distinction between the two — which makes the final man hug between Depp’s somewhat homophobic Hanson and the dying teen one of the most moving things I have ever seen on television. “Orpheus” was immediately preceded by “I’m OK, You Need Work,” where Hanson goes undercover to help one of his early busts that’s now locked down in an abusive teen rehabilitation clinic. In what would soon become a 21 Jump Street hallmark, there is an unhappy ending for all and Hanson once again wonders how much good he’s really doing.

But “Orpheus 3.3” tops them all, an absolutely stunning piece of television and Depp’s debut as a major actor, with solid support from the entire cast, especially Robinson (only the role of the villain is a trifle overplayed). The setup is that Depp is ready to ditch his girlfriend (introduced, in another example of the series’ surprisingly good continuity, several episodes before and appearing in the background in the interim, thus building rapport and sympathy with the audience), but doesn’t want to be the bad guy. Penhall, now Hanson’s partner and BFF, advises Hanson to behave like a jerk so that his girlfriend will dump him. Hanson doubts this will work, saying “she’s too even tempered” and then, in a funny scene inside the car on their way to a dinner date, proves himself right.

Johnny Depp’s night out with his girlfriend goes horribly wrong in “Orpheus 3.3,” 21 Jump Street’s finest hour.

After bickering, the couple decides to pick up food to go at a local convenience store. While the girlfriend is in back picking out munchies, Depp and the clerk are suddenly confronted by a tense, gun-wielding robber. In a teeth-gritting scene, Depp’s eyes dart from the gun to an overhead mirror, where he sees the girlfriend happily picking out groceries, as oblivious to the robber’s presence as he is to hers. Just as the robber is about to bolt with the money, the girlfriend comes up to the line and calls Hanson’s name. The robber whirls around and shoots her dead on the spot, to the impotent undercover cop’s horror.

The remainder of the episode is a study of the initially stoic, but deeply guilt-ridden, Hanson character coming apart at the seams as he obsesses over the murder. He betrays the trust of his friends and captain and trashes his own career, unable to lose the grip of the event on his psyche, all the while existing in a state of utter denial as he becomes, undeniably, insane — in a truly demented sequence he even hallucinates himself, gangsta revenge style, into a Run-DMC video. There are a few plot contrivances along the way, but the show is so incredibly well-acted that it just doesn’t matter. When the show finally reaches its inevitable conclusion, at first it seems a little too much like a happy ending, until the final bit of dialogue between Hanson and Fuller, where it becomes clear that Depp’s character will never be the same.

From this point until the beginning of season four, the series is simply oustanding. Depp pulls off a similar spiraling tour de force in “Swallowed Alive” (3×9), where Hanson and the rest of the crew are undercover in a juvenile detention facility. One by one, all the other cops are removed from the picture, leaving Hanson to contend with the Lord Of The Flies situation completely on his own. Depp’s portrayal of the stone-faced Hanson coming apart from within as he contends with the threat of death, prison rape (yes, they go there), and the guilt at seeing the final, violent, hopeless outcome for many of the people he and the Jump Street officers had incarcerated, is another watershed.

It was about this point that Depp began to chafe at the restrictions of being a teen idol and acting in a cop show, but the writers had now hit their stride and were able to channel Depp’s increasing ennui into the Hanson character’s more and more open questioning of his own purpose. Depp may have been increasingly bored with the show, but his acting skill manifested that boredom as an initially idealistic, gung-ho character who was more and more disillusioned and struggling with a deep, undiagnosed depression, which gave the series both some of its most poignant moments and its funniest (as Depp pulls some great physical humor out of his character’s don’t-give-a-shit-anymore apathy in many of the later episodes).

The McQuaid Brothers.  Johnny Depp was 21 Jump Street’s biggest star, but Peter Deluise’s character Detective Penhall was the heart and soul of the show.

I’ve spent most of my time writing about Depp, but the ensemble cast is solid, and you can make the argument that the series is as much DeLuise’s as Depp’s, particularly as Depp began to pull away from the show and there were more and more episodes centered around the rest of the cast. Indeed, DeLuise’s Penhall character undergoes even more changes than Hanson’s, though while Hanson’s trajectory is more or less straight down, Penhall’s travails are more like real life — deep tragedy that spurs gradual growth.

Indeed, the two most heart-rending episodes of the series focus on Penhall’s character and again show the series’ increasing propensity to think out of the box and to deliver shockingly gritty realities inside its gilded frame. These both come late, in season four. The first is “Come From The Shadows,” where Penhall is undercover investigating a priest suspected of selling babies from El Salvador, then racked by civil war. Penhall meets, suspects and in quick order falls in love with a beautiful young refugee named Marta. As is not unusual in 21 Jump Street, he inadvertently helps seal her doom by mistakenly arresting her just a few days before a deportation hearing. In a plot progression that sounds hard to believe but is so appealingly acted that it totally works, Penhall courts and then marries Marta — not just to save her from deportation but because he genuinely loves her. It’s all for naught, however, in a gut-wrenching courtroom scene where Marta is literally dragged away to an almost certain death.

Penhall seems OK after this episode, with Marta not referenced much again for about half the season, but this show is all about continuity, and ironically after one of the most lighthearted episodes of the whole saga (“Spring Break,” featuring a suitably creepy cameo by John Waters, who was filming “Cry Baby” with Depp at the time), the show segues into its darkest, “La Bizca”, where Penhall, with Depp in tow, decides to go to El Salvador himself to learn Marta’s fate.

To say the trip does not go well is an understatement. The harrowing hour that follows does not flinch in the face of unrelenting confusion, fear, pervasive misery, torture, and sudden and violent death. Even Depp, who’s basically been sleepwalking through the whole season, looks deeply freaked out, particularly in the scene where a bloodied man lays dying on a stone slab as a rebel leader tells him to check the man’s boots after he dies, because they might fit him. The closing scene, with Penhall at his wife’s graveside, had me in tears at Deluise’s skillful, understated performance. You have to see it to understand.

After its uneven beginnings and somewhat clumsy Afterschool Special-ish approach to current events, the show consistently surprised me with the depth and thoughtfulness with which it examined difficult questions, many of which had never been fully aired on prime-time TV before. It’s been said that this was the first television show to really look at teenagers as real people with real concerns of their own, but I would go further and say that, while its underlying view of humanity was deeply and deceptively pessimistic, it did an excellent job at portraying the complexity of the gray areas of human behavior. I was particularly impressed by its complex, non-exploitative examination of homeless teenagers (3×17, “Blinded By The Thousand Points Of Light”) and lesbianism (4×14, “A Change of Heart”), both of which prominently feature Robinson (“A Change Of Heart” actually had a girl on girl lip kiss, the first instance of this I’m aware of, and Robinson’s amusingly mixed reaction is both priceless and extremely well-acted).

Robinson also shines in the episode where her already tightly-wound, control freak-y character is raped, “Stand By Your Man,” (4×8) though I found this episode extremely difficult to watch and some of the set-up hard to believe (it seems like Hoffs, with her police training, could have kicked the guy’s ass). The most interesting thing about the episode was the complexity of the characters’ reactions, particularly that of the rapist, who until the end is all wounded self-pity because he honestly doesn’t realize he’s done anything wrong — a bold move for the writers to make considering our deep sympathy for the Hoffs character, but again, very true to the complexity and rationalizing nature of the human psyche — particularly the young.

Nguyen’s presence is more subdued — Ioki’s character has all of Hanson’s stoicism but none of his patience, meaning he spends a lot of the series in chafe mode while his partners misbehave — but he is featured in one of my favorite episodes of the series, “The Things We Said Today” (4×12), where we see a smug, younger rookie Ioki in flashback saying “I’m so glad I got to make a difference in one kid’s life” after which we see that, following that bad advice, the kid’s life completely and irrevocably falls apart, along with the lives of his entire family. Shannen Doherty (I was in a movie with her! Three degrees separation from Jump Street!) is in this one.

I’ve gotten as far as the final episode of season four, Depp’s last, “Blackout,” which is widely regarded as a weak episode but is just an intriguing premise (a mob of high school students take over the school in a blackout, echoing the first post-Forrest episode in season one and thus a fitting wrap to the original series and goodbye to Depp and Nguyen, who were gone from the for-syndication only season five) that was unevenly executed — again, much like season one.

View “Orpheus 3 3”, 21 Jump Street’s finest hour, on youtube:

And its darkest, “La Bizca”:

Some other episodes I would highly recommend are (all shows available to watch on 2018 note: they were as of 2010 – no idea now.  They do appear to be on youtube, however):

“Best Years Of Your Life” (2 x 20) — a no-answers examination of suicide with a brief cameo by Brad Pitt;

“The Currency We Trade In” (3×3) — Penhall ruins the life of a prominent writer by arresting him for a false charge of child molestation;

“The Dreaded Return Of Russell Belkins” (3×12) — a light-hearted change of pace with Hanson playing romantic foil that will have Depp fans in ecstacy;

“Nemesis” (3×14) — a showcase for Richard Grieco’s widely-hated (I didn’t mind him) third-season-only Booker character, who is the show’s one true “bad boy” cop and brings a darker dimension to this story of self-recrimination when the wrong person gets killed as a snitch than I suspect Depp (who refused it) would have — again, a TV show that feels like an indie film; and

“2245” (4×14) which features Rosie Perez as a guest star and brings back one of the more interesting villains from an earlier season, this time facing his own execution, which they show in excruciating detail on camera.

In one way 21 Jump Street did come out as I expected; it cured my nostalgia for the ’80s. Yes, there were some pleasantly common-sense social attitudes that have since been discredited by a thousand talk show hosts demonizing perfectly reasonable ideas as being somehow too liberal, but having said that, God, I forgot how much the ’80s sucked. It was like Cusack’s character said in the recent Hot Tub Time Machine film — “We have to get back…we had AIDS, we had Reagan…” not to mention the Cold War, covert ops in South America, the Iran-Iraq bloodbath, rampant gay bashing, and Vanilla Ice. But there was one thing going on in the ’80s that I did not appreciate at the time…a glitteringly packaged, but surprisingly brave, moving and thought-provoking television show called 21 Jump Street.

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