21 Jump Street

Even for the ’80s the 21 Jump Street theme song is cheesy. Its peppy, synthesized beat puts one more in the frame of mind to watch teenagers dance on cafeteria tables than to witness the solving of gritty, hard core crimes. Most of Part 1 of this 2-part pilot, however, sets the tone for a run-of-the-mill procedural. A young, hot-headed new cop (Johnny Depp) is out to prove himself as worthy as his dead cop father and is paired with a cranky old partner (Barney Martin), months from retirement.

“It seems you like to roll in hot and kick tails,” the older cop barks. “…’Cause with that baby face you got everybody’s been kicking yours since the seventh grade.”

Before we meet any of our regular characters, however, we start in the posh home of a family of four with, in typical ’80s fashion, aloof, powerful parents and smart-mouth teenagers. As the kids complain about meatloaf and clarinet lessons, two leather-clad African American thugs break through their dining room window with guns drawn. They demand money from the milquetoast son who squeaks out a promise to get it for them. They make off with the father’s Porsche and Ferrari.

Tom Hanson (Depp) and his partner, Charlie, are assigned to the case. The daughter hits on Hanson, commenting that he looks like “that kid from Pretty in Pink” (Jon Cryer? Or Andrew McCarthy? Anyway…) This becomes the first of many examples of the effect Hanson has on people. They routinely presume him to be a teenager and show him absolutely no respect as a police officer. As if to fully illustrate this point, the plot takes us on a high-speed chase of some armed robbery suspects. It ends disastrously, with the suspects laughing openly at Hanson before three of them get away.

Today, this set-up would probably have been dispatched with in 15 minutes, but the show goes to lengths to contrast the typical police beat with the one where Hanson is destined to be assigned: Jump Street. The captain calls in Hanson after the robbery debacle and tells him he can either be reassigned to a new division or sit at a desk until he “looks old enough to be a cop.” As all heroes called to adventure must do, he resists the transfer at first. Actually, he’s real asshole about it, showing little respect even to the captain.

Jump Street, headquartered in a chapel on the corner of the eponymous street, is a carnival inside. There’s a foosball table and junk food. The Captain, Jenko (Frederic Forrest) enters by sliding down a fireman’s pole. Despite his initial resistance, Hanson is given a montage makeover, complete with trips to the record store and video arcade, and he’s in. This group of young, big-haired cops specializes in going under cover amongst teens. Situated squarely in the “Just Say No” era, the show insists on reminding us that serious stuff goes down in today’s high schools. It’s supposed grittiness gets difficult to swallow with a spoonful of after school special.

By part 2, we are into the case of the week, which continues from the original story of the window-smashing thugs. They are drug dealers preying on high school students. Hanson is assigned to the case, but with his new wave hairdo, the original victim, Kenneth, doesn’t recognize him. Solving the case drags on a while, and in the meantime, Hanson bonds with another officer, Officer Ioki (Dustin Nguyen), the only one who isn’t too cool to hang out with the new guy. Rounding out the group are Holly Robinson Peete and Peter DeLuise. In chasing down the drug dealer, Hanson develops sympathy for the wimpy young victim and winds up saving his life, setting up for some moments of sappy, saxophone-y background music and a happy ending. Oh, and Hanson also plays the saxophone. It’s very Rob Lowe in St. Elmo’s Fire.

21 Jump Street may have found its groove later–it ran for 103 episodes, just inching into sydication. It was also created by Stephen J. Cannell (1941-2010), who created or wrote numerous successful action shows including The A Team and The Greatest American Hero. This pilot just can’t seem to find its groove. Trimming it down to one episode might have forced more coherence. As it is, it simulataneously seems like teen(ish) drama, procedural, and “very special” episode of something; and, in retrospect, a time capsule of 1980s pop culture. The whole series is available on Hulu.

There’s a 21 Jump Street movie slated for release in 2012, starring Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill and Ice Cube.

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One thought on “21 Jump Street

  1. Pingback: 25 Years of Fox Pilots « Anatomy of a Pilot

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