As I sat with the biggest grin I’ve ever had plastered on my face watching Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise recreate their characters from 21 Jump Street for five precious minutes in the 2012 21 Jump Street movie, only one coherent thought went through my head:
Why the hell do I love that show so much?
For the uninitiated, 21 Jump Street aired on Fox from 1987 to 1991 (five seasons). It starred Johnny Depp (who had only a handful of acting credits to his name at the time), Holly Robinson Peete, Dustin Nguyen and Peter DeLuise as cops who go undercover in high schools and colleges to solve crimes. Steven Williams played their tough-talking but respected captain, and Sal Jenco put in regular appearances as the unit’s comedic-relief janitor.
Let’s be honest here: the show was, in many ways, not that great. It tried earnestly to be profound, including many plotlines over the years about AIDS, rape, underage drug use, and even war, but never went deep enough into any of those issues to be anything other than mildly affecting. The show’s format of focusing on a different case in each episode didn’t lend itself to much character development, either. A revolving door of young actors played the kids involved in each investigation, with only a few ever returning a second time, and the Jump Street cops also found themselves relegated to mostly single-episode arcs.
The writing also had a tendency to be silly and overdramatic, and it wasn’t helped by Johnny Depp, who appears more and more checked-out as the seasons wear on and doesn’t try to hide the fact that he could care less about what he’s saying. We never really knew enough about the cops’ lives outside of Jump Street, and many of the kids they investigate become indistinguishable from one another, especially after the sixth or seventh episode about high school drug rings. In short, 21 Jump Street would never win an Emmy – today, it’d be comparable to anything on the CW or MTV.
And yet…there’s just something about 21 Jump Street that makes it so damn loveable. In spite of himself, Johnny Depp makes his Officer Tom Hanson quite layered, combining his tough police work, internal struggle about whether the force is really his passion, and even a ridiculous love of bowling into a memorable and wholly original character. It’s a treat to watch his chemistry with Peter DeLuise (Hanson’s partner Officer Doug Penhall), who remains one of the best costars Depp has ever had. The two managed to portray real friendship and share many funny scenes together. Steven Williams was always pissed off about something, which made it all the more sweet when he praised the cops and gave them advice. And, 21 Jump Street was the first major TV show to star an Asian American actor. It’s refreshing even now to watch the diverse cast, each of whom occupies his or her own niche in the Jump Street universe.
At the end of the day, you can’t help but embrace all 21 Jump Street has to offer, good, bad and everything in between. There are moments of true inspiration, such as the Hanson-centric episode “Orpheus 3.3” in which Hanson is wracked with guilt when his girlfriend is murdered in a convenience store robbery. Or “Chapel of Love,” in which the Jump Street cops recount their most memorable Valentine’s Days. Heck, even “Research and Destroy,” which sees the whole team undercover at a college suspected of manufacturing drugs in a chemistry lab, strikes a particularly good balance between fun and serious.
Even the sillier plot points become moments to cherish, like a random cameo by John Waters, the recurring joke about Sal’s “blowfish” face, and Hanson and Penhall’s favorite aliases, the McQuaid brothers.
It’s rare to find a television show that attempts to be equal parts profound and unabashedly ridiculous. Perhaps that’s what makes 21 Jump Street so memorable; it doesn’t really know what it is, but that doesn’t stop it from trying so determinedly to be a little bit of everything. You gotta admire a show with that much heart.
The ’80s fashion may be out and the storylines a bit dated 20 years on, but like Hanson, Penhall, Hoffs and Ioki, I still haven’t outgrown Jump Street. And that’s perfectly fine by me.