Saturday, March 10, 2012

Nostalgia Theater:
Jumping Back to 21 Jump Street

The cast of 21 Jump Street's second season: (L-R) Holly Robinson, Steven Williams, Johnny Depp, Peter DeLuise, Dustin Nguyen
Proving just how temporal our pop culture artifacts can end up being, two weeks ago, I was talking with my students in class, and one of them said they were looking forward to the upcoming 21 Jump Street feature film, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, which opens next Friday. I mentioned that I used to watch the TV show when I was a kid and was curious whether the movie would work, to which he replied, "What show?"

That's right. "What show."


So, yeah, this week, we look at TV's 21 Jump Street, yet another Stephen J. Cannell production from the late '80s. Created by Patrick Hasburgh, the show tracked a group of police officers as they worked undercover as high school students to bring down drug deals, rapists, arsonists, etc., Jump Street is known today (if it's known today) as the launching pad for the movie star supernova that is Johnny Depp. But as part of the very first lineup of programs on the brand new Fox network in April 1987, it helped put the netlet on the map, and was one of the most popular, buzzed-about shows of that era.

With a premise tailor-made for the coveted 18-39 demo the young-skewing Fox had made their bullseye, 21 Jump Street regularly showcased youth-centric issues while starring a cast of youth-centric, pinup friendly actors like Depp, Holly Robinson, and Peter DeLuise, making for one of the clearest examples of TV by way of focus group that I've ever seen. Here's the title sequence from the first season, impossibly '80s theme and all, with vocals by Robinson (and backup "Jump!" from DeLuise and Depp):

(Here's another clip featuring another future movie star, Brad Pitt, as a high school douchebag.)

With mullets, high hair, stonewashed jeans and parachute pants as far as the eye can see, Jump Street was very much a representation of its particular cultural moment. And the hip, modern feel, fairly distinct from many other cop dramas of the time, certainly did the trick initially. Jump Street was an immediate water cooler favorite for its "daring" take on hot button issues, and Depp, as Officer Tom Hanson, became an immediate -- if reluctant -- teen idol (made doubly ironic by the fact that Depp had flatly turned the role down initially, refusing to even read the script, and only relented after the actor they did cast didn't work out and the producers pleaded with him to accept).

As it turned out, Depp was simply too big a star to remain in his primetime box for very long, and if his film choices in the two decades since Jump Street have demonstrated anything, "conventional" isn't something he does particularly well. So, after much prodding to the producers, Depp was released from his contract after four seasons, just in time for Edward Scissorhands to turn him into an actual honest-to-gosh movie star. Unlike star Ken Wahl's decision to leave Wiseguy, this was the best possible decision Depp could have made for his career.

Even as Depp was trying to get off the series, it was already becoming jeopardized by the public's fading interest. I've said before that the danger of being "of the moment" is that the moment eventually passes, and like Miami Vice before it, 21 Jump Street burned white hot at first but faded as new series came along that pushed to be even more daring and edgy. By the fourth season, with Depp no longer aboard, Fox cancelled the show, and while the producers were able to sell a fifth year into first run syndication, it merely forestalled the inevitable, closing up shop permanently in April 1991.

Before its cancellation, however, Fox did try giving a spin-off a go, with Richard Grieco's Det. Dennis Booker, a popular character who recurred during the third season, getting his own series, Booker, which ran for one season from '89-'90, concurrent with Jump Street's fourth year. Here's the intro, featuring "Hot in the City" by Billy Idol, which demonstrates perfectly how something that seems so cutting edge and "with it" one minute can appear horribly dated and out-of-step the next:

While both 21 Jump Street and Booker are available on DVD, neither is available as originally aired. Music clearance issues -- long the bane of classic TV -- have prevented the shows, which relied more than most series of that vintage on popular songs to bolster the dramatic impact of certain scenes, from being released unedited. No one back then anticipated a market for full season releases on home video, so no one bothered to take such an eventuality into account when drawing up contracts, leaving them high-and-dry decades down the line. Booker, for example, has been robbed of its whole theme song, being replaced with generic action filler.

Today, as my anecdote up-top demonstrates, 21 Jump Street is barely remembered, and when it is, it's known primarily as Depp's first pit stop on the road to superstardom. Does it hold up? Not particularly. What was so revolutionary in terms of content and subject matter back then comes off as naive and a little bit out-of-step today. Interestingly, while Depp was less than effusive about his time as Det. Hanson for many years, he's since come around to accepting the important part the show played in his career, even filming a cameo for the movie.

Self-promotion alert: For more info on Johnny Depp's early career and his love-hate relationship with 21 Jump Street, be sure to check out my biography of the star, available as an eBook download via HyperInk for only 99 cents.

1 comment:

J.R. LeMar said...

I loved that show as a wee lad. I remember being on a 3-way phone call with 2 of my school chums, as we all watched the first episode together, and talked during the commercials. I watched it all the way to the final season. And I watched Booker. In retrospect, they should have kept Grieco on the show, he may have made a good replacement for Depp's character.

Depp remains one of my favorite actors to this day.