Anchor Bay // 1987 // 585 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // November 17th, 2004
I said jump!!! Down on Jump Street!
Before Fox became the home to The Simpsons, COPS, and an onslaught of moronic reality shows, it was a struggling network somewhere on the dark side of the UHF band. But this, its flagship show, managed to break through and, simultaneously, act as the breeding ground for scores of familiar faces, including one actor who would later find superstardom. 21 Jump Street stormed onto the TV landscape in 1987 and brought with it an amalgam of gravity-defying coiffures, teenage angst, gunplay, and Tiger Beat coverboys. Now, 17 years later, the crew of the Jump Street chapel is going undercover once more, thanks to DVD -- but is this a series powered mainly by nostalgia, and the novelty of a pre-phenom Johnny Depp, rather than actual quality?
The Jump Street program was a radical approach to preemptive law enforcement. Its goal: to intercept criminals in their gestation stage, as high school students. To do so would require the insertion of undercover, young-looking police officers posing as teens into local high schools. As such, crimes were generally of the After-School Special variety, involving drugs, extortion, gang violence, and the rest of the happiness that made high school life such a fun period of existence for most people.
21 Jump Street rolled into town in 1987 and cruised for five seasons. With Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) as the headliner, the show was a success for Fox, and became one of the frontrunners of "edgy" television. Now the series brings its hybrid of high school antics and cop drama to your living room, with this presentation of the 13-episode first season. Here are the players:
Officer Tom Hanson (Depp): This play-by-the-book recent Academy grad found himself unable to succeed as a baby-faced cop on the streets. Faced with placement at a desk position until his features aged, he chose a new assignment -- as one of the elite cops in a new high school undercover program.
Officer Doug Penhall (Peter Deluise): The stocky comic relief, Penhall supplies the tension-lightening wisecracks.
Officer Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson): Perennial ABC TGIF-er Robinson gets her start as the token female in the Jump Street precinct, and as the winner for "Largest Mass of Hair on Prime Time."
Officer H.T. Ioki (Dustin Nguyen): The more "in-the-background" player, Ioki mainly plays second fiddle to the exploits of Hanson and Penhall, breaking free once in a while to showcase his martial arts skills.
Captain Richard Jenko (Frederic Forrest): The original head of the squad, Captain Jenko was "killed by a drunk driver" (translation: creative conflicts with the producers) after the sixth episode. Jenko was an easy-going ex-hippie who was later replaced by...
Captain Adam Fuller (Stephen Williams): Fuller was everything Jenko wasn't: disciplined, surly, organized and African-American. And he had sweet-ass sunglasses.
21 Jump Street will always hold a special place in my heart. It was the first show where I heard the word "ass" used. Talk about edgy. So I was a little apprehensive about taking a look at the show some 17 years later, and finding out how unkind the years had been. While certainly nostalgic -- dig Ioki's bitchin' outfits! -- the show surprised this jaded, older version of Dave: it is indeed pretty good. However, this being the first season, it took some time to find its footing. And while future episodes would be considerably more "hard-hitting," this set features a solid collection of old-school high school malfeasance and the baby-faced cops that combat it.
It is obvious to me when the show started to pick up steam. By no coincidence, it was right after the big change of captains. While Frederic Forrest is an appealing actor, his work on 21 Jump Street was irritating; it couldn't be soon enough to jettison his Captain Jenko. With the addition of Fuller, the show took a dramatic new turn, pumping up the gravity of the situations while moving toward more of a cop-show mentality.
Under Jenko's command, the Jump Street chapel housed only the four undercover cops and the captain, who yukked it up and played baseball with their police batons more than anything else; it was less a precinct and more a treehouse. Fuller's addition -- love it or hate it -- brought the show more legitimacy as a cop show, and, to me, markedly improved it.
A show like this would require much suspension of disbelief, but the most blatant bending of reality comes from the show's premise. There must be an infinite number of schools in Jump Street's jurisdiction for the same four kids to go undercover and not be spotted. You would think word would spread about a new police initiative placing young-looking narcs in schools. Oh well, maybe news didn't travel as fast without blogs and Instant Messenger.
Anyway, let's jump! to the episodes:
* Pilot (Parts 1 and 2)
Watching the pilot made me begin to second-guess my youthful fascination with Hanson and company. This looked enormously dated! The picture and sound was archaic, the acting was over-the-top, and the unending '80s aural vignettes that accompanied the many montages were ludicrous (the show would later replace lyrical songs with an atrocious electronic score). The pilot focuses on Hanson, and we're let into the world of Jump Street through his eyes. His first case involved the investigation of the snottiest, most annoying weenie high school kid ever and his involvement with fencing stolen goods and a drug ring. Everything about this first episode is pretty lamentable, save for the smackdown Hanson puts on the weenie kid at the end, making him cry like the baby he is. Grade: C-
* America, What a Town
The requisite jingoistic episode examining the cultural differences of the United States and the Eastern Bloc. A young girl from a communist country hangs around with Hoffs and absorbs the American scene, more or less becoming a skank. The main narrative finds Penhall and Hanson cracking a stolen car ring run out of a high school auto body shop. Again, not very hard-hitting these first few cases, though it is fun to see the budding chemistry between Depp and Deluise. (Sheesh, did I just write that?)
* Don't Pet the Teacher
Hanson goes undercover to investigate vandalism, theft, and the stalking of a bodacious female teacher at a high school. An annoying, smart-ass kid is the target and, unfortunately, is not smacked around at the end. Another ho-hum case.
* My Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades
Goofy title aside, this episode is worthy of note for two reasons: it features a young Josh Brolin and it delves into weightier subject matter. Hanson and Penhall go undercover in a prestigious prep school after a girl is found raped and dead. As the two officers snuggle up to a trio of snobby bastards (headed by Brolin's character), a lucrative drug ring exposes itself. Also, the episode heralds the beginning of a 21 Jump Street trend -- not-so-happy endings.
* The Worst Night of Your Life
And one of the worst episodes of the bunch. Hoffs gets center stage investigating an arsonist at a all-girl Catholic school. Beyond some laughs at Penhall's wardrobe's expense and Hanson's bowling tenacity, this is a blah installment.
* Gotta Finish the Riff
In essence, the show restarted. Everything changes with this episode. Technically, the picture looks better, leading me to think the creators employed better film stock. And with Jenko gone (thankfully) and Fuller in, the precinct gets more professional. The new look also lands a more hardcore story, when the Bloods take a high school hostage with Hoffs and Hanson undercover. As the drama plays out, Penhall and Ioki perform tactical insertions, guns are drawn and pointed at people's heads -- a big deal for late '80s prime-time -- and our heroes open up a can of whoop-ass. Now it's coming together. And check out Blair Underwood as the gang-leader!
* Bad Influence
You want edge? How about a 16-year-old hooker turning tricks and working with a burglar for whom she steals house security codes? Ioki is sent in to infiltrate the scheme and aggressively make-out with the mark. Needless to say, we do find out that the hooker has a heart of gold. Go figure.
This Hanson-centric episode introduces the McQuaid brothers. Penhall and Hanson are sent undercover as two primo troublemakers to tease out a drug ring. But out of nowhere, a young girl offers Hanson money to murder her father, a high-ranking police captain. Mix in some sexual abuse and a gunshot wound and you can kiss goodbye those "don't do drugs and stay in school" plotlines.
* Next Generation
Hanson goes toe-to-toe with the most popular kid in School of the Week, who is suspected of a loan-shark operation. As he closes in on the target, his cover is threatened when the quiz team he's joined makes it to the finals. In addition, a meddlesome student (that kid who played Rusty in National Lampoon's European Vacation) gets Hanson into the race for school president. A so-so episode that earns points for its high school slice-of-life, but not much else.
* Low and Away
Penhall joins a high school baseball team to keep an eye on the star pitcher, the target of a potential kidnapping scheme. The chapel crew must deal with the strong-armed FBI and a new player from New York, a brash cop whose agenda is unclear. A nicely plotted, layered episode with some good twists, ending in a physics-defying, yet fun-to-look-at car crash.
* 16 Blown to 35
Four words: high school porno ring.
* Mean Streets and Pastel Houses
Hanson and Penhall are deployed into a suburban punk gang to curtail the spree of violence and vandalism that has been plaguing the community. Depp's hair alone is worth the price of admission, and check out his Scottish plaid pants! Oh, and is that Jason Priestly?!
There is little Anchor Bay can do with the audio/visual transfer here. The show is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. As I mentioned before, the first few episodes look far worse than the later batch. However, all of them suffer from varying degrees of pixellation, from atrocious to mildly okay. The 2.0 mix doesn't suck, but don't expect much.
New interviews with creator Stephen J. Cannell (that guy at the typewriter at the end of every episode that grabs the piece of paper and throws it into the air and it becomes a drawing), Holly Robinson Peete, Dustin Nguyen, and Steven Williams offer insight into the particular characters. Fun Fact! Robinson sings the enigmatic title song, with Depp and Deluise providing the background vocals! The niftiest extra is an animated, anecdotal commentary by Deluise. Want the Depp scoop? Or the inside info on the mid-season captain swap? He's got it. It's a good track and Deluise is verbose; he's even cut off mid-sentence at the end of the episode.
In the end, I'd say 21 Jump Street holds up against the unforgiving test of time. The music and the fashions are laughable, but the season taken as a whole -- the uneven first half and reality-based idiosyncrasies aside -- transcends the realm of novelty nostalgia and can be considered as a viable, decent show.
Guilty of awful hair, but acquitted of all other charges.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 585 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interviews With the Co-Creator and Stars
* Audio Commentary by Peter Deluise
* Full-Color Booklet