Binge or Purge? – 21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street (Screen: 20th Century Fox Entertainment)

In honor of next week’s release of 22 Jump Street, we take a look at the original series 21 Jump Street.

Show

21 Jump Street, currently streaming on Hulu Plus

Premise

Stern, hothead rookie cop Tom Hanson has too cute a baby face to be taken seriously. Under threat of being stuck behind a desk, he chooses instead to join a special unit called Jump Street Chapel. Hanson and his Jump Street colleagues go undercover as high school students, secretly investigating everything from drug rings to gambling rackets to arson.

Legacy

An early hit for the nascent Fox network, 21 Jump Street was the first cop show for Generation X. It featured a young, diverse cast of hotties, including a new sort of 1980s heartthrob – an offbeat, pretty boy brooder named Johnny Depp.

What’s to Love Now

Surprisingly, plenty. First, it’s a Stephen J. Cannell production, which means it’s the perfect antidote to prestige TV fatigue. Remember the old days, when you could miss an episode of your favorite program and not have to worry about spoilers or disrupted story arcs? That’s part of the fun in revisiting a Cannell series like The Rockford Files, The A-Team or 21 Jump Street. Each episode is a self-contained story featuring mild mystery and plenty of car chases – great viewing when you’re tired, sick, or just want to zone out. But 21 Jump Street feels more sophisticated than those other Cannell productions. The entire cast is very charismatic and likable. Scripts are pop culture referential and peppered with believable, often funny dialog. The feathered hair, single earrings and boxy shoulder pads will definitely make you chuckle, but the direction and camera work are totally respectable, even artful. Future X-Files writers and directors, including Kim Manners, Glen Morgan and James Wong, left their finger prints all over this series and laid the stylistic groundwork for their supernatural noir hit (cue headlights in a blue mist).

What Makes Us Groan

As is often the case when mainstream narratives take a stab at embracing diversity (yay for trying), 21 Jump Street is packed with racist, sexist and just plain dumb stereotypes (boo for failing). Especially in season one, it seems that whenever the villain isn’t a drug-dealing, rap-blasting, African American man, it’s some absurd caricature of a social outlier – the janitor who still resents the jocks who teased him in high school, the fat girl who didn’t get a date to prom. The running joke about Officer Ioki being a terrible driver thankfully recedes in later seasons, but I’m still cringing over that one as I write.

Verdict

21 Jump Street is a great “don’t have to think too hard” police procedural and a fun late 80s/early 90s time capsule. Pick your episodes wisely and you’ll have a good time.

Navigational Tips

Skip season one. I’d personally avoid any episode that deals explicitly with race issues or rape. If the X-Files angle works for you, look for Morgan and Wong written scripts. I especially recommend season four, episode six “Old Haunts in a New Age”, which features psychics, alien abduction, references to Ghostbusters, Close Encounters and Taxi Driver, as well as a guest appearance by Louie‘s Pamela Adlon.

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Tara Rose
About Tara Rose 106 Articles
Since 2009, Tara has been writing snarky essays about pop culture, motherhood and her various neuroses at Rare Oats. She spends most of her other time selling cheese, raising a small human and goofing off with her husband Dan. E-mail: tara@whatelseison.tv
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