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21 Jump Street did more than just make Johnny Depp famous

21 Jump Street cast photo, c. 1989

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.

The movie 21 Jump Street and its 2014 sequel succeeded due to a witty script and considerable onscreen chemistry between leads Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. But it was also building off of some excellent source material. In 1987, the televised take on the concept helped build the lineup on fledgling fourth broadcast network Fox. Based on a real squad of babyfaced undercover cops who infiltrated high schools and colleges, the show’s cast of relative unknowns (Johnny Depp, Peter DeLuise, Holly Robinson Peete, Dustin Nguyen, Steven Williams) dove almost immediately into successful social issue-of-the-week status.

Photo: Fox Network/Getty Images

After years of producing series for ABC, CBS, and NBC, 20th Century Fox launched its own broadcast home in 1986—the first legitimate challenge to the dominance of the Big Three since the Dumont Television Network folded in 1956. That challenge entered primetime in April 1987, with comedies like The Tracey Ullman Show, Married… With Children, and Duet, and one action series: 21 Jump Street. For its show about baby-faced detectives, Fox pulled in the big guns: prolific TV masterminds Stephen J. Cannell and Patrick Hasburgh, who had created previous action series like The Greatest American Hero, Hardcastle And McCormick, and The A-Team. Cannell had also created iconic detectives like Baretta and Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. The pair knew their way around a police station, which for Jump Street purposes, they changed into a refurbished chapel, complete with inexplicable fire pole. To contrast the green talent playing its undercover officers, the show cast Apocalypse Now vet Frederic Forrest as their captain, a former hippie named Richard Jenko.

21 Jump Street Press Conference, June 3, 1987 (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

But for a bunch of then-nobodies, the young, diverse cast had tremendous chemistry. This group happened to feature an immediate star right out of the gate, and the writers quickly started crafting episodes that played to the chameleon-like talents of Johnny Depp. In the earliest days of his career, before Jack Sparrow and any domestic violence allegations, Depp’s Officer Tom Hanson could easily be a street punk one week and a preppy headed to college the next, giving episodes about the issues of the day—AIDS, abortion, fraternity hazing, homelessness—surprising depth. Plus Depp and the other the cast members played off each other perfectly. Holly Robinson Peete’s Hoffs was a smart, strong lead who could stand her ground as the only woman in the group. Dustin Nguyen’s Ioki was always good for a stakeout, or to have Hanson’s back at a hazing party. But the grizzly-bear appeal of Peter DeLuise’s scruffy Penhall, juxtaposed against Depp’s squeaky-clean Hanson, seemed to work best of all.

The guest roster was also stacked with the stars of tomorrow: Where else could you find homeless Bridget Fonda, Brad Pitt in the high school cafeteria, Josh Brolin as a coke-snorting murderer, or Jason Priestley in a mohawk? The show even had a decent theme song, sung by Robinson Peete and backed by Depp and DeLuise. Pulling in some cool music for the younger, alternative set—like having R.E.M. score the army-themed episode “A.W.O.L.” with “Orange Crush”—didn’t hurt either. By August 1987, 21 Jump Street was winning its time slot, the first Fox show to do so. Eventually, it moved to Mondays to kick off a whole new night of programming for the network.

Jump Street took a while to even out: Its two-part pilot rather clunkily explains why Hanson gets kicked off his original beat and sent to the Jump Street chapel. There, he immediately gets sent into an undercover operation at a high school, standing off against drug dealers and trying to help the junkie/clarinet player who owes them thousands of dollars. The most painful part of the puzzle is Forrest’s “groovy” character, who was fortunately written off in episode six, the victim of a drunk driver. That brought in the stern Steven Williams as Captain Fuller, adding some necessary structure to the recess-ready Jump Street hijinks.


Then came the topical material, where the grittiness and eternal gray of generic Vancouver locations only made the vibrancy of the young cast stand out more. Fuller would rattle off some stats about AIDS, or teen homelessness, or hazing casualties at least once an episode, to remind everyone what the stakes were. (Episodes also frequently ended with PSAs about drugs or child abuse.) A brief flirtation between Hanson and Hoffs was squashed in season one, and for the rest of its tenure, Jump Street went with the stuff that was grabbing headlines and driving conversations, a formula that worked since its personalities were already so solid.

A bit too solid, in fact: Depp’s meteoric rise meant that he was bound to be the first to leave the show. Jump Street got him noticed, but he was picky about his starring roles on the big screen, choosing to work only with directors he admired: John Waters for Cry-Baby, and Tim Burton for Edward Scissorhands (the latter being the start of a decades-long partnership). With Depp poised to take off, the series brought in backup during season three, in the form of Richard Grieco. Grieco’s Booker was similarly good-looking, but a bit of a misanthrope, one of the only outsiders in the chapel. Ironically, Depp wound up sticking with the show into season four, while Grieco quickly got spun off into his own unsuccessful series, Booker, with Lori Petty as his girl Friday. (Booker’s theme song was a Billy Idol song from 1982, and the show technically kicked off in 1989, but its opening credits may be the most ’90s thing anyone has ever seen.) Depp left in the middle of season four, with Dustin Nguyen following at the end of the season. Fox then also said goodbye to the show at that point, but it was picked up in syndication for a fifth season. Some younger officers were brought in to keep the “babyface” undercover operation alive, but it didn’t take, and the show died in 1991.


Besides the wisecracks and Tatum and Hill, what’s fun about the Jump Street movies is how much they play into the structure of the original series: the stern captain (Ice Cube), the frequent car chases, and the considerable effort to fit into high school as an adult. Nearly all of the original cast members have shown up in cameos in the two films, even Grieco. Best of all is the reveal at the end of the first movie, when two members of of the drug-dealing motorcycle gang turn out to be none other than Penhall and Hanson themselves, still working as undercover operatives, now for the DEA. As they die in the ensuing shootout, their final words are that they’re glad that they get to go out on the job, next to their best friend. These beloved characters from the original 21 Jump Street shouldn’t have ended any other way.

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, below are 10 episodes that encapsulate the essence of the 21 Jump Street appeal—all of which are currently streaming on Hulu.


1. “My Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” (season one, episode five)

This early effort marked the first but hardly the last time that the Jump Street-ers would infiltrate a corrupt, upper-crust crowd. There are shades of the 21 Jump Street movie pilot here, as Penhall is the one who hits it off with the preppies, while Hanson is considered a dork. What’s also fascinating about watching Jump Street now is how much it encapsulates these particular years of youth culture: Male ear piercing is discussed as if it’s the height of edginess. An effective twist ending involving Josh Brolin’s character foreshadows what the show would eventually be capable of.


2. “Mean Streets And Pastel Houses” (season one, episode 13)

The punk episode offered mosh pits and stage dives as Hanson infiltrates a gang of vandals. Although he initially opines, “It’s just another subculture. Taking orders, packing rules, that kind of thing,” he eventually gets sucked into the punk mentality, finding a reason for the teens’ suburban rebellion. This riveting season finale paves the way for 21 Jump Street’s glory days: seasons two and three.


3. “Fear And Loathing With Russell Buckins” (season two, episode 12)

Jump Street giving the people what they want: By season two, producers quickly realized that the best thing for their show was as many Depp-focused episodes as possible. In “Fear And Loathing With Russell Buckins,” our consummate do-gooder Hanson is haunted by an old flame, set against a backdrop of drag-racing muscle cars, and goes off on an adolescent road trip. Penhall tells him: “You missed something, my friend. You missed being a teenager!” Hanson: “Maybe. Now they pay me to do that.” Penhall, meanwhile, gets sent back to the academy, a reminder that the Jump Streeters were actually cops, just ones who were able to escape the drudgery of desk jobs or going on patrol.


4. “A Big Disease With A Little Name” (season two, episode 13)

Hanson becomes the protective companion to Harley, a high-schooler with AIDS who gets harassed at school. And when we say harassed… this is one of those times when Jump Street effectively brought the issues of the day to the forefront. Now it seems unconscionable that a kid with a disease would be met with mass protest every time he tries to enter his high school, with placard signs like “Quarantine Him” and “No Plague In Our School,” but Jump Street reminds us of the unfortunate mass hysteria of the time. Even when he’s inside, Harley is treated as a leper. Hanson isn’t immune, unhappy with the kid’s brash attitude and declining his offer to share a milk for fear of contamination. But by the time Hanson is won over by Harley, who refuses to be a victim, so are we. And an offhand comment from Harley’s mother that the president hadn’t even said anything officially about the AIDS crisis yet is a stark reminder of how bleak those times were for those with a fatal disease that was barely even being acknowledged by the general public.


5. “Whose Choice Is It Anyways?” (season three, episode five)

This episode gave Hoffs (Robinson Peete) and Ioki (Nguyen) starring roles for once, while showing both sides of a controversial topic. Ioki infiltrates the mob that’s protesting a birth-control clinic, until he kind of sees their point. Hoffs, who had an abortion as a teen, tries to protect the women on the other side. The episode is an excellent example of how even-handed Jump Street could be toward its issues-of-the-week, especially by showing how much they affected the kid cops personally.


6. “Swallowed Alive” (season three, episode nine)

This might be as good as Jump Street ever got. The Jump Streeters infiltrate a rough juvenile prison to discover how heroin is being trafficked there. But Booker and Ioki quickly get transferred, and Penhall loses it in solitary. Left on his own, Hanson quickly becomes the “Hammer,” or gang leader, and is subsequently completely sucked in to the herd mentality, almost as quickly as the viewer is pulled into this nightmarish landscape: In only a single TV hour, we get a comprehensive lay of the land of this hellish place, and can identify with the complete devastation of Penhall and Hanson as they see first-hand where all the juvenile offenders they charge wind up, and how low their chances are for ever getting out of the system.


7. “High High” (season three, episode 16)

A classic from the Booker era: The squad goes undercover at a performing arts academy that’s so drug-addled they wind up arresting an entire auditorium of people. Whether or not Booker actually did heroin before playing basketball is still up for debate, but the setting lets Jump Street explore other avenues like performance art, acting, Ioki’s eventually damning videos, or Depp’s obvious angling to play guitar onscreen. This episode was directed by guest star Mario Van Peebles, who moves the typical Jump Street direction into an artistic vein. And it doesn’t shy away from the consequences of all that creative drug use, either, with things not turning out so well for Booker’s poetry buddy Dave.


8. “Blinded By The Thousand Points Of Light” (season three, episode 17)

The homelessness episode features a scary serial killer who preys on underage male prostitutes, so Hanson, Penhall, and Hoffs enter the world of teens living on the street. The makeshift family that the homeless kids make for themselves, anchored by Bridget Fonda, is unexpectedly touching. Penhall quickly develops the nickname “Trump,” of all things, as his panhandling schtick is that he wants to save up to buy Art Of The Deal. But while Penhall and Hoffs spend their time blending in, it’s Hanson (naturally) who has to take the much riskier step of posing as a prostitute himself to draw out the killer. Yet another instance where Jump Street was able to transform a ripped-from-the-headlines plot into riveting adolescent drama.


9. “Mike’s P.O.V.” (season four, episode 9)

Even though Jump Street was primarily focused on the officers, it also paid attention to the kids they worked with and around, and seemed to have a firm grasp on teenage problems: fights with parents, fitting in with friends, peer pressure, etc. That was readily apparent in the episode “Mike’s P.O.V.,” which focuses on a young loner (Donovan Leitch) with a crush, and so desperate to fit in, he’ll do almost anything to make that happen. Some cast members were looking a little older by this time, so DeLuise plays a friendly coach, but Depp is still able to comb his hair right into his face to play an emo guy that everyone automatically likes, much to Mike’s consternation. Be on the lookout for a young, broomball-playing Vince Vaughn—but keep your eye on Leitch, too. He ably and achingly brings the desperation of a teen outsider to the small screen.


10. “How I Saved The Senator” (season four, episode 23)

All the drug abuse and teenage mortality could get pretty heavy, so Jump Street took some breaks once in a while. (Like season two’s “Chapel Of Love,” when the guys all realize that none of them have dates for Valentine’s Day, so they play liar’s poker and swap painful romantic stories at the chapel instead.) This was another hangout effort, in which each officer takes credit for thwarting a bomb scare when a senator speaks at a high school. Each cast member gets their own chance to star in their own story, in their own specific style: Ioki’s is a kung-fu movie, Hoff’s is a torchy songstress musical (guest-starring Ray Parker Jr. as her love interest), Hanson prefaces Depp’s future genre immersions with a Charlie Chaplin takeoff, and Penhall is a James Bond type. Even secondary character Sal the blowfish gets his own chance to tell his side, with a chainsaw slasher movie. It’s a little dumb, but fun for the cast members other than Depp to get a chance to shine more.


And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Don’t Pet The Teacher” (season one, episode four), “Besieged,” parts 1 and 2 (season three, episodes two and three), “Don’t Stretch The Rainbow” (season two, episode seven), “Chapel Of Love” (season two, episode 14), “I’m Okay, You Need Work,” (season two, episode 15), “Fun With Animals” (season three, episode one), “Hell Week” (season three, episode six), “The Dreaded Return Of Russell Buckins” (season three, episode 12), “2245” (season four, episode 16).

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