Screenshot: Fox
A Very Special EpisodeA single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.  

What did we expect from Johnny Depp? When he first started appearing on our television screens regularly in 1987, looking impossibly pretty as undercover policeman Tom Hanson in 21 Jump Street, who imagined him as a future Oscar nominee, or as one of Hollywood’s preeminent weirdoes? Who saw him as anything other than an unusually soft-featured and soft-spoken model of young American masculinity? Who, that is, besides Depp?

Back in ’87, Johnny Depp was a 23-year-old nobody: a high school dropout and unemployed rock guitarist who’d made a minor impression in the movies A Nightmare On Elm Street and Private Resort, but hadn’t shown any of the intensity, charisma, or restless intelligence that he’d bring to TV. 21 Jump Street became one of the first real hits for the then-fledgling Fox network, winning over a teenage audience that at the time was largely underserved by ABC, CBS, and NBC in primetime. Depp was at the center of the sensation, beloved by the show’s fans not just for his boyish good looks, but because his Officer Hanson displayed a sensitivity and moral authority that made him a dependable hero. Depp was a heartthrob, a role model, and a spokesperson for social causes via Fox’s post-episode PSAs.

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And he hated every minute of it. When Depp decided to make the jump back from the small screen to the cinema in 1990, he started out by spoofing his teen idol persona in John Waters’ Cry-Baby, then began his long collaboration with Tim Burton by playing the ultimate goth outcast in Edward Scissorhands. For some TV-weaned actors, there’s always a lingering question of whether audiences will ever be able to accept them in any role other than the one that made them famous. But in just one year, Depp distanced himself so quickly and so well from Tom Hanson that his original television breakthrough is now more of a footnote to his overall career.

Watching the actor now in old episodes of 21 Jump Street, there’s no immediate evidence of how uncomfortable he might’ve been. Only the subsequent three decades of his life and work make it seem strange that he once spent a few years playing a hunky TV cop. Whatever his reservations about the show or his role, Depp was actually quite good at television—perhaps because his character spent so much time pretending to be somebody else.

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Just try to peel back the layers of Depp’s identity in 21 Jump Street’s season-one finale, “Mean Streets And Pastel Houses.” Here’s the case: Warring gangs of white suburban punk rockers have been involved in violent altercations with each other and with the local beat cops. Youthful undercover detectives, secretly stationed in an old Jump Street chapel, are asked to infiltrate Hamilton High and dig up the root causes of the trouble. Though the burly Officer Doug Penhall (played by Peter DeLuise) has more experience with the punk scene, Captain Fuller (Steven Williams) understands that their suspects are mostly middle-class, so he assigns the gentler, savvier Hanson to play a hip new kid from Oklahoma, while Doug is stuck playing the square stepbrother.

In real life, Depp was an actual Sunset Strip punk/metal kid, who’d never finished school, and who at the time was sort of “undercover” as an actor until he could get back to his music career. And here he was on TV, playing an intellectual and an authority figure, posing as a rocker. Somewhere, submerged in that soup of fakery and aspiration, there had to be some chunks of the genuine Depp.

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Television in the ’70s and ’80s didn’t always do right by the punk scene; and there’s plenty about “Mean Streets And Pastel Houses” that’ll make former high school outsiders roll their eyes. Take the names, for example. The kids congregate at a club called “Slug Lord.” One of the gangs calls themselves “the KKK” after their favorite band, the Kleen Kut Kidz. Their rivals are “The Friendly Neighbours.” The KKK are led by a guy nicknamed “Lancer,” played by David Sherrill, and another of their members, played by a pre-Beverly Hills 90210 Jason Priestley, calls himself “Tober,” after his favorite month. (“It’s when everything dies!” he explains.) And because this is family-friendly network television in 1987, the kids all spout defanged epithets like “Kick his tail!”, “Scrap that!”, and “Good gol-darn riddance!”

The scale of the criminal activity that Tom and Doug are sent to investigate also seems exaggerated, and intended to make the punk movement look more like a widespread social menace. The violence between the two gangs rings true. They come off like two factions of dopey, testosterone-fueled teen knuckleheads, squabbling in the streets in ways that endanger each other and any passersby. But both the KKK and the Friendly Neighbors are awfully brazen in the way they confront the cops: spray-painting anarchy symbols on police cars, making plans to fire guns at officers to show they won’t be pushed around, and openly defying the law whenever patrolmen are near. When two policeman bust Lancer for jaywalking, for example, he reasserts his leadership of the KKK by crumpling up the ticket and then laying down in the middle of the street, calling his oppressors “a coupla ’tude-cases.”

But note what happens at the end of the scene where Lancer picks at the fuzz. His ostensible right-hand man—the KKK’s brains and spiritual center, Brian (Steve Marshall)—looks at the two cops as well as Lancer and mutters, “All three of them are defectives.” What sets this episode apart from other alarmist “beware the weirdoes” TV is that it ultimately takes a measured view of who these quasi-criminals are. In this case, Tom plays anthropologist, to try and understand just what has these spiky-haired teens so riled up. He makes up a story about himself as the product of a broken home to earn their trust, and then he listens as his new classmates talk about parents and teachers trying to squeeze misfits into a mold.

Brian’s a little different from the other punks. He’s just as angst-ridden as they are—which is why he dropped out of student council and quit playing sports—but he also takes advanced classes and studies hard, because he wants to test out of some college courses to help his cash-strapped mom. Brian initially eyes Tom suspiciously, but eventually opens up and admits that he first got into punk because it was a fun escape from the pressures of school and his tense family situation. He’s not interested in real rebellion or violent turf wars. He just wants a scene to hide out in for a couple of years, before he graduates and moves on to the next phase of his life. In other words: Brian is like 95 percent of ’80s suburban punks.

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“Mean Streets And Pastel Houses” ends with Tom and Doug ditching their undercover identities—and enlisting Brian in their cause—to stop Lancer from decapitating a motorcycle cop with a wire stretched across the road. In the aftermath, Brian confesses to one of the crimes that caught the attention of the Jump Street crew in the first place, and the ever-forthright Tom sighs, “I have to arrest you.”

Yet ultimately, the “mystery of the week” in this episode has less to do with KKK lawbreaking than it does with answering the question of what draws relatively privileged kids to dress like vagabonds and act like street-toughs. The answer is that many of them have real problems: from the persistent domestic spats and financial worries at Brian’s house, to the circumstances that have left Tober living on the street in a cardboard box. No matter the cause, they rally around the concept of reinvention and tribalism. “You can be what you want to be,” Tober explains to Doug.

Which brings us back to Tom, a curious person by nature, who listens to all of these kids’ stories with real fascination. Even during his first night as a punk, Tom explores the space at Slug Lord, trying out slam-dancing and stage-diving like a tourist sampling a local delicacy—tentatively, but with genuine excitement. The Slug Lord scene plays under the opening credits for a good five minutes (with music provided by west coast punk stalwarts Agent Orange), giving the images of the counterculture time to sink in and become less of a freak show.

Later, riding back to HQ with Doug, Tom enthuses about the experience, comparing the punks to aborigines and analyzing their social customs. In 1987, 21 Jump Street viewers wouldn’t have known much about Johnny Depp—or at least not enough to be impressed with how well he sells this almost alien reaction to hard-edged rock ’n’ roll. Few would’ve known that the Tom thrashing away at Slug Lord was more like the “real” Depp than the Tom free-associating about teen spirit.

“Mean Streets And Pastel Houses” is a typical 21 Jump Street episode inasmuch as it combines a little relevant real-world sociology with scenes of undercover cops trying to relate to their just-a-few-years-younger peers. But it’s also missing two major characters—Sergeants Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson) and Harry Truman Ioki (Dustin Nguyen)—and the scope of the operation is a little slighter than usual. It feels like 21 Jump Street Lite.

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The episode does, however, help explain both how Depp became a star on this show and why he had to flee it at the first opportunity. He had way too much magnetism to remain on the small screen for long—especially in a series with a cheesy theme song and so much simplistic moralizing. Seeing him in 21 Jump Street now is like seeing Burt Reynolds in Gunsmoke, or Eddie Murphy in Saturday Night Live, or Jennifer Lawrence in The Bill Engvall Show. Audiences would go on to pay good money once or twice a year to see what they once got on their TV sets for free every week.

With Depp though, the wonders of his 21 Jump Street years are tinged with melancholy, given what followed. He’s been electrifying in many movies; but he’s also worn out his welcome some over the past decade with his predilection for weird accents, costumes, and makeup in his performance. And then there’s Depp’s off-screen behavior, which has ranged from merely surly to unforgivably violent. On 21 Jump Street, Depp got to try on a lot of different personae, but his Tom Hanson always defaulted back to someone that Depp really never was: an ordinary, earnest American boy. It’s not exactly the part he was born to play. But it’s fascinating to see him try.

Next time… on A Very Special Episode: What’s in Al Capone’s vault?

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