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A Look Back at ’21 Jump Street’ the TV Series (1987-1991)

A Look Back at '21 Jump Street' the TV Series (1987-1991)

Growing up in
Kenya, we weren’t allowed to watch television during the week. If we didn’t
have homework, we were expected to get cracking on the next chapter of whatever
textbook we were using for that night’s homework – which made Saturdays really
magical. Sure, Saturdays meant hand-washing laundry and cleaning out bedrooms,
but they also meant “Transformers,” “Danger Mouse,” “Sabre
Rider” and the “Star Sheriffs,” and in the afternoons, “21
Jump Street.” Maybe it’s because the world is so complicated right now, or
maybe it’s because television today takes itself far too seriously. Either way,
lately these shows have grown increasingly appealing, synonymous with a
simpler, happier time when you knew the story would wrap up in 22 minutes or an
hour, even if the bad guy sometimes got away.

Yes, ’80s
nostalgia is definitely in the air given Hollywood’s seemingly unrelenting
desire to reboot everything – cartoons, movies, television shows and even toys –
to varying success. There are no words to describe how excited I was for the “Transformers”
reboot, and there are equally no words to describe how disappointed I was with
what Michael Bay did with the franchise. It’s not like there’s even a pretext
as to why Hollywood is onto this trend – money – often stripping original concepts
of their earlier magic, leaving a marketable but soulless husk in its place.

No franchise
speaks more to this phenomenon that the reboot of “21 Jump Street.” I
confess, I haven’t watched either movie, nor do I intend to, but based on the
trailers and clips so far, I sense that a lot of the magic is lost. No, the
original series wasn’t Dame Judi Dench doing Shakespeare at The Old Vic, but
there was a sincerity and earnestness in which the original show approached it’s
subjects that has apparently been abandoned in favour of cheap laughs and the
buddy comedy trope.

Thankfully,
streaming services like Hulu and Netflix exist for those of us who still like
our nostalgia uncut. I recently binged on season one of “Jump Street”
(13 episodes) to try and work out what it was about this show that gave it such
strong and lasting appeal. In the first season, Johnny Depp had yet to gain
heartthrob status, so it is still an ensemble show in which the different
characters take centre stage in different episodes. Depp, Holly Robinson, Peter
Deluise, Dustin Nguyen and Frederick Forrest (later replaced by Steven
Williams) are the core of the Jump Street programme – a special police unit
hired for their youthfulness to investigate crimes committed by or against
teenagers. 

The first thing
you notice when you watch the original episodes is that the show is much older
than you maybe thought. Big hair, big blazers with big shoulder pads – it’s all
there, and actually cool, perhaps because of the comeback of ’80s fashion. The
lack of modern technology forces you to think about how much the last decade
has changed the way we relate to each other and to situations. For instance, in
one episode, Officer Hoffs (Robinson) has to drive away in search of a phone
booth in order to call and warn Officer Ioki (Nguyen) not to bust a teenage
prostitute and therefore ruin a potentially bigger bust. Think about how many
things could have gone wrong in the 15 minutes she went looking. What if the
first phone booth she found was broken? What if the landline was disconnected?
Think of all the terrible things Walter White would have done in those 15
minutes.

Still, it doesn’t
take very long to disappear entirely in the show’s world and forget these
details.  The subject matter is
surprisingly broad and deep, given that the show is about young police officers
masquerading as teenagers. Murder, drugs, pornography, sexual abuse: all
present, all handled with major finesse. Yet, it’s the more subtle elements of
the show that really stick out today, especially the observations characters
make about a social or political situation in apparently throwaway dialogue
that would probably never fly in contemporary television. In one episode, Hoffs
defends a suspected teenage prostitute, and in a 40-second speech hits out at
the sexism and double standards of sexuality between young men and women. It’s
hard to imagine a show on a major network today dealing with such issues with
such disarming earnestness. It’s even harder to imagine a movie remake
featuring two white men in the lead roles, shooting for cheap laughs, doing the
same. 

“21 Jump Street”
was like an afterschool special for kids who had seen it all but still wanted
to believe in goodness, with a catchy theme song.

By today’s
standards, the acting on the show is relatively weak. The dialogue is stilted
in various moments, cliches come fast and furious and it really makes you
appreciate how fortunate Johnny Depp has been in his career. Cinematically, you
have your stock angles, a few continuity errors and some garish lighting. But
the ensemble starts strong and only grows stronger through the season. Depp,
Deluise and Nguyen are convincing as a mismatched trio of buddies. Robinson’s
stylish and feminine Hoffs is never out of place in the testosterone heavy unit
– you never doubt that she can hold her own with the guys – but she somehow
remains above it. Indeed, Ioki and Hoffs represent some of the best written characters
of color on television – they embrace their identities but their identities don’t
define them, and you have no doubt that they lead fascinating lives even when
the white gaze isn’t gazing.

I guess I
understand the Hollywood nostalgia. The staff pitching ideas at production
meetings are probably my contemporaries, and taking a walk down “Jump
Street” memory lane also made me wonder how great it would be to get the
original cast back together for one last hurrah. But as far as I can tell, the
remake feeds contemporary Hollywood’s depressing cynicism; stripping away the
sincerity and simplicity that made the original show magical, like Saturdays.

All 3 Seasons of “21 Jump Street” are
currently streaming on Hulu.  

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