When I started this journey of reviewing Johnny Depp’s acting career I said I was going to stick to his films, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t ignore his stint on the late 80s teen cop show 21 Jump Street.
The show is central to Depp’s development as an actor for any number of reasons. For starters it was the vehicle that exposed him to reach a larger audience. Secondly, it solidified his resolve not to become, in his words, a ‘product’ to be manipulated by others. Finally, it was a great opportunity to showcase his chameleon-like abilities as an actor.
Set in an unnamed Washington town, 21 Jump Street follows Detective Tom Hanson (Johnny Depp) as a baby-faced rookie patrolman that isn’t taken seriously by his fellow cops or criminals. Recognizing his passion and talent for police work Hanson is reassigned to work with a secret undercover unit operating out of an abandon church located at, you guessed it, 21 Jump Street.
21 Jump Street came at time when a crop of long running and successful cop/detective dramas of the day either had just ended or were in their final few seasons: Hill Street Blues (1981-87), Cagney and Lacey (1981-88), Magnum P.I. (1980-88), T.J. Hooker (1982-86), Simon & Simon (1981-89), and Remington Steele (1982-87). While many of those series were critically acclaimed and reached broad audiences, none of them connected with the ‘kids’ of the day in a way that Jump Street did. Sure we all wanted to be Magnum and drive a Ferrari, but growing up in the 80s teens rarely saw themselves or their culture reflected in the TV drama of the time, unless you count preachy ABC Afterschool Specials.
Enter upstart FOX Broadcasting that was determined to launch an edgy fresh network to take on the big three (NBC, ABC, and CBS). Starting in 1987, Fox was only broadcasting two nights a week – Saturday & Sunday – and while there many forgettable shows launched during that first season (anyone remember Matthew Perry’s debut series – Second Chance?), it launched successful shows as 21 Jump Street, Married… With Children, and the Tracey Ullman Show, which would in turn spawn The Simpsons. 21 Jump Street was co-created by Stephen J. Cannell, no stranger to the police procedural with over 40 TV series to his credit, including Rockford Files, Baretta, and Tenspeed & Brownshoe, to name a few.
The pilot for Jump Street is slow to get going, following Hanson on patrol with a senior partner (Barney Martin) and setting up his back story about his passion for the job and desire to follow in his deceased father’s footsteps. Depp’s ability to switch between clean-cut boy next door and bad boy hunk convincingly is put to good use in the pilot as the Hanson’s new boss, hippie Captain Richard Jenko (Frederic Forrest), and his youthful crew makeover the square detective with the ‘Jack Kennedy haircut’ into something more contemporary. While Hanson looks at home in his leather jacket, jeans, and 80s version of the pompadour, he reverts to argyle sweater vests and khakis the moment he’s off duty.
The plot of the pilot is fairly inconsequential, revolving around saving some rich-boy white teen who is in over his head mixed up with a black thug named Tyrell ‘Waxer’ Thompson who drives a Ferrari to school. When not playing on stereotypes, the pilot does a good job building on the relationships between Depp and his new undercover partners Harry Truman Ioki (Dustin Nguyen), Doug Penhall (Peter Deluise), Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson Pete). Depp and his cast-mates do a decent job of carrying the story and are believable as teens in their undercover roles although we don’t get a chance to see Ioki or Hoffs in their high school settings this episode.
Filmed around Vancouver, Canada, license plates featuring Britsh Columbia logo are visible, the Gastown Steam Clock is prominently shown in another scene, and in a climatic chase scene Waxer and Hanson are shown running through the New Westminster Sky Train station. I am sure someone more familiar with the city could probably point out a dozen more landmarks in the pilot.
While 21 Jump Street brought Depp to a larger audience and turned him into a teen idol, it also strengthened his resolve to do his own thing. Quitting the series after the fourth season in 1990, Depp went on to take two movie roles to avoid being typecast as a teen idol – John Water’s Cry-Baby and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Next week we begin with a look at the first of those two films – Cry-Baby.