21 Jump Street

DVD Review – 21 Jump Street: The Complete First Season – Go To High School with Johnny Depp

Do you remember back then there were only three major television networks? The only thing on cable television was pretty much movie channels – none of the news or talk stations had really arrived at the time.

Into this environment came a fourth network, called the FOX network. People were pretty skeptical of its ability to survive for too long. Sunday nights were the network’s big night, and leading off that line-up was the show 21 Jump Street, created by Stephen J. Cannell. The first season was rather short, and now that the DVD collection had been released, it consists of only four discs.

The series starred Johnny Depp as rookie police officer Tom Hanson, who looked too young to be taken seriously. Because of that, he was sent to a division known as “Jump Street” or as he called it “Fast Times at Bust-Your-Buddy High”. The premise was that these cops looked young enough to go into the schools as students and find out exactly what was going on.

Jump Street is commanded by Captain Richard Jenko, portrayed by Frederic Forrest. He would be gone after this first season, but for the time he gave an unorthodox edge to the program which seemed to function in a very unique way, completely unregulated by the rest of the police administration.

In this first season, they were still finding their footing. I found most of the actors to be fairly consistent in their roles. Midway through the first season, Cannell decided to take the series in a different direction and killed off Jenko in favor of a more structured environment under the Command of Captain Adam Fuller, portrayed by Steven Williams.

Other officers at Jump Street were Doug Penhall (my personal favorite), portrayed by Peter DeLuise; Harry Truman Ioki, portrayed by Dustin Nguyen; and Judy Hoffs, portrayed by Holly Robinson Peete (she was just Holly Robinson back then). Some then-unknown stars who are pretty big names today got a big boost by appearing on this show, such as Jason Priestley, Josh Brolin, Sherilynn Fenn, and Blair Underwood.

For FOX, this was a great hit. They took a group of good-looking young actors and put them in a series of situations to which teenagers could relate to. The series was a lot of fun to watch and dealt with stories that were relevant to the times, such as drugs and sex, without being preachy. In the days before Columbine made big news, violence in high schools was considered an enigma. Some of these shows with the reflection of the intervening years are strangely prophetic. There were some terrific episodes and a few that weren’t as good. One of the best was Blindsided which dealt with child molestation.

The filming is all pretty high-quality.. Some of the car-chase scenes are so well choreographed and shot that I thought they were good enough to be in a film. The transfer is not consistently high-quality. Some of the episodes are grainy and most show some effects of the aging process over the last eighteen years. The dialogue is realistic to the way kids talk. There’s no holding back with some of the slang, although in a few spots the dubbing over of words remains, on the order of the FCC-police at the time. The kids use words like “homo” and “tardo” which might be offensive to some but is accurate to the teen speak of the times.

Although this was supposed to be set in a city in the United States, it was actually filmed in Vancouver, Canada. Every now and then that shows up. In one case, a chase ended in a train station that looked better (and cleaner) than anything we had here in the States at the time.

The main problem with this is the music or lack thereof. The original television shows used the music of the times to set the tone for the episodes and did it well. In this DVD collection, all of the original music has been pulled and is replaced with generic-sounding covers of songs. The only exception is the theme song which was sung by Holly Robinson and sounds just as good now as it did when I settled in with my friends to watch this show on Sunday nights back in 1987.

I had wanted to see this series released as a DVD collection for quite some time, and I’m glad they finally did. However, I would have waited longer for the episodes to be released INTACT with all of the original music. The first two seasons of 21 Jump Street really were the best. Especially once Johnny Depp left to go on to bigger and better things, it started going downhill.

Bonus Material in this collection includes commentary by Peter DeLuise on the episode Gotta Finish the Riff along with interviews with Steven J. Cannell, Holly Robinson Peete, Dustin Nguyen, and Steven Williams.


The Pilot

This sets up the series and introduces the characters. We learn that Tom Hanson’s father was a police officer who lost his life in the line of duty. He drives a cool car (a blue vintage Mustang fastback). After a series of mishaps while on patrol, he’s reassigned to Jump Street. He screws up his first assignment, resulting in blowing Penhall’s cover. His next assignment puts him in high school in a confrontational situation with Waxer, the man who orchestrated a home invasion Hanson investigated while still on patrol.

The end of this episode is cut-off, so we don’t get the terrific scene of Johnny Depp jamming on the sax with Jenko’s band.

America, What A Town

Hanson and Penhall go undercover to infiltrate a stolen-car ring operating out of a school’s auto-body shop class. Hoffs must contend with an out-of-control exchange student from Poland getting her first taste of freedom.

This episode is one where the acceptance of Hanson into the ring of car thieves seemed too quick and too easy. However, it’s tough to fit the entire story into the short time period so it’s just one of those things that I have to suspend my disbelief on.

Don’t Pet the Teacher

While investigating a rash of vandalism at a high school, Hanson finds himself falling for one of the teachers. She also is potentially the object of a stalker’s desire who may or may not be the same person committing the vandalism.

My Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades

Penhall and Hanson go undercover at an exclusive prep school after a girl lands in the morgue following a night of partying. Despite this being “Hanson’s environment” it’s Penhall who fits in better with the sons of the well-to-do who attend the prestigious school. Josh Brolin guest stars as one of the prep-school students in this episode. Patrick Warburton also makes an appearance as the dead girl’s brother.

The Worst Night of Your Life

Judy Hoffs goes undercover at an exclusive all-girls Catholic school where a pyromaniac is on the loose. Meanwhile, Penhall tries to liven up Hanson’s social life and ends up getting mugged in the process.

Gotta Finish the Riff

This episode marked a drastic change in the direction of the show. The four undercover officers are shown mourning Captain Jenko who was killed in a drunk-driving accident. The four officers think Jump Street is no more until in comes Captain Adam Fuller who brings more structure to the division.

Without Jenko, this thing’s going to be nothing but Charlie’s Angels…

In their first case together, Hoffs and Hanson are sent undercover to a school where the Principal has received death threats from the leader of a local gang. A hostage situation ensues with Hanson and Hoffs in the middle of it.

Blair Underwood and Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager) guest star in this episode. There are a couple of plot problems in this episode. At one point Hoffs states she came over from Riverside High School and another time Jefferson. Also, Hoffs and Hanson make a big deal to Fuller about going in with weapons and there’s no follow-up on the situation it creates. Hoffs must ditch hers to avoid being found out after Hanson is made early on.

Bad Influence

When two boys happen upon an ATM robbery and use their good fortune to take some of the cash for themselves, they embark on a spending spree of epic proportions. Penhall and Hanson are after them. Meanwhile, Ioki and Hoffs are put undercover to try and flush out a high-school prostitute and stumble onto a burglary ring.


Hanson and Penhall appear for the first time as characters known as the “McQuaid brothers.” They are juvenile delinquents who seem to make an appearance from time to time. They are undercover in a school to sniff out a drug ring when Hanson is approached by the daughter of a policeman who wants to hire him to kill her father.

Sonny Crockett here upped us to a whole kilo and twenty-five grand…

Sherilyn Fenn guest stars as Diane Nelson. This also introduces the recurring character of Sal “Blowfish” Banducci, portrayed by Sal Jenco.

Next Generation

Hanson goes undercover to flush out a possible loan shark in a high school who’s shaking down teachers and beating them up when they can’t pay. When he joins the School Quiz team, he almost has his cover blown when they qualify for the city-wide Scholastic Bowl to be aired on television. Penhall (in a Bill the Cat t-shirt) takes on the care of an infant of his pretty next-door neighbor.

Low And Away

Penhall goes undercover on a high school baseball team where the Feds tell him the star pitcher, Johnny Hartman, is the potential target of a kidnapper. The Feds won’t tell them anything, but the officers figure out that it has something to do with Johnny’s father. They soon learn he’s really the son of a mobster who’s about to testify against his former boss.

There’s a plot problem in the episode when Johnny asks Judy if she’s a cop. He specifically says “I hope you’re a friendly girl and not a nosy cop…” Later on, she tells Fuller her cover was blown but he’s cool about it. That isn’t what it looked like happened.

16 Blown to 35

Penhall and Hoffs go undercover at a teenage modeling agency that’s the front for a porno ring. Fuller’s son Kip comes to town and he’s not quite the son Fuller remembered him as.

Mean Streets and Pastel Houses

Hanson goes undercover among the “punk” gangs of suburbia and likes some of it a bit too much. Their anger is about to boil over into a full-blown war involving the police. Jason Priestley guest stars in the episode.

2 replies »

  1. I didn’t realize that Johhny Depp had started out on this show: I recall someone talking about it as ground breaking because of the techniques, like slow-motion characters going through windows (?) that had only previously been used in films?

    I had the idea of Johnny Depp as an actor who only played crazed anti-heroes, and thus likely to be nuts, himself, so I may have to change my (entirely unfounded, uninformed and irrelevant) opinion of him!

    (The only reason I formed an opinion was that while I was a PhD student in Bath, my 68-year old landlady came running into the house, breathlessly saying that she’d just been at The Circus, a section of the town with horribly expensive houses owned by some famous people, and said she’d seen Johnny Depp, to which I replied that since I’d only seen him play madmen, I’d be avoiding the Circus as he might be as mad as his habitual characters!)

  2. This was the first exposure I had to him, and it was hard for a long time for me to see him as anything other than what he did here. I was really happy that when they did the movies, he came back and played the same character as something of a cameo – he didn’t forget where he started. If you haven’t seen this, it’s very interesting to see all these years later.

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