The Enduring Legacy of ‘21 Jump Street’

[16 April 2012]

By Glenn McDonald

I was in high school when the ‘80s television phenomenon known as 21 Jump Street first hit the airwaves and brought to my attention the remarkable physical specimen that is Johnny Depp. With his soulful handsomeness, amazing cheekbones and highly precise haircut, Depp was my new hero and go-to celebrity idol.

If I had something of a boy crush on Depp – and I did, though my teenage mind didn’t really process these things – I had an even stronger and overtly sexual crush on Winona Ryder. I distinctly remember when the film Beetlejuice came out in the spring of 1998. I thought: Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp are the two most beautiful people on the planet. They are going to find each other. They will have the most amazing sex in the history of creation, and their offspring will be Platonic ideals of Beauty and Grace.

Depp and Ryder did get together shortly afterward, and my prediction was the first of many, many celebrity couple prophesies I’ve since issued. Some of the other pairings I predicted in advance:

Bruce Willis and Demi Moore

Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard

Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche

Tea Leoni and David Duchovny

Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem

Beyonce and Jay-Z

Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig

I’m totally serious about all of this. I apparently have a powerful psychic ability that, while somewhat narrow in scope and essentially useless in function, is still a good party trick.

Anyhoo, all of this woolgathering was triggered by a recent and remarkable pop cultural event that rather flew under the radar. I’m talking about the unexpected critical and commercial success of the Hollywood feature film remake of 21 Jump Street, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

Just when you think the well has finally run dry on these dubious remakes of old TV shows – The Beverly Hillbillies, Charlie’s Angels, The Dukes of Hazzard – Hollywood dredges up another title from the muck.

Everything about this remake seemed wrong. 21 Jump Street, the TV show, took itself very seriously indeed, tackling social issues and teen crises in the inimitable manner of earnest ‘80s network programming. The new movie was clearly a goof, a joke—just one more instance of Hollywood dusting off an old artifact and applying a coat of cheap irony and fashionable hard-R raunch.

Then there was the cast. I like Jonah Hill, all right – he has great comic timing, and I thought he showed real dramatic chops in Moneyball. But the appeal of this Channing Tatum character had long mystified me. In his previous films, like Dear John and The Vow, Tatum seemed less like a screen actor than a ‘roided out, slightly distracted J. Crew model. Which, as fate would have it, he was.

So you can imagine my confusion and surprise when I found myself liking Tatum, and kinda-sorta loving the movie overall. I’ll tell you, it’s rekindled my hope that maybe we can get good new movies out of middling old TV shows. Maybe Hollywood has had the right idea all along.

I clicked around a little online this morning, and it seems I’m not the only one on this track. With the surprising success of 21 Jump Street, industry analysts are predicting yet another wave of remakes. Among the properties currently in development:

Diff’rent Strokes: In an effort to reflect changing American attitudes about class differences, Diff’rent Strokes stars Harrison Ford as Phillip Drummond, a conservative Wall Street One Percenter who adopts two radical teenage anarchists from the Occupy Oakland movement. Hilarity ensues as the kids pitch tents in the foyer and lead the domestic staff in a series of non-violent protests.

Night Court: A gritty urban remake of the lighthearted courthouse sitcom, Night Court centers around a bloody siege of the 17th St. Courthouse in Queens by a rogue hit squad of Russian mafia meth dealers. Directed by Michael Mann, with Benecio del Toro as Judge Harry Stone and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as the gentle bailiff Bull Shannon.

Joanie Loves Chachi:Amanda Seyfried and Zac Efron update the romantic tropes of this beloved TV spinoff as two unemployed viral marketing interns who meet on Chatroulette while “live” blogging the Interactive South by Southwest festival from their respective apartments in L.A. and New York. Their online courtship hits a few roadbumps, though, when it’s revealed that Zac has terminal cancer and Amanda is actually a 58-year-old trucker from Cleveland named Steve.

Alf: Director J.J. Abrams (Lost, Super 8) undertakes a radical re-imaging of the classic 1980s series, recasting the loveable alien Alf as a 900-foot tall extraterrestrial monster who exists in a parallel timestream with Civil War vampires and psychic androids. Starring Zachary Quinto, Karen O and Ed Begley, Jr. as General Braxton Stonewall Dracul.

Yes, things are looking up, indeed.

Glenn McDonald writes about popular culture from his home in lovely Chapel Hill, NC. His humor essays have been described as "grammatically consistent" and "remarkably frequent". He is editor of the Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me daily news quiz at NPR.org, and a film critic at the Raleigh News & Observer. He lives virtually at www.glenn-mcdonald.com.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/157170-the-enduring-legacy-of-21-jump-street/