The 21 Jump Street movies are a cinematic triumph in part because they defied all expectations. I mean come on, I’m sure when you heard they were making a 21 Jump Street movie you rolled your eyes. “Great, another pointless remake.” But lo and behold, both 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street were astounding. They were hilarious. They weren’t even technically reboots, what with the original characters showing up in cameos.
In developing the 21 Jump Street movie, directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord rewatched the first four seasons of the series while working on the story. The influences from that marathon are shown in both of the 21 Jump Street films and we at Den of Geek have picked out just a few episodes that made the biggest impact. We’ve tried to avoid obvious choices, like any of the various prom episodes simply because there was a prom in the first movie. These episode choices reflect how the people behind the films got exactly what made 21 Jump Street great and was able to translate that across genre lines, from drama to action comedy.
Note, there are some spoilers here for various long running 21 Jump Street plotlines.
Don’t Pet the Teacher: Season 1 Episode 4
This is a small reference, but it did inspire one of the running jokes of the first film. When Captain Dickson warns Jenko, “don’t fuck no teachers”, it recalls the plot of this early episode where Hanson (Johnny Depp’s character) unknowingly flirted with a teacher. The teacher quickly cut it off when she thought Hanson was a student but the two eventually hooked up after the case was over.
In the film, Jenko gets hit on by his science teacher and while he doesn’t return her affection, he does later have sex with her in the closing montage of the film. Whether this happened during the case or after remains unclear.
Gotta Finish the Riff: Season 1 Episode 7
With the death of Jump Street’s first captain, Jenko (more on that name in a bit), Adam Fuller is brought in to lead the team. His introduction, where he refuses to coddle the team, was the direct inspiration for Captain Dickson’s speech at the pulpit in the first film.
Fuller in the TV series was much more restrained than Dickson, since he was specifically created to be the exact opposite of Jenko, a laid back hippy. He was brought in to change the way Jump Street operated, making it more professional.
Dickson is doing the same thing in the film, albeit way more in your face. He lays down the ground rules for the team and, like Fuller in the original series, won’t take any back talk.
High Education: Season 2 Episode 6
Another warning from Dickson, “don’t fuck no students” was a running gag of the film that actually played out in the series. In this episode, Ioki is accused of having sex with a high school student after she becomes pregnant. It’s later revealed it was actually a teacher who had sex with the girl and she was merely using Ioki to cover it up.
In the first film Schmidt develops a crush on Molly but the two never have sex. In the second film however Schmidt has sex with Maya, Captain Dickson’s college age daughter and it leads to one of the funniest blow-ups in cinema history.
Best Years of Your Life: Season 2 Episode 20
An episode about suicide sounds like the complete opposite of the 21 Jump Street movies, but go with me here. Yeah, the A plot about a student killing himself and Hanson’s reaction to it is well intentioned if somewhat heavy handed but it’s the B plot where the episode really shines.
Doug Penhall, one of the series main cops and Hanson’s partner, at first brushes the suicide off and cracks jokes. This is all a cover for a secret he’s never revealed to anyone, that his mother killed herself when Penhall was six. When he finally divulges this to Hanson, we see a core facet of what made 21 Jump Street so great and what the first film ran with.
Penhall hasn’t grown up emotionally. He still acts like he’s six years old. His childhood screwed him up and now he’s paying for not coming to terms with it. All of the original 21 Jump Street characters in one way or another are dealing with trauma from the past and reliving high school forces them to confront it.
The first film’s whole plot is centered on this. Schmidt and Jenko both confront their lingering baggage from high school, Schmidt with his rejection before prom and Jenko being barred from it thanks to his grades. They haven’t worked past these issues and it ties into the main conflict of the film. Yeah, it’s not as heavy as suicide but that’s what happens when your movie’s a comedy.
Some of Jenko’s issues could stem from a lack of a father figure though. Much like Penhall, who lost his father to alcohol, Jenko may have lost his father at a young age as well. Where is this coming from? Well, it was hinted in the promotional material for the first film that Jenko’s father may in fact be Jenko from the TV series. It would go a long way to explaining Jenko’s jockish behavior in high school, not having a dad growing up.
Coach of the Year: Season 3 Episode 4
This is the first episode where we see a huge influence on 22 Jump Street. In it, Penhall and Booker go undercover as football players to uncover if the coach is causing injuries to his players. During the investigation, Penhall gets too deep. He admits to Booker that in high school he was stuck on a bad team with a bad couch and this is his chance to live out the glory days he never had.
This plot, minus the evil coach (although seeing H. Jon Benjamin as a villain would have been AMAZING), was directly ported over for the second film. Jenko makes it onto the college football team and starts to care more about winning games then solving the case. He’s even offered a scholarship which he seriously considers taking, much to Schmidt’s bafflement.
This is the clearest episode that had a direct influence on the plot of films and it again continues the characters dealing with their unresolved issues from their childhood and teen years.
High High: Season 3 Episode 16
The Jump Street team goes undercover in a performing arts school and all have to take up various programs. Hanson music, Ioki videographer, Penhall acting, and most importantly, Booker takes up performance art. The students he meets are as over the top as they come, with one kid who gets high constantly and endlessly talks about “freezing the moment”. It’s corny and really silly, but the whole lesson of not being able to “freeze life” does tie into the series greater theme of learning to grow up.
In 22 Jump Street, Schmidt’s slam poetry scene is cribbed right from Booker’s over the top performance, although this time it’s more obviously played for comedy. You can also see influences of this episode in the first film, with Schmidt’s play director drawing some parallels with Penhall’s acting coach. In fact, all of Penhall’s scenes in that plotline are very indicative of what the producers of the films took away from the series.
The Heart of 21 Jump Street
You see, there’s a huge misconception about the 21 Jump Street TV series and it’s that Johnny Depp is the draw. Yeah, Hanson is an okay character but after the first two seasons there isn’t much to him. As you watch more and more of the episodes, you’ll discover the true main character is Penhall. The only long running arc in the show is about Penhall growing up and finally becoming the family man he never believed he could be. It was sometimes funny, like when he moved in with Dorothy, or sad, like his short lived marriage to Marta.
Penhall as a character works so well because he could exist in both the dramatic and comedic realms without losing sight of who he was. It’s through that character the filmmakers of the reboot were able to create Schmidt and Jenko.
Penhall’s humor shines through Schmidt and his bullheadedness makes up Jenko. Even Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum’s performances draw inspiration from Peter DeLuise’s performance as Penhall.
Peter DeLuise never gets enough credit for that series but he really knocked it out of the park. Look no furthur then his performance in “High High” where Penhall botches a half assed impression of Jackie Gleason. He goes from indignant to defiant to ashamed to joyful with ease. If the series didn’t have him, 21 Jump Street would be just another relic of the 80’s, not worthy of a big budget reboot.
Yes, even Johnny Depp’s presence in the series would not have guaranteed a revival for the show. Maybe Johnny Depp’s “teen idol” status helped gain the show its popularity but without Peter DeLuise to play off and eventually carry the plotlines, the series wouldn’t have stuck around as long as it did.
21 Jump Street was never just a cop show. It was never just about fresh faced young cops going into schools to bust teens. As Peter DeLuise said on NBC News Today back in 1988,
“(The show is) not really about being a cop. It’s about people and realationships in high school and about growing up. That’s why it’s a succesful show. If it was about cops it’d be like every other cop show.”
By focusing on growing up, which defined the the emotional core of the Penhall character, and cherry picking other stand out moments, the people behind the 21 Jump Street film franchise were able to make the perfect spiritual successor to the TV series.
Only time will tell if the reported female-lead spin off will continue that influence, but there’s ample material to draw from with the Judy Hoffs character.