Little confession time. If you've read this blog for a while, you'll know that I'm a Johnny Depp fan going way back to the 1990s. "Edward Scissorhands" started it, but what kept it going was my ready access to "21 Jump Street" reruns, which played in a convenient after-school slot on one of the local syndicated channels when I was a teenager. The show had a troubled production, with most of the cast having bailed completely by the fifth season. Depp notoriously lost interest in the show around the third season and was actively screwing with the production to get himself out of his contract by the fourth.
Picks below are unranked and ordered by airdate:
"Mean Streets and Pastel Houses" - One of the big ironies about Depp's involvement in "21 Jump Street," was that his character, Tom Hanson, was a straightlaced goody-goody cop, while Depp was a notorious hellraiser. So his best episodes were often the ones with Depp undercover - in this case playing a suburban punk. The episode reportedly gets plenty wrong about the punk scene of the times, but gets a few key things right - and Depp is clearly having a blast.
"Christmas in Saigon" - Dustin Nguyen was a rare Asian face on television in the early '90s, and the show often didn't know what to do with him. However, they did devote their second season Christmas episode to his character, Ioki, specifically his complicated backstory as a Vietnamese refugee - based on Nguyen's own experiences. He essentially plays a younger version of himself in flashbacks, and looks so different that I had to double-check to make sure they hadn't gotten another actor.
"A Big Disease With a Little Name" - Every episode of "21 Jump Street" seemed intent on being a very Very Special Episode for a while, thanks to the premise. So, it being the early '90s, we had to have an AIDS episode. And this is actually a very good one, featuring a kid named Harley who is ostracized for having the disease. Oh sure, we had to have the cheesy moralizing over an important social issue, but Harley is very much a real kid, who is was easy to empathize with.
"Orpheus 3.3" - Poor Tom Hanson could never keep a girlfriend for very long. In this episode, a convenience store robbery offs the latest one, leaving Hanson to stew over whether he could have done anything to prevent it. This is handled in the most melodramatic terms possible, of course, but Depp turns in a heluvah good performance as Hanson grapples with survivor's guilt, and it's always good to see the personal side of the Jump Street gang, which never got much press.
"Champagne High" - My favorite episode, and obviously a huge influence on the "21 Jump Street" reboot. Hanson and partner Doug Penhall go undercover as the McQuade brothers, a pair of highly entertaining delinquents, to investigate a series of thefts and burglaries. The comedic antics that these two get up to are so much fun, and it's no surprise that the McQuades would return multiple times throughout the show, and were resurrected for the movie version too.
"The Currency We Trade In" - An abuse storyline of a different stripe sees a newly promoted Penhall, played by Peter DeLuise, get a little too zealous in nabbing a child molester, only for it turn out that the man is innocent. Penhall has to deal with the fallout of having ruined another person's life. This is a complete downer of an episode, but it does give all the actors involved a chance to shine. DeLuise in particular never got enough credit for playing the show's most lovable lug.
"Swallowed Alive" - The McQuade brothers get sent to a high security juvenile detention facility, but there's nothing funny about this. Instead, the whole episode is essentially a prison movie in miniature, and a surprisingly dark and harrowing one at that. Penhall puts it best, that it's like finding out that all the kids the Jump Street crew nabbed over the years were sent to hell. This existential crisis was not resolved in the end, but the intense episode remains one of the better ones.
"High High" - The gag at the end of "22 Jump Street" imagines the stars infiltrating all kinds of different educational institutions. The show actually did this occasionally, including this episode set in a "Fame" style school for performing arts. I admit that my biggest reason for including this on the list is for Penhall's scenes in acting class recreating "The Honeymooners." And who's playing the drama teacher? Michael De Barres, aka the villainous Murdoc from "MacGyver."
"2245" - There's barely any involvement by any of the usual cast in this episode, which looks in on the lonely life of Ronnie Seebok, a youngster on death row. A minor character from an earlier season brought back for a solo outing, flashbacks fill in the details of his crimes and relationship with a girlfriend played by Rosie Perez. Genre fans may recognize two of the credited writers here: Glen Morgan and James Wong, who cut their teeth on the series.
"La Bizca" - And finally, in one of the the most wild digressions for "21 Jump Street," Hanson and Penhall travel to El Salvador to track down Penhall's wife Marta, and land themselves in the middle of the country's Civil War. A Very, Very Special Episode that wanted to shine some light on the conflict, "Jump Street" managed to get Richard "Shaft" Roundtree to guest star, and U2 let them use "With or Without You." A little cringeworthy, yes, but admirable stuff.