Friday, 23 January 2009
at 9:13 am by Anna
In a desperate and pitiful attempt to recapture my youth, I recently bought series one of 21 Jumpstreet on DVD. People of my age may remember with fondness the 'drama' that propelled Johnny Depp to fame. Jumpstreet was based on the somewhat silly premise of four young-looking police officers, sent undercover into high schools to fight youth crime.
Time has not been kind to 21 Jumpstreet. Twenty years later, the absurdities that passed me by as a youngster are painfully obvious. Crusty dialogue abounds: in episode one, Johnny Depp earnestly tells a young man, 'It's not against the law to be afraid'. Then he plays a moving saxophone solo in his bedroom for no reason I could ascertain (unless it was something to do with the inner pain occasioned by the death of his father). The other young cops make fun of Depp for wanting to debrief and document his police work - procedures are square, apparently.
But the thing that most took me by surprise - something which I didn't fully notice in my early teens - is how utterly, blatantly didactic 21 Jumpstreet is. My memory of eighties TV and movies (and it may be a little jaundiced) is of relentless moralising. Comedies weren't funny. They served to remind us of family values, and always ended with a happy middle class nuclear family happily being happy together. Bad guys were Russian or South American, and motivated by jealousy of the liberty and democracy and freedom which the USA embodies. Jumpstreet was one of the first programmes screened by the fledgling Fox network, and it's every bit as moralising and conservative as you'd expect.
The first two episodes of Jumpstreet were about saying no to drugs. Two rap-music-listening, sneering caricatures of black youths were harassing a well-mannered white, clarinet-playing schoolmate called Kenny. Under pressure, Kenny eventually turned to the dark side, taking a drug overdose. Depp's character visited Kenny in his hospital sickbed, inexplicably hitting the incapacitated Kenny in the face to show viewers the sort of treatment that bad, drug-taking people deserve. (Don't panic, though - Kenny came through OK. He denounced drugs, and his sister explained to him that their parents nagged him for his own good. Happy families.)
Episode three featured a Polish exchange student. Her American teacher mocked her country of origin in front of the class, and by the end of the episode she'd come to agree with him, conceding that America is sensational and communism is 'boring' for young people. Other highlights included a homophobic remark made for no reason but 'comic' effect, and the xenophobic, classist mockery of an Eastern European janitor. Top stuff.
Something else which struck me was the low-key but ever-present misogyny of 21 Jumpstreet. I've now watched four episodes, and not one single woman - not even Holly Robinson's character - has been portrayed with an iota of respect. Women have been scatterbrained comic figures or sex objects. Certainly, the male characters are two dimensional, but the ladies have had to content themselves with one dimension or less. Holly Robinson, the female role model of this quality drama, is referred to by her boss as 'peaches' and - wait for it 'sweet britches'. While her colleagues are fighting crime, her assignments thus far have been a) taking Johnny Depp clothes shopping to make him look cooler; and b) taking the aforementioned exchange student to the mall.
Maybe, as I get further through series one of 21 Jumpstreet, a quality drama will unfold. Its shortcomings don't seem to have affected me too much, since I've turned out a raving feminist and have managed to say no to all drugs except the ones offered to me. And twenty years on, Johnny Depp still spins my wheels. Some things never change.