Case Study 83: 21 Jump Street, Episode 90–“Diplomas for Sale”

Original Airdate: December 8th, 1990 on Fox

Much like Mission: Impossible, 21 Jump Street was a TV show that made the jump to theaters decades after edifying the nation over the airwaves. The movies are fresh in the minds of the public while neither show is on Netflix. That’s important, because these days if you want to get into the zeitgeist on a streaming platform, Netflix is far and away the preferred option, with 75% of streaming customers in the US having a subscription. Jump is on Hulu, which enjoys a pitiful 17% of the market. Impossible is on CBS All Access, and that’s just too sad to talk about. Anyway, no one gives a shit about the original 21 Jump Street TV show now, but at the time it helped a burgeoning network establish itself with some of the members of their target demographic that don’t enjoy hooting at Christina Applegate. Is it worth revisiting? Look down. Does it say “Strengths” below this paragraph?

Weaknesses

  • Terrible acting from men in mullets. This cast of this show had a lot of churn for something that was only on the air for five seasons. Last time I promised you Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands) and I lied. Instead, you’ll have to settle for Michael Bendetti as Mac McCann. It’s okay, Benedetti’s cuter and wears less denim. Oh, and he probably doesn’t beat women. He’s also disappeared from the face of the earth, if his IMDb page is any indication. Which is a shame, because he’s not the problem here. That would be Peter and Michael DeLuise, who play goony brothers Doug and Joey Penhall, respectively. They’re obnoxious, their delivery is stilted and here they play undercover cops taking on an all-too-plausible assignment as frat jocks. Because there’s no justice in the world, they both went on to star in seaQuest DSV and Peter was on Stargate SG-1 and all good things in the world were sapped of energy and love.
  • The entire premise of this series is ridiculous and unrealistic. The people that write this show couldn’t even be bothered to set it in a real city, so it’s set in Metropolis. Yes, like Superman. I guess that tells you right there how much they care about realism, which immediately undercuts one of the more fundamental pleasures of a crime procedural. It gets worse, though. The idea behind the show is that the MPD has a special unit of youthful-looking cops who they use to secretly infiltrate the social circles of those rotten teenagers. At least, that was the idea originally. By this episode, everyone was so very tired that mission creep had set in and we lay our scene tonight at a college. Are crimes committed by the YA set so pernicious in Metropolis that there needs to be a special task force? Is this really the best use of everyone’s time and money? I suppose if it helps them solve murders…
  • Oh but wait, this individual episode is even stupider than that. So the death of one Steve Campbell (Noah Beggs, The Interview) instigates the events at hand, but it’s an accidental death. As in, not a murder. Well, but the accident happened right after a robbery! And it turns out Campbell had turned to a life of crime because he was being blackmailed! And he was being blackmailed because he had purchased a term paper and turned it in as his own work! That all adds up to something that should require five people ostentatiously wasting taxpayers’ money, right? At one point, the intrepid Captain Adam Fuller (Steven Williams) counsels his team that while plagiarism is a crime, selling gently used essays isn’t. Except there’s one problem: plagiarism isn’t a crime! Look, I realize it’s TV and I’m willing to forgive a certain level of enhancement but I really feel like “knowing what is a crime” is a bread-and-butter prerequisite for a show about crime-fighting.
  • And who the fuck cares about essay mills and academic dishonesty? I’m not saying they could never be an intriguing plot element, but they’re definitely not intrinsically interesting and you know that Jump isn’t doing anything unique with this material. Although there is one amusing bit—since this is before all 270 million Americans were waist-deep in AOL CDs, the essay mill has an actual brick and mortar location! McCann easily gets a job there, because that’s clearly how the world works. And the plot grinds on, having left us here.
  • But really there’s only maaaaaybe 20 minutes of plot, so we’ve got to pad this shit out. Two guys leave the essay store and McCann and Sgt. Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper) are supposed to each take a guy and follow them, which was a dumb plan from the start because McCann’s also supposed to be working the store, but whatever. He’s locking the door behind him when he’s waylaid by sexy blackmail victim Melinda Cross (Venus Terzo, X-Men: Evolution.) The tail is botched! Are there any real consequences for any of this? Nope? We were just filling out the hour? Later, the cops set up a sting where one of the mullets buys and hands in a phony term paper. He’s contacted by the blackmailer. They do the whole “leave a paper bag full of money beneath a park bench” thing. And instead some other dude sees a paper bag full of money, goes to take it and gets arrested. The story continues to go absolutely nowhere. I get that there are dead ends in police investigations, but I don’t know if that needs to be dramatized quite so extensively. In fact, I really don’t think the director (Randy Bradshaw, The Song Spinner) is asking himself  “How can we show the audience that cops need to try a few things before being able to close a case?” It’s probably something more along the lines of “How many more episodes of this crap do I have to shoot before we get syndicated?”
  • They assume the audience is stupid. Oh, god, I can’t believe there’s more. We reach our putative climax as McCann lurks in Cross’s closet, waiting for the blackmailer to arrive. He knocks. Cross opens the door. The blackmailer proceeds to announce, “That’s right! Gary Austin! The store manager!” I realize that the preceding 35 minutes had been eminently forgettable, but the bad guy (Cameron Mitchell Jr., Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days) doesn’t need to smugly declare his name and profession to help guide the slower audience members along.
  • A dumb closing scene to top it all off. Hoffs realizes she hasn’t had anything to do for the entire episode and goes to visit the storefront one last time, where she suggests that the owner (Alex Bruhanski, Bird on a Wire) get a cup of coffee with her so she can convince him to change his evil ways. He brushes her off and she’s says that at least she can sleep at night. And that works! He goes with her and has coffee! In what universe does a cliched lecture from a stern law enforcement officer convince a morally wayward adult to give up on a remunerative life of non-crime?  That’s the world of Metropolis, baby!

Final Episode Judgment: 0/10. Do you a remember a time before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos when sophisticated urbanites sneered at anyone who owned a television because they assumed it was full of vacuous nonsense with no substance? This is why.

NEXT TIME: Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hassenfeffer Incorporated! That’s right, baby–Laverne & Shirley! I don’t know why I’m so excited, but anything’s gotta be better than this.

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Case Study 83: 21 Jump Street, Episode 90–“Diplomas for Sale”