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Brilliant But Cancelled
Watching 21 Jump Street for the First Time is a Surprising Experience The first season of 21 Jump Street popped up on Hulu yesterday, and while I was very familiar with how hilarious the world seems to find that show and everyone's fondness for using it as a punchline, I had never actually seen it. I was four when the show premiered, so it wasn't really on my radar back then, and I never noticed it syndicated in my later years, so it was just something I completely missed out on. But I watched an episode today and realized something: 21 Jump Street is a tragically misjudged show.

Almost everything I thought I knew about the show was wrong. Yes, the music and hairstyles are hilarious, as is true of all '80s shows, and they all do clearly look far too old to be in high school, as is true of all high school shows, but the episode I saw was actually progressive in a lot of ways. It has this really complicated A-plot of a 16-year-old hooker who turns tricks to someday afford to move her mother away from her drug dealer (apparently she can't find a drug dealer in another town?), and her pimp (who is also her mother's drug dealer?) makes her steal the security codes of her high school john's homes (she meets them at their houses on school nights and their families aren't there? Admittedly, the details here are not strong) so that he can burgle them later. So she just has the worst situation ever, basically. You can tell because in one scene she spends a lot of time staring wistfully at her caged bird, knowing why it sings.

But the way her storyline is handled is surprisingly sophisticated. Holly Robinson's character spends the episode trying to cut the girl a deal, as she and all the rest of the cops realize she never had a chance, growing up with a crackhead mother, having to be the adult in their relationship, and it's just this really non-judgmental and honest depiction of prostitution and the people who get trapped in it. Which... wasn't what I expected from such a maligned-as-trash show, especially from its era. Last season, Addison on Private Practice wanted to deny a call girl medical attention (despite having virtually no patients) because of how immoral and inhuman hookers are, and that was in 2008. This was some Wire Jr. shit right here. (Speaking of The Wire, oddly, this show reminded me of that show a lot for many reasons, but particularly in one scene where Holly Robinson rationalizes the girl fleeing her home with her mother and leaving all her possessions behind to evade arrest as, "When you're starting over, I guess you don't need an old sofa." Totally would have been the opening text quote if this were a Wire episode.)

It's also literally the most pessimistic show I've ever seen. It sees mankind as inveterate greedy selfish asshole liars more than any other series I can think of. In this episode some teens rob an ATM blind and go on a wild spending/womanizing spree after some thieves breaking into it get spooked and run, one of their fathers then tries to make money off of this crime in any way he can, with no concern for their well-being, all the other teenage boys in the episode are misogynistic, self-aggrandizing liars, there's a waitress who serves alcohol to minors for bribes, an arcade owner who marvels in wonder at a hundred dollar bill, and the episode ends with Johnny Depp and his partner walking out of an interrogation with the quote "There's always a possibility that they might be telling the truth. [Beat.] Nahhh!!!" The moral code of this show's universe is non-existent. Everybody uses everybody, and hardly anyone feels bad about it, which, honestly, I grew up in a family of cops, and that really is how most of them end up seeing the world. In a lot of ways, 21 Jump Street may actually be a more realistic depiction of cops than The Wire, when you think about it. (Nahhh!!!)

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