How 21 Jump Street Worked as a Stealth Sequel to the Original TV Show

The 21 Jump Street movie was more than a reboot; it gave the TV series the closure it deserved.

Johnny Depp in 21 Jump Street Cameo
Photo: Sony Pictures

On the surface the 21 Jump Street movie was a reboot of the classic ‘80s TV series starring Johnny Depp. It’s the same basic premise where cops go undercover as teenagers, but it played more as comedy than drama. To the average viewer, it was just another in a long string of Hollywood remakes, albeit a very strong one. What most don’t realize is that, buried deep in the plot of the film, is that this was no reboot. The 21 Jump Street movie was a sequel to the original TV series!

The first hint at this comes in the film when the movie’s protagonists Jenko and Schmidt (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) are assigned to Jump Street and they’re told that the police are “reviving a cancelled undercover police program from the ‘80s.” By itself this line could just be taken as a setup for a meta joke about needless remakes and reboots, and a not full blow confirmation of being in the same universe. Even the cameo of original cast member Holly Robinson Peete doesn’t wholly make this apparent. Sure they refer to her by her original character name but again, it just feels like a quick reference. Same thing when Dustin Nguyen, who played Ioki in the series, is on the TV in the hotel. They’re watching a movie that Dustin Nguyen starred in, that’s a good easter egg!

It’s only at the climax that the film puts all its cards on the table: two of the villainous gang members threatening our heroes suddenly make an about face and reveal themselves to be the original series’ lead characters, Tom Hanson (Johnny Depp) and Doug Penhall (Peter DeLuise); they’re now working for the DEA. And if there were any doubts in anyone’s minds they just reused the names as a reference? Tatum’s Jenko tells the old guys he’s in Jump Street, and Hanson responds with, “You guys are Jump Street? That’s funny because we were actually Jump Street.”

In that moment it clicks into place and everything makes sense. The Hoffs and Ioki appearances weren’t just easter eggs; the movie really is set 20 years after the original show. The movie even pulls off a massive deep cut when one of the gang members recalls that Hason, “played saxophone at my sister’s wedding.” In the 21 Jump Street pilot, Hanson was a huge fan of playing the saxophone. The people behind the movie did their research!

Ad – content continues below

More importantly though, this extended cameo scene gives the series something it never had: closure for Hanson and Penhall. In the TV show, Penhall got a proper send-off but Hanson just disappeared after the fourth season with no explanation. The two’s friendship and partnership were a huge part of the show and the fact the two never got to say goodbye made it feel like the show never had the true conclusion it needed. Here we finally get it.

The two are shot multiple times by the gang, drawing fire from Jenko and Schmidt, and lay on the ground near death. Hanson turns to Penhall and delivers a pitch perfect death monologue.

“Doug, I know sometimes I was a jerk to you when we were undercover. I just didn’t feel good about myself. All that stuff I wore like the bracelets, the rings, the tight pants. It was just so that people would think I’m cool. The only approval that I ever needed was my best friend.”

Like a lot of moments in the film that draw on the original series, this has multiple meanings. It’s of course a joke at the expense of the dated fashion in the original series but it also functions as a motivator to further drive Schmidt’s arc. More importantly though, this is the closure Hanson and Doug needed. The two were often at odds with each other in the show, Hanson starting off as more by the book, and Penhall more goofy. Over time they slowly grew so close they were the most important thing in each other’s lives. It’s especially poignant when you remember that Hanson’s father had been killed before the events of the show. The fact he only needs the approval of Penhall speaks volumes about their friendship.

This continuity continues into 22 Jump Street, although only in a small joke during the end credits, which feature a barrage of possible sequel titles including “Jump Street Generations.” This supposed sequel would feature Jenko and Schmidt teaming up with original series characters Ioki and Booker, played by Richard Grieco. This, in a delightfully roundabout way, suggests that seeing Dustin Nguyen on a TV screen in the first film was actually Ioki on some kind of deep cover assignment. That or he simply rejoined the force after getting into acting. Whatever the case, it’s a far more interesting conclusion for the character than simply being written out with zero explanation like he was in the show.

It also should be noted the brief appearance of Booker with Jenko is taken from a longer deleted scene from 22 Jump Street, which featured an extended joke about why Booker/Grieco never should have left Jump Street. As much as it’s mainly a joke about Grieco’s career, it does give context to the Booker character and his spinoff series. Especially the fact that Booker’s now a campus security guard, paralleling his leaving the police and working for a private company.

Ad – content continues below

Of course for the 21 Jump Street super fans, some of the details don’t line up. Penhall left the force in season 5 to take care of his adopted son Clavo but who’s to say he didn’t just come back when Clavo grew up and co-owning a bowling alley didn’t work out? The most glaring continuity violation though is that Hanson and Penhall dying contradicts the ‘Back from the Future’ season 4 clip-show episode that has the two living to old age. Which I mean, I could sit here and logic that away, but isn’t it better to just ignore that episode? It’s preferable to ignoring the movies on the grounds that they don’t line up with a bad clip show episode.

What’s more important is bringing that thematic closure for Hanson and Penhall and giving hardcore fans a glimpse into life after Jump Street for most of the main characters. They couldn’t keep infiltrating high schools forever. Hanson and Penhall used their undercover skills for more long-term and dangerous assignments. Hoffs has seemingly taken on more of a supporting role in the police force, though the proposed woman-driven 21 Jump Street spinoff film could give us more insight into her. Ioki came back to solve at least one more case. Booker kinda failed in life but considering how directionless he was (and how this perfectly comments on the Booker series not being able to settle on a direction) this makes sense.

For most viewers of the movie, all of this will fly right by. Despite the original series’ success back in the ’80s, 21 Jump Street is not a cult TV show nor have any details from it really lingered in pop culture besides “Johnny Deep was in it before he got big.” And really, a movie reboot of a cop show is pretty much the last place you expect continuity. This isn’t Star Trek, though I can guarantee there was at least one 21 Jump Street fan sitting in the theater taking notes and wondering if Johnny Depp would show up to stop Nero from igniting the red matter and destroying the fabric of the 21 Jump Street universe. (It was me.)

So why would the movie bother being a sequel? Well, you can blame the press and Depp’s star power. According to a Blu-ray extra, from the moment Hill signed on to do the movie, he had to deal with the question of whether Depp would be in the film. Depp was being asked the same question, and it filtered through the grapevine to directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord that he might be interested in doing a cameo. After trying a multitude of ways of writing him in, it was decided to bring Depp back solely for the joke of killing him off. Apparently, according to Hill, this is exactly what Depp wanted.

Thus in part because of a joke and constant badgering from the press, 21 Jump Street went from just a remake to a totally unexpected sequel that gave the series better closure than even its diehard fans could have ever expected.