21 Jump Street - The Worst Night of Your Life

"Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much 
pleasanter than public ones." 
- Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice

Let's continue our look at TV proms with "The Worst Night of Your Life," the 6th episode of season 1 of: 

Broadly speaking, if you were born before 1970, you probably had no use for the show when it was on the air (1987 to 1991). And if you were born after it went off the air, you might not even have known the show existed before the recent movie version(s) with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. 

As for me, like a lot of kids in junior high when it premiered, I enjoyed it intensely for a year or two, then forgot all about it. How Season One on DVD ended up in the closet, I have no idea. (Well, actually I do: Amazon had it on sale for $.99. No big mystery.) It was the first Fox network show to beat the Big Three in any timeslot.

21 Jump Street never really caught on in syndication. Johnny Depp became a huge star after leaving the show, as we all know. Did he or his people exert behind-the-scenes pressure because they wanted the public to forget about it? Or was its failure to find an audience in syndication a result of its quality, or its datedness, or its lack of original soundtrack? (Like a lot of shows that used the pop radio of its era as its soundtrack, the license for the songs didn't extend to syndication or home video. New soundtracks had to be cobbled together for the DVD release, with erratic results.)

Here's how it's described at the wiki:

"The series focuses on a group of police officers headquartered at the titular address. These officers are all young and have especially youthful appearances, which allows them to pass for teenagers." 

Frederick Forest played Captain Jenko, their first boss, an eccentric hippie type. He was replaced by the more cop-traditional  Steven Williams in the episode after "The Worst Night of Your Life."
The "titular address" is some kind of converted chapel/ fire station with all sorts of oddities, like a gasoline pump, pinball machine, fireman's pole, and wall potpourri from your local Applebees.

"Their assignments generally consist of undercover work in high schools or, less commonly, colleges, where they generally investigate drug trafficking and abuse. The show's plots cover issues such as alcoholism, hate crimes, drug abuse, homophobia, AIDS, child abuse and sexual promiscuity. Similarly, each problem is often solved by the end of the hour-long episode, giving an implicit moral about the impact of a particular activity. When the show originally aired, some episodes were followed immediately by public service announcements featuring cast members." 

I'd totally forgotten about those PSAs at the end of the episodes! Nice.

The discriminating TV consumer probably has a number of questions about this set-up, like "Wait a minute, how many high schools are in the area? Enough to sustain a series? Is it realistic that enough of them would require an undercover sting operation? Does the LAPD really have these sorts of resources? * Wouldn't kids from different high schools, like, talk to one another about these same three or four "kids" transferring from one school to another? And wouldn't the press (not to mention the PTA) get wind of this?"

* 21 Jump Street is actually set in the fictional city of Metropolis in "Evergreen State." But these questions apply to any city, even a fictional one.

All reasonable questions. At no point does the show attempt to answer them. It was not uncommon at the time for a TV show to have a premise that would fall apart in the real world. It still is - one need only look at "realistic" shows like 24 or Law and Order: SVU to see that - but yeah, a show like this would probably need a little more time in the oven before making it to the table these days. That's both good and bad, but we're getting away from proms.

Onto the episode at hand. 

Hoffs (Holly Robinson Peete) is the undercover officer this time around.
She's been sent to a Catholic school to figure out who's been setting off locker bombs.

Hoffs narrows down her search to a small group of suspects and joins the prom committee to keep tabs on them. 

Is it loner sidekick Margie?
That one bitchy girl who mocks her (and the whole concept of prom itself) on the committee?
Or Freddy's Dead alum Jane (Lezlie Deane)?

Hanson (Depp) looks through their police records and thinks it has to be Margie. She has a record of starting fires. But when Jane keeps getting into trouble, she becomes the likeliest suspect. Hoffs reveals her undercover identity to her in an attempt to get at the truth. 

Captain Jenko tries to get Mother Superior to cancel the prom. Cancel prom?!

About halfway through the episode, there's a bonafide 80s-movie-montage of the undercover cops getting ready for prom, while the students decorate the gym, including face-obscured shots of our arsonist readying gasoline-soaked heart decorations (ahem) for the big event. 

Hoffs meets with the precinct psychologist/ profiler who has no firm idea on who the arsonist is, but he speculates she plans to stage her most lavish "event" yet. And likely kill herself as part of it. Proms are where tragic narcissism might combine with "anxiety of menstruation, fear of pregnancy, and depression of puberty" to produce an "elaborately-dressed victim ritual". When Hoffs hears this, she thinks back to a conversation she had with Margie in the bathroom, when Hoffs urged her to go the prom stag.

"You're gorgeous. I'm... fat."
Hoffs arranges for her colleague Penhall (Peter DeLuise) to be her date.
She sets Jane up with Hansen, while her date is the last of the Jump Streeters, Harry Ioki (Dustin Nguyen). Who opts for a Dracula look.

Speaking of Harry, there is a very odd scene where the camera slowly zooms in on his face as he reminisces about how he never went to prom in high school.

"I guess, when I was in high school, I just never believed it was the last time I was going to be there."

Nguyen delivers this line the way Quint wraps up his USS Indianapolis speech in Jaws, you know the one: I'll never put on a life-jacket again. Why? Is the irony of Harry being an undercover officer in high school so substantial that it deserves a slow-zoom close-up and dramatic line reading? Or is it teasing out the possibility that Harry is psychic? I couldn't tell. It sure calls attention to itself, though.

Hoffs never went to her prom either. She tells Captain Jenko about how she was all set to go, but her date (Charles Tyrone, a name she repeats several times as if it has become a codeword for all the disappointments she's endured in her young life) got drunk and they never made it. 

She intends to use this prom to make up for it, mission or no mission.

Penhall - who has the episode's other 80s-movie subplot, i.e. a desperate hunt to pick up chicks, and more on that in a minute - is all too happy to take Margie to the prom. ("The world's a supermarket, and I'm a comparison shopper.") When she arrives, all action stops, as everyone turns to look at her. Margie? At the prom? Doesn't she remember she's a Fat, for f**k's sake?

She pauses momentarily upon entering the gym -
then makes a beeline for the float with the gas-soaked hearts.

Hoffs, Hanson, and Penhall get everyone outside without any injuries. The camera cuts to Margie on the curb, prior to her arrest, revenge and self-immolation thwarted.

The reasons for Margie's disenfranchisement are never more than superficially addressed (she's a Fat, for God's sake!); we're just supposed to be happy she was prevented from Carrie-ing everyone. Beautiful kids saved.      

Hey, not everything has to be Columbine. I'm down with that. It's an 80s TV prom episode; of course it plays out like this. It ends with Hanson taking everyone (including Jane, who let's remember is actually of high school age) bowling. There's a cool-kids after-party effect to it all. 

(And I guess none of the cops have to go downtown to fill out paperwork or anything. After burning down the school.)

This coda wraps up the other sub-plot of the episode (Penhall got his wallet stolen from a girl he tried to pick up in his aforementioned 80s-movie gotta-get-laid-bro arc). 

When Harry goes to the bar to get beers, he sees a lady sitting alone and naturally decides to ditch his friends to go off with her once she lets him pick her up.
But achtung! It's the same lady who stole Penhall's wallet.

So, Penhall, fresh off the prom, pulls his service weapon in a crowded bowling alley, and cut to the end credits. As with the prom, I think we're meant to feel "Well that wraps that up" but my brain was buzzing with more questions. What if he fired and shot her? That would have thematically tied the episode up more, if in a much darker way. Penhall is the "uncool" cop getting revenge on the girl who rejected/ wrong him.

Ah well. At least it delivers on one TV Prom trope: ignore the marginalized at your own peril, but good looks are still your best protection. 

(the show's co-creator) and
Near the beginning of his long career.


  1. "Directed by Rob Bowman"!!!!! Jeez.

    I'm sorry to keep repeating myself around here as of late, but I've never seen a single episode of this series. I was just the right age, too, so I don't know why I missed out on it.

    This post makes me think I would enjoy it on the unintentionally-hilarious level, though. That PSA was gold just in and of itself; man, you've got to wonder whether Johnny Depp sometimes wakes up in a cold sweat having dreamed of shooting one of those things.

    That subplot with the one dude's wallet getting stolen is a really strange way to end the episode, or so it seems to me.

    These two things made me laugh out loud:

    "Is the irony of Harry being an undercover officer in high school so substantial that it deserves a slow-zoom close-up and dramatic line reading? Or is it teasing out the possibility that Harry is psychic? I couldn't tell."

    And, especially: "Captain Jenko tries to get Mother Superior to cancel the prom." I hope that was the TV Guide logline for the episode.

    1. You didn't miss much, either the first time around or now.

      "21 Jump Street" is one of those shows, too, which used contemporary pop radio for its soundtrack, and the rights must have expired, so all the DVDs now have this sort of stock/generic vaguely 80s-sounding soundtrack. Same thing happened with "Dawson's." The peril of scoring your story to contemporary pop radio, I suppose. (Not "Miami Vice!" That sucker's got the original soundtrack, damn it - accept no substitutes!) It actually really does make a big difference. There's a "Jump St" episode entitled "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades" (with Josh Brolin, no less) that I remember seeing at the time and hearing that song for (I think) the very first time. Not that it's a brilliant episode, but it was clearly made with that song in mind for key stretches/ montages. Not so much with generic-80s-cost-effective-improvised-soundtrack on the DVD.

      And you're right: using Penhall's b-plot to round up the episode is strange/ does not work.