Last week dear Jumped the Snark friend Eliot Glazer co-hosted a night of trivia in Brooklyn themed around the two great female-ensemble sitcoms of the late 80s/early 90s – Golden Girls and Designing Women. In between rounds Glazer and co-host H. Alan Scott played clips from each series, highlighting not just how smart, funny and fresh the shows still are, but also how they weren’t afraid to confront taboo issues of the time, including AIDS and homosexuality. These serious, socially conscious moments reminded us of another show from that era that wasn’t afraid to push the envelope. In fact, this show seemed to make taking on controversial issues its main agenda. And that show was 21 Jump Street. Yes, it’s wildly different from those double X chromosome comedies above, and does not hold up a fraction as well (we now wonder if it even held up in its time), but, looking back, 21 Jump Street was often going out there on a limb on the nascent Fox Network, bringing uncomfortable, sensitive but relevant issues to the forefront. We’re going to make an attempt to semi-regularly feature some of these moments, starting right now.
It’s really hard to believe that we were watching this show at six-years-old, first because it’s often slow, melodramatic and pedantic (as was the style of the time), and doesn’t star any cartoon ducks, and shouldn’t hold a six-year-old’s attention, and secondly because it frequently contains a great deal of mature content, an amped up after-school special on five-hour delay (but compared to Silk Stalkings, which we began watching regularly a couple of years later, this was Green Acres. Also, good parenting, Mom). Even if an episode didn’t tackle a controversial issue of the time, it probably involved some kind of drugs and/or violence, or why else would Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise go undercover as the McQuaid Brothers? But the show frequently went beyond fake IDs and selling “dope” in the locker room, covering such topics at bigotry, racism, bullying, child abuse, class warfare and, in one single episode, HIV-AIDS and suicide.
In that episode, “A Big Disease with a Little Name,” Officer Hanson (pre-Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp and our first man-crush) is tasked with protecting Harley, a teenager with AIDS who continues to attend his high school despite protests from local parents and the hostile atmosphere fostered by his fellow students (also, unsurprisingly, Harley has an affinity for motorcycles). Hanson isn’t afraid to sit at the same table as the kid, unlike much of the student body, but he’s not exempt from the same kind of prejudice, fear and ignorance, as we see when he declines Harley’s offer of chocolate milk.
But, as was often the case, 21 Jump Street functioned as an educational tool, teaching us there are three ways to contract HIV, and chocolate milk is not one of them. And, as also was often the case, by the end of the forty-four minutes Hanson not only learned the lesson but took it to heart.
We don’t actually remember this episode from our childhood – perhaps it didn’t get much syndication play – but we do know we weren’t afraid of a little chocolate milk. Maybe we have 21 Jump Street to thank for that.*