21 Chump Street

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: 21 Chump Street

Where You Can Stream It: YouTube

The Pitch: In a plot that mirrors the events of 21 Jump Street, a Florida police officer goes undercover and poses as a high school student in an attempt to bust the kids who were dealing drugs. But when a straight-laced, straight-A student falls for the undercover cop, the story becomes a little more complicated. This story is based on actual events which occurred less than ten years ago.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: A complex story of deception, betrayal, and misguided love, 21 Chump Street was originally a segment on an episode of This American Life in 2012. A couple of years later, Broadway breakout Lin-Manuel Miranda premiered a 14-minute, one-act musical adaptation of it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Miranda wrote the music, lyrics, and book for the short musical, which he penned after his success with In the Heights but before he became a household name with Hamilton. (Case in point: host Ira Glass, who introduces the show, literally mispronounces his name.) Watch the entire performance below.

Before Hamilton landed on Disney+ and Freestyle Love Supreme hit Hulu, it was tough to find legal ways to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage work. But thankfully, 21 Chump Street is legally available for all to see on YouTube, so I can it watch guilt-free.

Speaking of guilt, guilt is the main theme of this musical. Young Justin (Anthony Ramos, who worked with Miranda on the stage versions of In the Heights and Hamilton and stars in Jon M. Chu’s upcoming film version of In the Heights) finds himself legally guilty of a felony by the end, with his bright future snuffed out and all future job opportunities forever tarnished – all because he liked a girl and did whatever he could to impress her. The officer who goes by Naomi Rodriguez (Lindsay Mendez) seems to feel a pang of guilt when she talks about how she’ll never forget Justin, and there’s an extra layer of grey when it comes to the prom question: was Justin pressured into getting her drugs as a quid pro quo for her going to the dance with him?

I like the way the show doesn’t make Naomi out to be a full-fledged villain – it’s all the more effective because each character thinks their actions are justified. Drugs have had a ruinous effect on Naomi’s family, so she’s convinced she’s made the world a safer place by taking them off the street. But for Justin, this is clearly a far more tragic story. He did something “wrong” in the eyes of the law, but whereas context is often key, here’s an instance where it’s meaningless – almost willfully ignored to benefit an indefinable “greater good.”

21 Chump Street‘s moral complexity gives you something to chew on long after the show is over. And on a less serious note, it helps that the music is catchy, too – I’ve had “What The Heck I Gotta Do” stuck in my head for days now. One final point: Lin-Manuel Miranda plays the straightforward narrator but doesn’t sing at all during this show, which could be seen as a plus for those who aren’t crazy about his voice in other projects. Personally, after seeing Hamilton and his movie work, I like seeing what he can do in this type of short-form, non-improv context, and 21 Chump Street just reinforces how impressive his adaptation skills are.

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