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Jump Street spin-off Booker failed to create a Sam Spade for the ’90s

<i>Jump Street </i>spin-off <i>Booker</i> failed to create a Sam Spade for the ’90s
Graphic: Karl Gustafson, Screenshot: Booker
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In the world of TV spin-offs, it is essential to name your new series after the transitory character to remind people exactly why they’re supposed to watch: a chance to see a familiar face in a whole new light. It’s a hit-or-miss proposition. For every Frasier, there’s a Joey. For every Laverne & Shirley, a Joanie Loves Chachi. And for every Angel, there’s a Booker.

In the late ’80s, Fox was trying feverishly to get its fledgling network off the ground, desperate to fill time slots and expand into seven nights of programming. So why not spin off one of its first real successes, 21 Jump Street, which featured an undercover squad of baby-faced detectives who tackled issues of the week at various high schools? In season three, sensing that breakout Johnny Depp’s star was ascending, Jump Street’s producers added Richard Grieco to the cast as Teen Beat backup Booker. Booker was a rebellious, motorcycle-jacket-wearing loner who hovered outside of the clique at the Jump Street chapel, his personality as pointy as his studded leather cuff. The former Elite model soon became Jump Street’s most popular cast member, his fan mail exceeding even Depp’s. So although the character was initially intended to be killed off at the end of the season, Booker wound up saving Depp’s Hanson, who was being framed for killing a fellow cop. Unfortunately in doing so, he broke about a million by-the-book rules (classic Booker). Facing a demotion to the microfiche library, the attractive hothead quit the force in Jump Street’s season-four premiere.

This set viewers up for the debut of Booker, which premiered on Sunday, September 24, 1989 (only to be canceled after 22 episodes, on May 6, 1990). The show credits offered a sort of bridge between ’80s and ’90s sensibilities, with grainy back-and-white footage set against Booker’s usually blue-tinged action sequences and scored to Billy Idol’s “Hot In The City” (sadly, the rights weren’t retained at Booker’s current streaming home, Amazon; and the credits now feature a greatly inferior track called “Hot Summer Night”). Some of Grieco’s Jump Street castmates showed up to help kick the series off: Peter DeLuise’s Penhall appeared in the show’s first few minutes to help Booker at his bar bouncer gig. Fortunately Booker’s old boss, Captain Fuller (Steven Williams), soon had a lead on a security job for him, at the insurance-based Teshima Corporation. It sounds like someone behind the scenes at Booker had seen Die Hard a few too many times; Booker is like if the Nakatomi Corporation had decided to hire a hotter, younger John McClane for 24-7 protection. Any doubt about the Die Hard connection can be cleared up by viewing episode four, “High Rise,” in which Booker saves the corporate higher-ups from an infiltration of renegades with guns by crawling his way through the Teshima Tower skyscraper.

Image for article titled Jump Street spin-off Booker failed to create a Sam Spade for the ’90s
Screenshot: Booker

Derivative it may have been, but “High Rise” was one of Booker’s most enjoyable episodes. Jump Street/Booker creator Stephen J. Cannell had a gift for creating fun case-of-the-week series (before Jump Street, he was the brains behind The Rockford Files and The A-Team), but he had as many misses as hits (Tenspeed And Brown Shoe, J.J, Starbuck). Booker is an example of a faltering series failing to figure out how to use the appealing character at its center. If you viewed 10 different episodes of Booker, except for the guy in the lead, you’d have a hard time telling they were all from the same show, or what that show was supposed to be about. The single-note pitch—anti-establishment Booker rages against his new job in corporate America!—barely had enough momentum to get through the pilot. In fact, Booker leaves Teshima almost immediately, moving on to help his new secretary, Elaine (Katie Rich), who has doubts about her recent verdict at jury duty.

In episode two, “The Pump,” Booker was having trouble adjusting from his Jump Street life to his new job, just like his audience. Fuller showed up again, as did Jump Street’s Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson Peete) to try to help him through the transition. “Raising Arrizola” threw in a yuppie love interest who gets ensnarled by some unsavory characters from Booker’s past. By episode four, the show figured out that the Teshima storyline wasn’t really working—and neither was the supporting cast, not even Mrs. Kotter herself, Marcia Strassman, trying to portray a corporate shark—so Booker fortunately used his leverage after saving the company from the armed thugs to take on outside clients.

Give or take a giant Japanese corporation, what Booker wound up resembling more than anything was an old gumshoe series, just fast-forwarded a few decades. The self-described maverick already had the perfect private-eye M.O.: Instead of a fedora and a trench coat, Booker sported a gravity-defying hairstyle and that omnipresent leather jacket. He had an adorable Girl Friday to help him with cases (first Rich, then a pre-Point Break Lori Petty as Suzanne Dunne, who entered mid-season), as well as institutional authority to buck against (his Teshima higher-ups, played by Strassman and Carmen Argenziano as his boss, Chick Sterling, who spouted lines like “This isn’t Matlock, Mr. Booker!”). Booker’s cases of the week, whether through Teshima or on his own, could send him anywhere from a ski lodge to a beach house to a hockey rink. No matter where he was, most of his scenes took place at night, accented with neon-streaked mood lighting, giving the series a noir ambience.

Like a Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, or Richard Diamond, Grieco’s Booker, though an outsider, oozed an effective amount of charm via his soft-spoken, nicotine-clogged line delivery and effortless cool. He was nicknamed “Elvis” on the show, though they could have also called him “Fonzie.” (Not for nothing, Grieco was the idol of the Night At The Roxbury guys.) His decade-appropriate looks and rebellious wardrobe enabled him to easily fall into whatever crowd he needed to in order to crack the case, be it a group of ski bums or an assortment of repo men. It was a lot for the fairly inexperienced Grieco to shoulder: His appeal was easy to spot on Jump Street, surrounded as he was by other uncannily good-looking cops. Without much of a supporting cast, Grieco was on his own each week to steer Booker’s convoluted plot, which worked when the case was intriguing, but failed otherwise.

Image for article titled Jump Street spin-off Booker failed to create a Sam Spade for the ’90s
Screenshot: Booker

One early case had Booker worming his way into a rich man’s house over fear that his young new wife was actually a black widow out to kill her husband for the life insurance (policy held by Teshima, naturally). A plot so popular it’s been recycled countless times before and since, “Bête Noire” has Booker and the femme fatale attempting some truly painful flirtation—in a steam room, no less:

“There’s always someone who wants what you’ve got, someone who’s watching you, following you. I’ve fought people like that my whole life, and I’ve beaten them at their own game.”

“That sounds great. Is that something you can study up on at the library?”

“There’s no need to study. I wrote the book.”

“I don’t read much.”

“Well, the story always ends the same. I find out what the people will settle for, and then I give it to them. Sometimes it’s money. And sometimes it’s sex.”

“Well, uh, maybe I can get the Cliff Notes on that.”

Even Brando wouldn’t have gotten far with dialogue that cement-like. Fortunately, the case ended with a surprise villain (hint: it’s almost never the person Booker suspects at first), but the viewer had to wade through a lot of murky scenes to get there.

Still, there were some high points. Like its predecessor, Booker also benefitted from the casting alchemy that made the Fox show a treasure trove of early appearances by now more-famous actors: That yuppie who steals Booker’s heart in episode three? Played by Marcia Cross of Melrose Place and Desperate Housewives. Don Cheadle appears as a gang member forced to utter lines like, “I tell you what, homeboy: Mr. Booker’s gonna have to do that dance. And we gonna play the music.” Thomas Haden Church lets loose as an obnoxious radio host; a young Mariska Hargitay shows up on the ski slopes. Robert Romanus, the erstwhile Mike Damone of Fast Times At Ridgemont High fame, hired toward the end of the series to play one of Booker’s cronies when the show figured out that he should have some actual friends. Some of these guest stars were more effective than others: Prince protégé Vanity’s painful appearance indicates why her acting career was short-lived.

Image for article titled Jump Street spin-off Booker failed to create a Sam Spade for the ’90s
Screenshot: Booker

At their best, Booker’s guest stars helped the series reach a new level of watchability. The odd romp “Somebody Stole Lucille,” in which Booker spends the entire episode on a chase for B.B. King’s missing guitar, is aided by Gedde Watanabe as the nerdy Teshima exec who helps him on his quest, and Tawny Kitaen at her hair-band-video heights as Booker’s perfect girlfriend. Less fun but actually affecting is “Reunion,” wherein Maura Tierney displays her future Golden Globe-winning acting chops as Booker’s lost true love, who enlists his help in finding the man she left him for. Booker ends the episode as heartbroken as you’d ever see him. Such was Grieco’s easy charm that he could be slotted with almost anyone, from a hothead hockey player to an adorable 5-year-old moppet. Booker and Suzanne were definitely headed for will-they/won’t-they territory; she basically resembled a female version of Booker himself, with matching leather and spiky black hair.

Even with Booker’s often less-than-riveting plot progressions, sometimes there was still value to be found: In “Cementhead,” Booker spends the whole episode babysitting a tantrum-happy hockey star who is rebelling against the stereotypes his fans have cast him in. Meanwhile, Booker is being pestered by wimpy corporate yuppies at Teshima to go after their ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriends, and Booker rages as well, tired of being typecast as a thug just because of how he looks. “Reunion” did a lot to fill in the backstory on why Booker was as reclusive as he was. The late episode “Crazy” is a welcome showcase for Grieco’s acting, as Booker gradually becomes as unhinged as the killer he pursues.

In the end, though, Booker’s various plot theatrics and jarring cast shifts weren’t enough to sustain the series, and it was canceled after its first season. Grieco later paid homage to his most famous character in an excellent cameo that unfortunately was cut out of the 2014 22 Jump Street sequel. Booker runs into Channing Tatum’s character, Jenko, who’s having doubts about staying on the force, and tells him that leaving Jump Street for a series of 22 missions (a.k.a. the spin-off) was the biggest mistake of his life. Before Booker goes, he hands Jenko his old red bandanna, the one he sported so proudly in episode one while riding his iconic motorcycle. Jenko asks, “You ever wash this thing?” Grieco shrugs and tosses that classic Booker grin. “Why would I? It’s full of dreams, man.”

But there’s a reason why the Jump Street canon endures while Booker remains an offshoot oddity. Richard Grieco tried his hardest, but Booker unfortunately lacked that issue-of-the-week center that helped ground the original series, as well as the solid cast chemistry that kept audiences coming back to Jump Street. It’s too bad that the show never really got a handle on streamlining its cast, plots, or theme—because in the midst of Booker’s 22 episodes, there are hints of a ’90s-era noir detective that would have made Sam Spade proud.

One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? A wannabe, but could have been a wonder.