“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” tries to be a progressive show.
Its political leanings are evident from the very first episode, which aired in 2013 and introduced a diverse cast filled with complex characters played by people of color. The show centers on the lives of the detectives of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) ninety-ninth precinct as they navigate the world of modern policing. The characters on the show successfully balance their identity as minorities with their own rich inner lives. For example, precinct captain Raymond Holt, played by Andre Braugher, is a proud, Black, gay man who is very open about the discrimination he has faced in the NYPD. However, his main characteristic and his comedic value lay in his robot-like mannerism and affinity for rules.
Holt is not unique in this regard — every character on the show has a dynamic background, motivation and unique comedic value. From the tough Rosa Diaz, played by Stephanie Beatriz, to soft-hearted bodybuilder Terry Jeffords, played by Terry Crews, every character is someone to care about.
However, while “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is able to create progressive characters, its plot is unable to do the same. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” builds its plot by using tropes from crime shows from the war on terror era, such as Criminal Minds (2005) and CSI (2000), and putting a comedic spin on them.
The comedy of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” does not characterize these tropes as false propaganda; rather, the jokes in the show come from contextualizing detective hunches and high thrill chases in the world of proper procedure. The show creates its main comedic tension with its main character, detective Jake Peralta, played by Andy Samberg, a childish cop who uses every case as an excuse to live out his “Die Hard” (1988) fantasies, having to confront the realities of being a modern police officer. Peralta’s detective genius is halted by the great enemy of paperwork before he is able to do the police work that better suits him.
This divide between cool and uncool police work is established early and is particularly evident in “Old School,” the eighth episode of the first season. In the episode, a crime reporter, also Jake Peralta’s childhood idol, comes to the precinct to write a story on how policing has changed over the years. Jake is desperate to impress the reporter by drinking all night with the reporter and trashing his by-the-book captain in order to come off as an old-school detective.
Of course, once Peralta realizes that by doing so he put his job and his precinct’s reputation in jeopardy, he rushes to the reporter to have the quotes stricken from the record. He ends up punching said reporter for making homophobic comments, and the episode ends with the explicit message that old-school policing is not all it is cracked up to be, and reform is a good thing. However, the implicit message of the episode is that the police system is fundamentally good, and if you are capable of outlasting and outranking the bad people that exist in it, you can fix it.
As the show progresses this implicit message becomes a theme. In “Moo Moo,” the sixteenth episode of season four, Captain Holt tells Jeffords not to file a complaint against a racist police officer who targeted Jeffords in his own neighborhood. Holt reasons that the complaint will jeopardize Jeffords upcoming promotion, therefore halting progress for all. He hopes that by staying silent he and other minorities can rise to the top and make real change. This ideology leaves many people vulnerable to the very immediate threat of racist police officers, however the episode seems to substantiate it. When Jeffords files his complaint, he is denied the promotion he applied for. The episode doesn’t frame it as a system failure, but a failure on Jeffords’ part to be strategic about racism.
The show introduces many bad police officers. Some examples include an egotistical detective known as “the Vulture,” bank robber Lieutenant Hawkins and rookie turned dirty cop Debbie. However, the key to defeating bad cops always lies in using the police system to the good cops’ advantage: filing complaints, gathering evidence or waiting for someone to make a mistake that you can leverage over them. This creates an ethos for the show that is anti-bad cop, but pro-policing.
As a result, Peralta is comfortable commenting on the evils of United States prisons, saying things like “what hurts the most is knowing prisoners are treated this way in our… system,” but also calling defense attorneys, the people who advocate for the victims of this system, “subhuman [pieces] of human garbage.” The show concerns itself with arrest records, even going so far as to make a bet between two detectives to see which can make the most arrests over a given period of time. This is thrown around casually in every episode to the point where in the show, and in real life, the audience falsely associates arrests with guilt.
For “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” there is no progressive point to make about these issues because if there was, the adorable cast of police officers would become villains, and the show would be impossible. How can you make a cop show with likeable, quotable and marketable characters that denounces the act of policing?
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is at its best when it takes a step back from the office and decides to focus on its characters. One of the best episodes of the show is season five’s “Two Turkeys.” The episode mostly takes place in Peralta’s mother’s home and revolves around the meeting of the parents of romantic partners Jake Peralta and Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero). The tension between the hippie and philandering ways of Jake’s white parents and the elitism of Amy’s hispanic parents is hilarious. It provides insight into the characters of Jake and Amy, and the end leaves the audience feeling as if love can conquer all.
Terry Crews, who plays Jeffords in the show, revealed in a June 23 Access Hollywood interview that the upcoming season eight of the show is going to be rewritten in order to reflect current events surrounding Black Lives Matter. I really hope that the writers are able to ditch the crutches of an easy and harmful police plot framework and focus on the element that makes the show good — its characters.
While Twitter has suggested this could be done by changing the show’s setting from a police precinct to a post office or firefighting station, it would be an easy cop out from a complicated issue. Fans have grown to love these characters, and shifting away from their jobs without addressing the harm they’ve done as part of the system is simply unsatisfying.
To me, a perfect season eight would portray some police officers changing careers — particularly Raymond Holt, who has been a big advocate for the system. Watching the man who stood by the system finally realize it can’t be changed and quit would send a strong message about the nature of policing. I could see Rosa Diaz following him and the two starting a nonprofit for victims of police brutality or a private investigation company.
Another thing I would like to see is police officers confronting the fact that policing is their only career choice. Only about a third of police officers have a four year degree, and while characters have alluded to such an education, others make no mention of it. It would be pleasing to watch veteran cops realize this is the only job they are capable of having, and the only way out of oppression is to make it better.
Season eight doesn’t have to be all serious. I think Cheers (1982) style comedy at a regular bar could be plenty fun. Point of view episodes about a character’s family life could be intriguing. How do relatives of police reconcile with the times? However, a season eight must address the harmful messages that the show has perpetuated and ensure it evolves into something better.
Contact Gil Abend-David at gilalexandraa ‘at’ gmail.com.