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Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the rise of the cutecom

The beloved sitcom set in a police station is back for its sixth season on NBC.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Everybody’s back on NBC, as Brooklyn Nine-Nine shifts into a new era.
Vivian Zink/NBC
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I really enjoy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the police station-set sitcom that ran for five seasons on Fox and now makes a triumphant return for its sixth on NBC.

The ensemble cast is one of TV’s best, where even the characters who only drop by once or twice per season are played by actors so good, they immediately mesh with everything else that’s going on. The show’s presentation — lots of wide shots to let comedic bits play out — enhances its jokes, and those jokes frequently make me chuckle.

But I have never quite gotten over the hurdle to loving this show, in the way that so many people do. I’m glad it’s back — it has more stories to tell with these characters, as a twist unveiled at the very end of the season six premiere proves. But when my co-workers, my colleagues, and my friends rave about how Brooklyn Nine-Nine is their absolute favorite, a show they couldn’t live without, I smile and nod and don’t quite get it.

This is a more common pop culture phenomenon than you might think: that of the thing you like or maybe even love, just not as much as everybody else. But it makes me feel a little bad with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a terrific show made by talented people, that I can’t quite proselytize as much as its most ardent fans.

And I think I’ve finally figured out that what holds me at arm’s length from the series is exactly what makes so many other people love it: It’s what I call a cutecom.

In a cutecom, the characters essentially all like each other and the universe more or less plays fair. The longer a cutecom runs, the less conflict it has.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Jake and Amy are married now, so there’s that!
Vivian Zink/NBC

The cutecom is defined, I think, by the notion that it creates an alternate place you might want to visit, full of people you would love to hang out with. It’s not a place devoid of tension, since conflict is what makes stories go, but it is a place where tension rarely arises between the main characters. And if it does, it will quickly be smoothed over.

That broad summary defines a lot of sitcoms, especially family sitcoms. But what sets a cutecom apart is how the group of characters at the center of the show will effectively tolerate any behavior from someone within their group, so long as there’s an earnest effort to grow and change. For instance: Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) started the series as the office irritant, the guy who got under everybody’s skin. He hasn’t really stopped being that, but he has modulated himself slightly over time, which has led to the other characters being more forgiving of his over-the-top antics.

These shows also have a tendency to rely on external forces to provide the tensions and conflicts that drive the stories, meaning conflict almost always arrives from outside of the core setting and characters. On a series like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, that might take the form of the case that needs to be solved in a given week, but it also, increasingly, has to do with how the characters confront societal ills and larger problems within the NYPD. Similarly, think of Parks and Recreation — which didn’t start out as a cutecom but absolutely became one in its last few seasons — where most of the conflict was driven by the townspeople of Pawnee making ridiculous demands of their government. (These two shows share a co-creator, Michael Schur, but the showrunner of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is Parks vet Dan Goor.)

Effectively, many of these shows ultimately become case-of-the-week shows; even Parks often featured some government crisis of the week or another. But because it’s not exactly funny to laugh about large institutional problems within the police department or local government, cutecoms often leaven the mood with more and more ridiculous guest stars of the week, or by leaning heavily on goofy tropes. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is no exception. In the second episode of the new season — almost as if on cue — it proffers a flashback that reveals some surprising things about Hitchcock and Scully’s past as partners.

When cutecoms are crafted well, they’re a breeze to watch, and even when they’re crafted less well, they’re frequently a lot of fun, a respite from the world at large. They build on the idea of the hangout sitcom by wedding its best elements to some ideas that are just serious enough to add weight and dramatic stakes. They’re often set in workplaces, but they don’t have to be. For instance, I think New Girl, when that show was at its best in its first couple of seasons, was a hangout sitcom with cutecom aspirations.

And at their best, cutecoms really do offer viewers an alternate place to visit every week, a reality where your TV friends are always ready to welcome you with open arms. Which is a good thing! When shows are as well-crafted and as well-acted as Brooklyn Nine-Nine is, it’s easy to get lost in them, week after week, and then to spend just as much time rewatching favorite episodes later on. When you get into a show like this and it’s canceled before its time, it doesn’t just feel like losing a TV show; it feels like losing a second home.

Yet I typically resist the cutecom, just a little bit. New Girl lost me when it broke up its central coupling (Nick and Jess!! Forever!!), then tried to mostly sweep under the rug the emotions that both were feeling in favor of just getting back to the hijinks. And Parks & Rec lost me just a bit when it set up the idea that Leslie Knope would have to choose between the job she loved and the guy she loved, since government employees weren’t allowed to date each other, and then proceeded to effectively pull that plot out of the story entirely, resolving it in a way that let her both have the guy and keep running for office.

I understand why the show did it — several seasons or even a few episodes of Leslie pursuing her career while also pining away would have gotten old at best and could have reinforced sexist tropes about women being unable to have it all at worst — but I also wanted to see the character really have to struggle with what she wanted out of life. The cutecom resolution, where everything works out in the end, shortchanged the story I was more interested in.

To be clear, this is absolutely on me, not the show. Parks wouldn’t have been Parks in later seasons without Leslie and Ben’s relationship as one of its bedrocks. But when I look at the sitcoms I love most, shows like One Day at a Time and Superstore and The Good Place, they tend to have a lot of conflict in them, conflict that isn’t resolved particularly easily. The characters can like each other and still fight. They can confront weighty problems and never quite overcome them. And they can create an alternate world I want to visit every week, but one that I personally find more inviting because it’s got struggle baked into it.

Again: That’s just me! But it means that for as much as I like everything Brooklyn Nine-Nine does, I’m never going to adore it the way so many of my friends do. When push comes to shove, it will usually aim for the reassurance of a world where these people just want to make each other better. And season six of Brooklyn Nine-Nine will offer that reassurance as surely and as humorously as the first five seasons did. But when push comes to shove, I’ll always look for something a little bit spikier.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine returns Thursday on NBC at 9 pm Eastern.

Correction: The original version of this piece says Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs at 8 pm Eastern. It airs at 9 pm Eastern instead. The article has been corrected.