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Watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine in the “defund the police” era

The NBC sitcom was always about cuddly cops. Now, in its final season, it’s uneasy about that idea.

Rosa and Jake interrogate a suspect, as Jake tries to make a point.
Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) quits the NYPD in the Brooklyn Nine-Nine season premiere. Her friend, Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), isn’t thrilled.
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.

At the beginning of its eighth and final season, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, NBC’s venerable comedy about New York City cops, has found itself desperately outrunning its own fantasy.

The series is a largely conventional TV comedy, and as such, it’s always peddled an idealistic vision of a workplace where everybody treats each other like family. On some level, that quality is core to the American sitcom’s appeal. But from its earliest days, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been forced to contend with the fact that it is a comedy about cops in a country where police violence is a serious problem that dominates headlines.

Criticism of Brooklyn Nine-Nine creating a cuddlier version of the NYPD dates back to the show’s beginning, even if it never seemed particularly loud. In 2013, early in the show’s very first season, the New Republic’s David Grossman wrote:

Nine-Nine is one of this TV season’s top new shows, garnering critical raves and strong enough support from its network, Fox, that it’s going to follow the Super Bowl this year. Samberg plays Jake Peralta, a detective who can figure out anything except “how to grow up.” It’s easy to miss a sitcom’s conservatism when the jokes are good, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine is dead-set on maintaining the shiny-on-the-surface, gross-on-the-inside legacy of the Bloomberg/Ray Kelly era.

Yet Brooklyn Nine-Nine is beloved by many a young progressive for its diversity and its attempts to tell stories about some of the more difficult aspects of American life right now. Its core cast features two Black men and two Latinas, and its characters, both regular and recurring, include several queer people. The show has aired memorable episodes about racial profiling, workplace sexual assault, and coming out as bisexual.

The tension between its setting and its attempts to prove its left-leaning bona fides has always been the central contradiction that Brooklyn Nine-Nine could never quite resolve. Some shows would thrive amid that contradiction, exploring the messy realities of a cop who wants to be a good person doing the right thing. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a network sitcom, and that means the level of mess can only rise so high.

And so we come to the final season of the show, produced amid the Covid-19 pandemic and in the aftermath of the summer 2020 protests against police violence spurred by Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd. Brooklyn Nine-Nine wants you to know it’s been paying attention — but for now, at least, the show is still stuck being itself.

The season 8 premiere sets up an intriguing idea that Brooklyn Nine-Nine can’t really explore yet

Jake and Boyle use two brooms with rubber gloves at the end to high five.
Jake and Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) celebrate finding a way to high-five amid Covid-19.

Early in “The Good Ones,” the first episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s final season to air (as part of a two-episode, hour-long premiere), Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) quits the force to become a private investigator. She reasons that as a PI, she can do the thing she loves about her job — solve crimes and help people who’ve been wronged — without propping up an institution that is rotting from within.

The other characters, especially Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), one of Rosa’s close friends, aren’t exactly thrown by this decision. They mostly agree with her that policing is terribly broken, but they do feel a bit hurt. Rosa was their friend! They live in a sitcom! Friends don’t give up on each other in sitcoms!

Rosa withdraws from Jake because she knows he thinks the NYPD can reform itself, and she’s given up on that idea. The action of “The Good Ones” brings the two back together, as they attempt to solve a case Rosa is working that would aim to bring two officers who assaulted a young Black woman to justice.

They fail to do anything other than get the spurious charges against the woman dropped, and in the process, they realize just how difficult it would be to punish the offending officers with even so much as a slap on the wrist. The systems that protect the police are so deeply entrenched that changing them is beyond the abilities of any one group of officers. Rosa feels vindicated. Jake feels disillusioned. The episode ends on his inability to say anything in defense of the job he loves.

And then he just goes on being a cop.

“The Good Ones” opens with a very brief flashback to the days of masked-up Covid-19 quarantine, when Rosa quits the force after George Floyd’s murder. Then it quickly flashes forward to the present day, where Holt crows that everybody can hang out again, because they’re all vaccinated. In reality, many police departments around the country — including the NYPD — have low vaccination rates.

I really do not expect Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a sitcom, to reflect every aspect of our current reality. An episode about one of the characters refusing the vaccination would cut against the show’s smiley self at best and verge into “a Very Special Episode on why you need the vaccine” territory at worst.

Yet Holt’s proclamation, to me, showed how outside of reality Brooklyn Nine-Nine now lives, even as it tries desperately to reflect reality. If you want to grapple with the institutional rot within American policing, you can’t exactly suggest that there’s one precinct where everything goes right. The show is selling a fantasy, but it wants to give itself an excuse to keep selling that fantasy. So it peddles a reality that is also fantastical, where whole station houses with good cops exist, no matter how unlikely.

From the end of “The Good Ones,” it feels clear to me that the arc of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s final season will probably involve Jake, who has always defined himself as a cop above all else, leaving the force behind, perhaps to work with Rosa. Where will that leave the rest of the characters? They probably can’t all become private investigators.

I don’t want to suggest that Jake’s doubts about the institution he’s devoted his life to are without merit within the world of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or that he should immediately look at the problems Rosa has pointed out and completely reconfigure his life. Many people — perhaps most people — don’t operate that way. We’re all built to ignore certain contradictions that protect us from inconvenient or difficult circumstances (like leaving our job without a solid plan to fall back on).

“The protagonist realizes the organization he works for might be making the world a worse place” is pretty unusual territory for a beloved sitcom to visit. Arguably, only M*A*S*H spent much time there, by questioning the necessity of US military actions. I would love if the final season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine took an abrupt turn toward M*A*S*H.

But in the very next episode, “The Lake House” (the second half of the one-hour premiere), Brooklyn Nine-Nine is back to its usual sitcom shenanigans. The characters are all on a weekend retreat, designed to get Captain Holt back together with his husband, and Amy is worried about her baby not sleeping long enough, and Boyle is a baby whisperer.

“The Lake House” is full of standard sitcom stuff. Certainly, Brooklyn Nine-Nine should not be all heavy topics, all the time. People’s lives go on in darkness. We’re still patching up marriages and having babies and hanging out with friends, even in a pandemic. Life is never all one thing, and art should reflect that.

Yet the episode highlights just how much Brooklyn Nine-Nine will gladly question the institution it’s set within while insisting that the people we’re watching every week are largely beyond reproach. For as much as Brooklyn Nine-Nine tries to throw cold water on the idea of any cops being “the good ones,” its characters are supposed to be, well, “the good ones.” Plenty of cops thought Derek Chauvin was one of the good ones, too. So as long as Brooklyn Nine-Nine won’t push its characters a bit, it’s going to struggle to meet its stated goals.

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