I love Brooklyn Nine-Nine. You can drag your hand across the table to knock every cop show onto the floor, and I wouldn't pick up a single one of them. But I will pick up Brooklyn Nine-Nine, dust it off, gingerly put it back on the table, then put up a little sign that says Do Not Touch. It's got that magical combination of comedy and comfort that makes it endlessly watchable.
All that said, since it began, the show's left me with a nagging feeling that I've never been able to shake. It took a while, but I think I've finally pinpointed what's been bothering me all these years. The current instances of police brutality have only highlighted it: the show is afraid to deeply explore its own setting because it's scared that the truths it'll find will render the show unfunny.
It's always taken jabs at the broader ethical and sociological issues of police work but then pulls back, never really laying into the issues, always maintaining distance. It doesn't commit to making itself about those problems, which it's in a perfect position to do. It's clear the NYPD police precinct is just a setting, more of an excuse really, to just have fun. Saying something important about the nature of police officers in the United States in the year 2020 takes a backseat to be watching a perfect cast of comedic actors just do their thing. When it occasionally wades into the waters of police corruption, systemic racism, and police brutality, it handles the topics well enough while still being entertaining (thanks to some heavy lifting done from irreverent B-plots that keep things light). Those individual episodes tend to be outliers that get swallowed whole by the sheer volume of other episodes depicting cops just kind of fucking around in ways that bounce between innocent, but still concerning behavior for police officers who get paid with taxpayer money (the Jimmy Jab Games episodes), and deeply troubling (Amy and Jake competing to see who can arrest the most people, which is a big yikes).
It wants to have its cake and eat it too. Unlike Reno 911, another comedic cop show, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is rooted in some kind of recognizable reality that only highlights the inappropriateness of their wacky sitcom behavior. Reno's cops and criminals are all so monumentally stupid that from the get-go, the audience understands this is about as divorced from reality as a cop show can get. Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn't have that luxury. It intentionally grounded itself in real emotion, real sentimentality. It has no problem tackling personal stories, like Rosa's bisexuality or Terry and Captain Holt's run-ins with racism within their ranks. Little of that effort translates over to a larger story of being a police officer in an age when we're all collectively realizing how abusive cops can be toward everyone, with a special emphasis on minorities, and especially considering the institution's deep roots in white supremacy.
The show just wants to be funny; I get it. It's nice that there are still things out there that ignore the problems of the world and dedicate themselves to being purely entertaining. But the world the show inhabits (as we see in real life) is, for all intents and purposes, our infuriating reality of police officers. It does it's best to portray its officers as outliers who "get it," even if that premise was never terribly believable to begin with. It's only gotten less plausible as we've been bombarded with stories and videos of police officers whose conduct is so inhumane that you have to wonder if they were trained to think the average American citizen is the enemy.
I love the show. I hope it can find a voice between the rock and hard place it finds itself. Terry Crews says the eighth season will deal directly with the Black Lives Matter movement and, presumably, police brutality. I'm not expecting a sitcom to find solutions to problems that have existed since forever, but fully committing itself to face those problems with as much of the humor, compassion, sentimentality, and insight it approaches every other subject would be a great start.
Luis can be found on Twitter and Facebook. Catch him on the "In Broad Daylight" podcast with Cracked alums Adam Tod Brown and Ian Fortey! Check out his regular contributions to Macaulay Culkin's BunnyEars.com and his "Meditation Minute" segments on the Bunny Ears podcast. Listen to the first episode on Youtube!
Top Image: NBC