Is Brooklyn Nine-Nine propaganda? Well, it certainly isn’t activism.
I was first introduced to Brooklyn Nine-Nine through one-liners and gifs that were shared sans-context on networks like Twitter and Tumblr. To be honest, it took a few months for me to even realize it was a “cop show”; as far as I could tell it was a workplace comedy featuring Andy Samberg as a careless goofball and That Loser Guy From Superbad as his over-eager best friend.
Nevertheless, when I realized it was a cop show, I’ll admit I didn’t have many qualms about watching it despite years of calling myself “anti-cop.” Admittedly, although I’d come of age in a day that gave me plenty of reasons to not like police officers (the 2010 G20 summit was one of the first major events that forced me to question my politics, and I moved to Toronto shortly before the deaths of Sammy Yatim and Andrew Loku), I also grew up in a white, middle-class, milquetoast centrist family, coddled by the fantasy that police would be kind and fair to me as long as I was polite and law-abiding. Essentially, I claimed to be “anti-cop” because that’s what good young progressives did, but I never had to truly think critically about how I related to police. Brooklyn Nine-Nine fed into the fantasy I’d internalized; it was about nice cops who spent more time goofing off and helping each other out than they did abusing their powers.
In 2018, Brooklyn Nine-Nine was cancelled by Fox. In the 30-ish hours before its subsequent pickup by NBC, I heard repeatedly now important Brooklyn Nine-Nine was — the squad was racially diverse, with two black men (one of them gay) leading the squad and two Latina detectives who are generally more competent than their white male colleagues. The show had also just revealled one of its characters, Rosa Diaz, to be bisexual, and I would be lying if I said the episode in which she came out to her parents didn’t strike a nerve, as a bisexual woman who has never been able to broach the subject with her parents.
But I’ve been reporting on the entertainment industry since 2015, so while I was sad about Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s cancellation on a personal level, I also knew it was a cynical business decisions. Just as Last Man Standing was not initially cancelled because of some secret Hollywood bias against conservatives, Brooklyn Nine-Nine was not cancelled because of a vendetta against its messages of diversity and togetherness — but because six seasons in, it was bleeding viewers and the cast was getting increasingly pricey. Which is not to say that the entertainment industry isn’t also predisposed toward the stories of the white, straight and cis, but that the idea that we should expect more from the entertainment industry because it’s an industry based “creativity” is completely naive. NBCU aren’t activists for saving Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the series writers and producers are not activists for creating the show, and we, the viewers, are not activists for liking it.
It was only after Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s resurrection by NBC that could no longer get the “cop show” criticism to leave my consciousness; perhaps that’s because fans of the show had suddenly doubled down on their belief that this show was truly important to our collective advancement as a society, or maybe because the writers seemingly had as well.
Those detractors of the show have always been there. Since the beginning, critics called it cop propaganda, because it incorporates a relatively uncritical take on the police officers it portrays and perpetuates the idea that brutal police officers are “bad eggs” in a sea of good eggs. It’s unclear if Dan Goor and Michael Schur ever intended to make this show any type of propaganda. But does their original intent matter? As the show has responded to its growing progressive base, much of its writing reeks of overcompensation.
In 2013, shortly after its premiere, David Grossman argued in The New Republic that the show is conservative propaganda because it portrayed the NYPD as a goofy setting for a workplace comedy and glossed over police brutality. Naturally, days later, Time’s James Poniewozik argued back that Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t have to be gritty, that it is possible for a show to be completely apolitical. Ironically, by the sixth season, the show actually was “tackling” issues of police brutality, profiling, corruption and sexism. But this might be a true case of “be careful what you wish for.” At times, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s handling of these issues is so ham-fisted, it becomes a more cringeworthy watch than The Office’s Scott’s Tots.
In the last two years, the Nine-Nine has become a setting for one Very Special Episode after another. Increasingly, the show’s Big Bad is not a card-carrying criminal, but to corrupt NYPD itself. From Moo-Moo, in which Terry is racially profiled by another cop, to the season-spanning arc that saw Captain Holt face off against corrupt commissioner John Kelly, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s focus has shifted from the scourge of New York to other police officers — and the system in general.
Even when the Bad Guy is, indeed, a bad guy, the criminals being tracked by the Nine-Nine are more white-collar — from He Said, She Said, which portrayed a sexual assault that took place in the den of corporate bro culture, to The Box, featuring a wealthy dentist/murderer portrayed by Sterling K. Brown (more on that below). The shift away from petty thieves seems almost deliberate.
It’s as though the writers of Brooklyn Nine-Nine know that they risk being seen as hypocritical by their audience. It doesn’t want to condemn marginalized, small-time criminals to the cyclical hell of the prison industrial complex, but rather than playing it safe by keeping it a goofy workplace comedy, it’s doubled down on tackling “real world issues.” From workplace harassment to police corruption, Brooklyn Nine-Nine pretends to be on a crusade in which no one is safe.
As the show has dined out on praise for its progressive politics, I’m left feeling hollow. The series felt more compelling during the party episode Cop-Con than it did during any of the Progressive Holt Versus Regressive John Kelly storylines. The fact is, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not rooted in justice, but adds it in as garnishes, satiating those who are only willing to consume on a surface level. It begs to be noticed, like an over-eager teacher’s pet or a Tumblr blogger who tags their selfies with “TW: white.”
For example, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been lauded its characters repeatedly calling out transphobia. But how many times does the show have to bend over to say, “Transphobia is bad!” before it actually casts a trans person, or has a plot which sees a trans person getting justice?
None of these jokes draw any attention to the very real treatment of trans people by police. I’m unsure if this is because the show is unwilling to put forth the effort to write a tasteful teleplay that incorporates actual trans actors, or if it’s because that might indirectly force the show to dial back the number of times it uses sex workers or “crazy street people” as punchlines (it also loves to occasionally make jokes at the expense of underpaid people in the service industry and unionized workers, just for good measure). Although I imagine that if the Nine-Nine were to ever help get justice for a trans woman, she would be a conservatively dressed, middle-class, conventionally attractive trans woman who has a “respectable” job to be more sympathetic to centrist viewers.
These one-liners feel hollow when considering the reality of how police treat trans people. In Toronto, a body discovered in a ravine in July of 2017, and was not identified for more than four months as the body of trans sex worker Alloura Wells. Toronto Police Services was criticized for not issuing a press release on the discovery of the body itself, for the fact that the woman who discovered the body did more outreach with the queer community than police, and for allegedly telling Wells’ father that her disappearance was not “high-priority” because she was homeless. Earlier this year, the real NYPD arrested a trans woman of colour (who spoke little English) for crossing through a park after-hours, with an additional charge for “false personation” for identifying herself by her own legal name. Throughout the ordeal, she was placed in a cell, cuffed (others in cells were not), humiliated and repeatedly deadnamed. Charges were dropped in August.
These are just two of many examples of violence against transgender people that are, in some way, enabled by police, and yet the only time we hear a peep about trans people in Brooklyn Nine-Nine is when Peralta laments with a sheepish smile about how the movie Ace Ventura is transphobic, or that the prison system is blatantly brutal to trans people.
When a mere reference is considered radical, those who point out that using marginalized people as props for jokes are told that they should be grateful for these table scraps.
The Season Five prison plot is another example of on-the-surface “activism.” Jake’s experience in prison is horrible, but is played for laughs because what else could you expect from a half-hour primetime sitcom? It wouldn’t fit tonally to make the experience dark and true-to-life, which is why elements such as Jake being beaten, unprompted, by a guard is lightened with an animated phone filter that puts sombreros on the two of them. His time in solitary confinement — which has been known to cause depression, anxiety, aggression, insomnia and more — is rendered humorous by Peralta drawing a portrait of his girlfriend on the wall using mashed potatoes and reciting lines from The Lion King.
At nine-thirty on a weeknight, I don’t expect Oz. But the problem is that it still tried afterward to become a Very Special Episode (arc).
After being released, Peralta arrests sneaker thief Morris Richmond. When Richmond insists he’s innocent, Jakes goes into a crisis — what if he got the wrong man? He bungles the arrest, and admits to Holt that his hesitation. Holt praises him for his reservations, saying that this makes him a better cop. In the end, the plot is de-complicated when Richmond turns out to be guilty, but Peralta still decides to take some time off-duty to deal with his experience.
Central to this problem is that Jake reconsiders Richmond’s arrest not because prison is a bad place, but because prison is a bad place if you don’t deserve it. There’s no ruminating on whether or not it’s okay that Morris Richmond’s theft and resale of limited edition sneakers warrants exposure to brutal violence and the psychological effects of solitary confinement. The prisoners Jake encountered in prison were cartoonishly evil, from the erratic and violent drug trafficker Jeff Romero to the pleasant cannibal Caleb (Tim Meadows). By filling the prison with caricatures, Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t have to acknowledge that mental illness occurs four to seven times more often in prisoners than in people in the community, or even suggest that the conditions in which they lived would result in long-term damages beyond the individual.
(In the show’s universe, defence attorneys are also the worst people in the universe and are shown to be much more corrupt than the police. Earlier in the show, when Jake and his girlfriend Sofia break up because their jobs are incompatible, not once during the multi-episode arc do they use that dynamic to touch on the fact that maybe defence attorneys want to avoid overly harsh sentences for people; they and their clients are also caricatures in order to avoid treading into any nuance).
Most of the dialogue around the show’s “social justice” plots is exhaustingly self-aware. Ironically, in a Season Five conversation between Terry and Rosa in which Terry tiptoes around Rosa’s sexuality, she grumbles, “This feels like you Googled ‘how to talk to your bisexual friends.’” Yet over the season that followed, that’s what the show became: a series of bullet points on how to delicately handle social issues rather than simply writing characters who were good humans and not drawing attention to it.
Can you have activism that only goes halfway? Can you softly and politely request justice rather than demanding it? If the reviews of Brooklyn Nine-Nine are an indication, it seems to work. Not only because the show continues to be lauded as a progressive unicorn, but also because its sprinkles of progressive performativity help distract from some truly cringeworthy moments.
Sterling K. Brown’s dentist character is proven to be a murderer through Peralta’s competent detective work; not only does he determine that Dr. Phillip Davidson murdered his colleague, but he also also proves . that he was a drug user who committed the murder to cover up his use. During his soliloquy that ends on Davidson’s arrest, Peralta twice calls Davidson “junkie scum.” He then asides with a smirk that addiction is a disease and there’s “a huge genetic component” to addiction, but that Davidson is just so bad that he deserves those words.
There are already issues with portraying drug users as inherently violent, never mind that this user happens to be black, aggressive, hyper masculine and without any remorse whatsoever. There’s already disproportionate portrayal of drug users as nonwhite in media, but factor in the utter lack of sympathy shown toward Dr. Phillip Davidson and we’re all the way back to 1970’s tropes.
Nevertheless, the Nine-Nine skates by, banking on the “not all cops” defence, earning critical praise because its characters are the special ones.
Is it possible for a television show created by Harvard graduate, shot in Hollywood and starring multimillionaire SNL and NFL alumni, to be radical? Probably not. Is it necessary? That might be a futile question, considering just how impossible that would be.
It might seem like overkill to pick apart the politics of what is otherwise a nice show. Brooklyn Nine-Nine still has likeable characters and is a fine choice for escapism, if you can stomach a saccharine-sweet portrayal of “good cops.” But my wish for 2020 is that the Nine-Nine stops taking itself so seriously and bending over backwards to tell me that it’s making a difference. And I also hope that fans stop seeing their love of Brooklyn Nine-Nine as some sort of activism when the show is little more than a fantasy.
We are entitled to fantasies, of course, but fantasy is not activism.