The year was 2013, and it was a different time for American cops. “Police reform” wasn’t really on the national radar, Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York, and Ferguson hadn’t happened. The Rodney King riots were decades in the rearview mirror. Asked to identify a nationally prominent “racial policing incident,” most Americans might well have pointed to the 2009 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., or maybe the shooting of Trayvon Martin, which didn’t directly involve a cop. It was in that year that Dan Goor and Michael Schur, who had previously worked on Parks and Recreation, debuted a new show called Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
But it was this year—on September 16, to be precise—that the show finally concluded its run after eight seasons and more than 150 episodes. Yes, a zany, upbeat cop comedy managed to eke out a final season amid both a pandemic and a wave of anti-police sentiment.
The series as a whole—now streaming on Hulu—deserves to be remembered fondly, and its final season makes for a fascinating, if not always successful, study in how TV writers respond to outside events and political pressures.
When it debuted, the show pushed all the right buttons for the time. The cast was diverse, like the NYPD itself. The precinct’s captain, Raymond Holt, was gay and black, and not one but two of the main characters, Amy Santiago and Rosa Diaz, were Hispanic women. The actors were a great mix of known talent (Andy Samberg from SNL and Terry Crews from Everybody Hates Chris) and impressive lesser-knowns (Chelsea Peretti). The show took the then-popular NBC formula of awkward, absurd situational humor delivered in rapid-fire jokes—think Parks, The Office, and 30 Rock—and brought it into a police station. Most importantly, the writing was hilarious, much like those earlier shows in their respective primes.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine wasn’t really a celebration or critique of law enforcement. It was just a good sitcom that happened to be about cops (especially detectives) mixed with some elements of traditional police procedurals and the periodic serious turn. An episode might focus on the gang solving a difficult case, but it might just as easily deal with the characters’ love lives or personal foibles.
Sure, Nine-Nine was happy to portray cops in a negative light as needed—aging detectives Hitchcock and Scully were completely useless, and police misconduct came up now and again—but it certainly bore no resemblance to, say, The Shield, the gritty FX drama series from the 2000s, loosely inspired by L.A.’s Rampart scandal in the 1990s. Even within its own sitcom genre, Nine-Nine was decidedly on the goofier end of the spectrum, especially as it went on, with a generally big-hearted vibe similar to what Parks had in its later years. The main characters were all basically good people trying to catch bad guys and do the right thing.
On that formula, Brooklyn Nine-Nine lasted longer than anyone could have expected. It survived its initial rejection by NBC, airing on Fox instead. It survived the Ferguson years with little blowback and only the occasional mention of the chaos engulfing policing in the real world. Then it survived cancelation by Fox in 2018, ending up at NBC after all.
But 2020 was different. A pandemic was raging, the anger over the murder of George Floyd exceeded anything that came before, and even TV cops came in for a tongue-lashing. Numerous articles urged television networks to stop portraying police officers in such a positive light. Cops got canceled (though it’s back on Fox Nation streaming). Even Chase, the adorable police dog from the kids’ show Paw Patrol, somehow failed to escape criticism.
Meantime, Nine-Nine was aging, and this February, NBC announced that the 2021 season, just ten episodes in total, would be the show’s last. Show-runners trashed four episodes of the season after Floyd’s death, and folks associated with the show made it clear that the season would have a strong focus on police reform, without losing its overall sense of humor.
This final season was hardly Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s best. Like most long-running comedy shows, the series started with a bang but gradually lost steam, settling into a consistent routine best characterized as “reasonably funny.” But this season was definitely the most interesting: an attempt to talk about police reform in the aftermath of the summer of 2020, from a perspective clearly sympathetic with policing’s harshest critics, in the context of a light comedy show about good cops.
In a certain sense, it works. The show signals its agreement with police critics without fundamentally altering the tone of the comedy—complying with political pressures without alienating too much of its long-time viewership. At its best, the season lampoons real problems in policing. In a montage, a police official describes the many obstacles to firing a cop for misconduct. And Frank O’Sullivan, the head of the patrolman’s union, is a caricature, stopping at nothing to prevent cops from ever being held accountable for anything.
Yet a focus on police abuse made for an uncomfortable fit with the show’s established world and overall silliness, and the resulting discussion lacked any nuance whatsoever. The first episode opens with a dorky gag involving fake latex hands on sticks—so two detectives can give each other high fives while adhering to social distancing. Immediately thereafter, Diaz quits, telling her colleagues that she’s becoming a private investigator specializing in police-abuse cases because she can’t bear to be a part of something she’s come to see as the problem. The contrast is whiplash-inducing.
It’s also a little odd that, for a show trying to inject some realism, all the main characters seem totally on board with the left-wing agenda. One string of jokes actually relies on a white detective going too far in that direction, ostentatiously displaying his wokeness to a black colleague. None voices certain emotions that are incredibly common among cops these days: fear that they’ll face a Two Minutes Hate of their own for, say, a viral video taken out of context; frustration with being lumped together with Derek Chauvin in the public mind; or anger about last summer’s rioting and threats to “defund” police departments.
It’s the mirror image of the debates that Law & Order cops used to have in the middle of cases, in which the two characters discussing an issue always happened to have opposing views. Nine-Nine is a little bubble where all the law-enforcement protagonists are college-educated lefties at heart, and everyone else is the problem: the union boss, or the uniformed officers who get “blue flu.” In the world of Nine-Nine, the police critics are always right. While in the real-world, cities suffer serious harm when the cops pull back, in the show Holt ends the “blue flu” by pointing out to the union head that complaints are down while violent crime hasn’t changed. He and Santiago spend the season using the data to develop a reform proposal.
This formula proves especially tricky to sustain when a main character does, in fact, become the bad guy: an incident in the sixth episode in which Jake Peralta (played by Samberg) gets a lengthy suspension. The writers have to walk an odd line where Peralta is still the same person as always—a lovable and talented doofus who screws up in slapstick ways, not some abusive problem cop—and yet deserves a stiff punishment.
The writers’ solution involves playing a series of tricks on the viewer. When Jake keeps pursuing a case he’s been instructed to drop, it’s depicted as normal comedy/cop-show/action-movie high jinks. Then, he’s given good reason to chase down a bombing suspect who later turns out to be innocent, and the actual arrest of the wrong guy is simply not depicted at all. After the suspect gets freed, Jake discovers that the suspect lied about his address when arrested and he keeps tailing him, disregarding orders; all the while, the show gives few signs that the viewer is supposed to disapprove of Jake’s actions. But perhaps that’s the point: maybe we’re supposed to nod along with Jake’s rogue behavior, only to be scolded along with him when it unravels—rather than seeing Peralta proven correct in the end, as has happened when he’s gone off-script in the past.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine was a good show, especially in its earliest years, and it pulled off its final season in the most challenging of environments. That final curtain call didn’t always work, but it made you think about why.
Photo by FOX Image Collection via Getty Images