I fell in love with Brooklyn Nine-Nine long before the crystallization of my politics. As far as nineteen-year-old Peter was concerned, a sitcom about police officers was about the characters (charming), the jokes (hysterical), and the vibe (unabashedly wholesome). What could go wrong?
Then came a metamorphosis familiar to everyone’s Fox News watching relatives: my arrival to an elite liberal university and my subsequent conversion to socialism. I read social theory and learned how, under capitalism, the state tends to allocate more resources to protecting the status quo, however unjust, than to caring for its citizens. I read history and learned how modern American police forces have their roots in agencies created to quell riots against urban squalor (in the North) or to recapture individuals who had escaped from enslavement (in the South). I read the news and observed how the police seemed to be instigating violence instead of preventing it, particularly in predominantly Black communities. Perhaps Huey Newton said it best: “The policemen or soldiers are only a gun in the establishment’s hand. They make the racist secure in his racism. The gun in the establishment’s hand makes the establishment secure in its exploitation”
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is framed as a comedic take on the police procedural, but it hardly resembles one, more often subverting than trafficking in the genre’s usual tropes. Goofy but loveable detectives replace cynically grizzled sheriffs, and they chase down bumbling crooks instead of violent and destructive maniacs. At its core, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not really a police show but a workplace comedy, another iteration of a formula pioneered in The Office or Parks and Recreation, earlier projects of B99 producer Michael Schur. In fact, the show takes great pains to reinforce this conceit. Captain Raymond Holt habitually refers to his subordinates as employees; to them, he is less a commanding officer and more a run-of-the-mill boss. But instead of the wacky incompetence of Michael Scott’s Dunder Mifflin or the admirable stick-to-it-iveness of Leslie Knope’s Pawnee city government, we have Captain Holt’s police precinct, one where crime is more pretext for typical sitcom hijinks than a plot in and of itself. In the show’s eight seasons, I can recall only a handful of moments in which a firearm is actively discharged.
Moreover, Brooklyn Nine-Nine portrays its characters’ police work as largely specialized. Though uniformed officers are referenced frequently and make occasional appearances, the show’s main characters are plainclothes detectives largely removed from the realities of everyday policing. Brooklyn Nine-Nine treats police work as a series of puzzles to be solved, opportunities to test their intellectual and creative mettle. All the while, the detectives in question make frequent references to their mountains of required paperwork, both as a note of verisimilitude and as a pivot to the show’s predominant “this is a workplace” mentality.
On its surface, this reframing is artistically ingenious: it takes an established formula but spins it in a new direction, one whose novelty might open unexplored comedic avenues. Therein, however, lies the show’s central tension: in making the workplace a police precinct, it sanitizes or otherwise glosses over the darker realities of American policing, where overfunded, hyper-militarized units have the power to conduct relentless campaigns of racialized state violence towards our most vulnerable communities. The show’s problem is not even that it humanizes police officers doing inhumane work; its problem is that it glosses over the darker reality of policing altogether.
Any network television show can only exist within the Overton window of acceptable discourse: no analysis of a cop show and its reception would be complete without a contextualization of the broader American consensus toward policing. Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs in a country where—particularly in white communities—policing remains a largely accepted element of our social and political order. Contrary to the Marxist lies those pesky BLM and Antifa activists are trying to peddle, all police are here to serve and protect us. Any violence against non-criminals is an aberration, a product of “bad apples” who don’t represent what law enforcement is really about. Brooklyn Nine-Nine can only exist if it perpetuates this false consciousness obscuring the reality of policing as an arm of state control. Otherwise, any iteration other than a pointed political satire would make it abundantly clear that the run-of-the-mill sitcom approach to wringing humor from daily life is fundamentally at odds with its real life analogue.
But Brooklyn Nine-Nine is “woke,” right? It must be if it manages to attract a loyal fanbase of reliably liberal millennials and Zoomers. My burgeoning political consciousness was indeed impressed at the show’s commitment to social and political messaging. Most obviously, the cast is diverse, and the show emphasizes and celebrates that diversity from the outset, starting when the pilot episode establishes how Captain Holt has risen through the ranks despite his identity as a gay Black man. But the show doesn’t limit itself to optical matters. Racism, patriarchy, workplace sexual assault, anti-LGBT discrimination, coming out, even work-life balance: name a liberal social priority, and I’ll give you an episode that addresses it. And despite all odds, these episodes generally tackle these subjects with nuance and grace, centering the characters to remind the audience that such issues are real and not mere liberal talking points.
But what about the elephant in the room? Even in a pre-George Floyd America, Brooklyn Nine-Nine does address issues of police brutality and law enforcement overreach. Characters make occasional references to the harms of stop-and-frisk, the invasive police tactic of Bloomberg’s New York, and bad cops are identified and condemned whenever they appear. At the end of the day, however, the show’s efforts are myopic at best and dangerous at worst. Brooklyn Nine-Nine wants to acknowledge the issues inherent to policing without diving into the substance of its roots. Far from being an aberration as regards the show’s politics, the moments when the writers pull back the curtain to show the ugliness of policing do little more than betray a fundamental misrepresentation—or worse, sheer incomprehension—of the institution’s political and social ramifications.
Nowhere is the show’s political myopia more obvious than in “Moo Moo,” an episode in the fourth season wherein Sergeant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) is racially profiled while walking in his own neighborhood. Jeffords brings up the incident to his commanding officer, but Captain Holt declines Jeffords’ request to report the offending officer, despite his shared anger over the incident. When an angry Jeffords requests an explanation, Holt recounts how the racial and sexual discrimination he has experienced throughout his police officer inspired him to make change from within the institution:
I’m not saying do nothing. I’m saying, the most powerful action you can take is to rise through the ranks so that you can make large scale changes. I’ve had to pick my battles, and it hasn’t always been easy, but now I have my own precinct, a precinct whose officers would never do to you what Officer Maldack did.
Jeffords forcefully counters, however, with his own origin story, recalling his initial inspiration to become a cop when a police officer defended him from a gang of playground bullies. “When I was a kid,” Jeffords says, “I always wanted to be a superhero. I wanted to help people like that cop helped me.” Jeffords proceeds to deliver an emotional speech about his anger and sadness about being treated as a threat and his fear for his daughters’ future in a city with cops like Maldack. Holt does allow the report to be filed, but the episode ends on a bittersweet note, where Holt and Jeffords celebrate the execution of justice but bemoan how it may have cost Jeffords a promotion from which he could advance bigger change.
Simply put, this episode is odd. On one hand, the individual interactions between characters are moving, even profoundly so: despite my broader disapproval of the show’s politics, I never fail to get chills when I watch Jeffords’ speech, which Terry Crews delivers masterfully. On the other hand, both Holt and Jeffords’ conception of policing bears little resemblance to its modern or historical realities. For both characters, the existence of a police force remains a given, one that must merely be better managed and embodied by its officers. The real problem runs much deeper, back to the acceptance of the notion that the state has the authority to empower agents to enact violence against civilians with limited justification or oversight, if any. Though the problem lies less with individuals than the system itself, all Brooklyn Nine-Nine cares to acknowledge are the “bad apples” who ruin it for the rest of us. “Moo Moo” tries to address police brutality, but it does so through a lens of superficial liberal orthodoxy, instead of any historical or materialist analysis. In trying to interrogate policing, the shallow approach of “Moo Moo” merely reinforces the show’s fantastical misconception of policing as an unquestionable system whose faults stem merely from insufficient vetting of its ranks. In trying to acknowledge a broader disease, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s writers merely recognize one of its symptoms
An even odder sanitization of state violence comes in the season seven episode “Admiral Peralta,” wherein Hitchcock and Scully, the precinct’s pair of bumbling slackers, claim to have lost the personal information of a key witness in a carjacking. When Detectives Santiago and Diaz endeavor to track down the witness, Hitchcock and Scully stop them, admitting that they deliberately lost the witness’s identity so as not to expose his undocumented immigration status to ICE. At the end of the episode, the detectives opt to drop their insufficiently evidenced case against a criminal in the name of protecting the witness. Diaz ends the episode confident that the officers “did the right thing.”
Since when does one arm of state violence protect its civilians from another, more violent arm? Based on my understanding of police logic, law enforcement actually requires departments to cooperate with one another. If they were discovered, Diaz and Santiago’s decision could easily get them fired. You could argue that the episode merely shows good people doing the right thing for a fellow human being—and you would be right. But the episode also reasserts the show’s larger misrepresentation of policing, one wherein cops decide on a whim whether or not to enforce the unjust laws they’ve sworn to uphold. Perhaps there are some cops like the 99 squad; maybe there are even substantial numbers of them. But if they do exist, they are outliers operating against the grain of their institutions, unlike the cops permitted to harass or even punish people for their skin color or nation of origin without consequences.
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 catalyzed a nationwide dialogue about the nature of policing. While more radical notions of police and carceral abolitionism still poll relatively low among the general American public, there is no doubt that many in our country view cops differently than they did before George Floyd’s brutal lynching by Derek Chauvin. Some on the more conservative side think of all police as unbridled heroes; those on the Left like me think their jobs should be largely eliminated to fund more robust social services that prevent crime. In between these two camps lies a vast number of liberal or else liberal-leaning people who likely recognize the existence of a problem but remain divided or else unsure on how to solve it.
Cue August 2021’s arrival of the eighth and final season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, its first since last summer’s racial justice movement. It was reported ahead of the season’s premiere that a whole slate of episodes written before the protests had been scrapped so that the writers could rethink their portrayal of police departments. In the very first scene of the new season, Detective Rosa Diaz tells her colleagues Jake Peralta and Charles Boyle that she is quitting the force in response to the protests. Fast forward to the present moment, where it is quickly revealed that Diaz has instead become a private investigator to help victims of police brutality find justice.
The following twenty-two minutes are a practical laundry list of the most common criticisms of policing: officers’ end-of-shift arrests to claim extra overtime pay, the insufficiency of frequently “malfunctioning” or otherwise inactive body cameras, hyperbolic defenses of cops, mischaracterization of 2020’s protests and riots, “reverse racism,” and the seemingly endless power of police unions. Using the frame of a Peralta-Diaz reunion team-up to investigate police harassment of a young black woman, the show’s writers establish from the outset that Brooklyn Nine-Nine has learned from the protests and aims to do better.
But did it learn from the protests, or from their misrepresentative coverage in corporate media? Instead of turning its scrutinous eyes towards broader systemic analysis, the writers lean on multiple personal exchanges between Jake and Rosa to explore the now re-evaluated dynamics of policing. One of them includes a monologue from Rosa that, should my dream of teaching high school English ever come to fruition, will be my go-to example if a student ever asks me to define the phrases “heavy-handed” or “on the nose:”
Jake, my choice [to quit being a cop] has nothing to do with you. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I gave up my career, my friends, my whole life, but I did it, because I couldn’t ignore what I was a part of anymore. Couldn’t ignore what the police are doing in my community, to people who look like me.
Just like with “Moo Moo,” such personal exchanges do not lack impact. Quite the opposite: they bring human faces to these often-abstract issues, a messaging strategy whose effectiveness is only heightened by the vehicles of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s famously charming and well-developed characters. What they fail to do, however, is challenge the broader norms of policing. The episode ends with a kind of silence between Diaz and Peralta that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever had a difficult conversation surrounding race and prejudice, showing how the characters are indeed taking the implications of their profession seriously. The rest of the season does include multiple plot lines centered around the notion of police reform, but they all remain limited by that very notion: “reform.” Nowhere do the writers dare to reimagine the very concept of policing or envision a world in which police may not in fact be necessary.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine represents a lost artistic and satirical opportunity. Casualties of the liberal mindset, the writers address numerous social issues with nuance and grace, but they do so within a fantasy world where police operate as a neutral presence, not as the perpetrators or enforcers of the discrimination and repression the show claims to reject. In a workplace comedy of woke cops, Brooklyn Nine-Nine reveals no real understanding of the sources and conditions of the social and political problems that ravage modern America. Where its formulaic inspiration The Office satirizes the faults and idiocies of an American workplace, Brooklyn Nine-Nine woke-washes its police precinct beyond reproach and, by extension, beyond recognition. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s wokeness is not merely contradictory to its conception of policing, but completely antithetical and borderline nonsensical.
Perhaps you could argue that the rules of realism and depth go out the window for a sitcom, but should they? We can hold our comedies to higher standards, ones that unlock new ways to understand and interpret reality and society through humor instead of merely mining cultural and political orthodoxy for laughs. In this regard, Brooklyn Nine-Nine embodies the limits of the liberal imagination, an intellectual approach that encourages reform and promotes social justice but cannot comprehend the kinds of radical societal re-evaluation necessary to create a truly just society.
In “Moo Moo,” Sergeant Jeffords meets with Officer Maldack to demand an apology for perpetrating racialized harassment. “I’m not going to apologize for doing my job,” Maldack says.
“That’s not the job,” Jeffords responds.
Is it really not?