How far will (or should) Brooklyn 99’s social commentary go?

words by kieran douglas

It’s a strange time to be a cop, even if you just play one on TV. This is especially true of the show Brooklyn 99, an ostensibly lighthearted sitcom that has been forced to re-evaluate itself, as the public has re-evaluated its perceptions of the police in general. Cops was momentarily cancelled, and perhaps for good reason (though it quietly picked back up with production in October), but that fate seems inappropriate for the 99. The show openly embraces diversity and attempts to show its characters as police in an honest fashion, comedic liberties notwithstanding.

Brooklyn 99‘s presentation of the police is largely positive and ultimately sanitized. The reality, conversely, is that policing is rarely so clean.

Recurring themes in Brooklyn 99 include psychological trauma, as well as experiences of racism and homophobia within the force. Characters are forced to make difficult choices in bad situations on a regular basis, often when their comrades and loved ones may be at risk. Despite this fact, Brooklyn 99 loves its happy endings. It’s a sitcom, sure, and it’s got to live up to the formula, but the result is a presentation of the police that is largely positive and ultimately sanitized. The reality, conversely, is that policing is rarely so clean. Those difficult, morally ambiguous situations often resolve poorly, but you wouldn’t see that on Brooklyn 99. I’m not trying to argue that the show is necessarily socially dangerous as a result. The point is that the show is poised to grow to discuss the harsher consequences of policing in a more meaningful way. 

Brooklyn 99 does get a lot right— it features several characters of colour in complex, significant, and influential roles, and some of those characters are openly LGBTQ+. In terms of representation, it is virtually impossible to complain about the show. Furthermore, the show does work to engage with the difficulties that people of those identities often face in dealing with the police. Captain Raymond Holt is open about the homophobia he has experienced in his career, and Sergeant Terry Jeffords is led to confront the intersection of his race and profession after he is wrongfully suspected of a crime. These are stories that need to be told, and they can clearly be told in a way that remains both funny and meaningful. 

BROOKLYN 99/NETFLIX

That said, there’s a lot about the show that remains questionable. Firstly, there’s the fact that Jake Peralta, the show’s lead, explicitly aspires to be an action hero. Everybody wants to change the world, but Peralta’s worldview is one that can—and sometimes does—lead him on some disturbing courses of action. For example, in the episode “Show Me Going,” Jake defies direct orders not to intervene in an active-shooter situation, impersonating his commanding officer to illegally acquire military-grade weapons. Audiences are meant to sympathize with Peralta, who is frustrated that he can’t rush to the rescue of his close friend and comrade, Rosa Diaz. As touching as his motive might have been, Jake’s indiscretion is barely acknowledged, despite the actual severity of his actions. In the end, Diaz makes it home for dinner and Jake may continue indulging his fantasies, basically free of consequence. 

The show portrays that the only people seriously affected by the actions of the police are the police themselves.

In that particular episode, the officers of the precinct are forced to deal with the powerlessness they feel toward Diaz’s predicament. They care deeply for her, and the situation is obviously emotionally harrowing, hence Peralta’s notably extreme reaction. Otherwise, the show regularly explores the long-term effects that policing has on the characters’ mental health. In an episode titled “The Therapist,” Jake resists his colleagues’ suggestions that he seek therapy, and they speak openly about their own psychological struggles. Clearly, the writers have no qualms about delving into darker themes. Yet, it seems that the only people seriously affected by the actions of the police are the police themselves. Decisions that the characters regret for the negative consequences they wreak upon their community are a rarity, and the show misses opportunities to thoughtfully explore those tensions. Whether or not one accepts the role of the police as socially necessary, it is undoubtedly the case that their actions shape the world around them. Certainly, some of them must make decisions they wish they hadn’t from time to time; some of them must have regrets. It seems senseless that Brooklyn 99 would avoid that reality. 

Protagonist Jake Peralta (left). FOX/GETTY IMAGES

To demand that Brooklyn 99 should reassess its portrayal of the police is to express a platitude. Largely, the call has already been heard; Stephanie Beatriz, who plays Rosa Diaz on the show, famously donated $11,000 to a bail fund at the height of the protests over George Floyd’s death, calling for other actors to follow suit. The result was that Brooklyn 99’s cast and showrunner Dan Goor donated a collective total of more than $100,000 to bail funds. Goor also revealed in June that he canned four new episodes of the show to take it in a new direction. Terry Crews, actor of Sgt. Terry Jeffords, confessed that the cast had been reflecting on the role of the show in a radically changing social landscape. Clearly, the people working on the show are aware of themselves enough to know their role as cultural standard-bearers, and are eagerly moving in a constructive direction. So, the question isn’t about whether Brooklyn 99 should change, it’s about what that change would look like. 

As I’ve already discussed, the show is not averse to difficult topics. However, those topics are generally only explored with regard to how they affect the characters as police; the perspectives of other people who might be directly affected by their actions are left as an afterthought at best. If the show were to begin exploring those perspectives in a meaningful fashion, I do not believe it would seriously affect the format. Indeed, it might even result in a better and more thoughtful show. Consider the much older comedy, M*A*S*H: Problematic as it was, the show was set during the Korean War but used its platform to talk about the moral ambiguities and atrocities of the American involvement in Vietnam. Those stories were largely told from American perspectives, naturally, but the show managed to strike a balance between comedy and commentary nonetheless. Brooklyn 99 stands well-poised to do the same.