A few weeks ago, I stood in my usual spot at my usual subway stop on the way to work, only to notice that across the other side of the platform, the effervescent face of Ellie Kemper, star of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, had been replaced with this:
As you can see, it jumped out at me enough to take a photo and post it to Instagram. And as you may or may not also be able to tell, I posted it, without comment, in a somewhat (OK, totally) mocking manner. An ad imploring me to “Join the NYPD”? Right. Nice try, but showcasing a nonwhite woman dressed as a smiling cop isn’t going to make me ignore the fact that the NYPD, and police culture nationwide, is in desperate need of a systematic makeover from the inside out.
And yet, each week I settle down to watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which wrapped up Season 2 yesterday. The sitcom stars a diverse group of smiling, goofy NYPD detectives whose greatest issues stem from their overachieving tendencies—seriously, every other episode finds them competing with one another in some ridiculous fashion—or fighting off the desire for inter-office romance. And each week, I laugh at the deadpan delivery of Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) and the antics of his ragtag crew of smart but silly detectives. It’s a well-crafted fantasy, with hardly any discernible connection to current cultural attitudes about law enforcement. On the surface, the show is really not so different from that subway ad. Does the fact that I love one and feel displeasure for the other make me a hypocrite? Should I care?
There have been strong cases made against Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s utopic vision of the NYPD: After comparing the sitcom to The Andy Griffith Show’s near-total erasure of black people at the same time as the peak of the civil rights movement in Splitsider earlier this year, Harry Waksberg wrote,
The obvious danger is hindsight. When we look back at The Andy Griffith Show, especially in the wake of breathtaking historical storytelling like Selma, we can only be embarrassed by the show and its dogged refusal to actually address its setting. Look how stupid White Guys Of The Internet look when they try to defend these omissions.
I do not hate cops. In general, as a decent human being, I try not to paint any group with a broad stroke, even if that same group contains a large number of people who would do so when they look at me. I’ve also been lucky enough to never have had a direct, negative interaction with a police officer, though my history with them is also virtually nonexistent, save for attending a few house parties in college and more recent “underground” warehouse soirées that got busted for any number of legal violations.
But I can’t say I really trust them either, and I think my reasons are more than valid. The personal accounts of unnecessarily tense moments with the police relayed to me by everyone from my father and my boyfriend, to my friends and acquaintances, have made me increasingly leery. The national stories that have become practically inevitable over the last couple of years have made me increasingly weary. Should I ever need to call 911 for an emergency, I would probably hesitate first.
So there are any number of reasons why Brooklyn Nine-Nine should leave me with a bad taste in my mouth, the first of which being its wholly benign, occasional flirtation with the serious, real-life issues currently plaguing communities. In episode two, “The Tagger,” Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) asks his colleagues for help with a case that involves the Deputy Commissioner’s delinquent son. “Don’t arrest him,” chimes in Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz). “Just smack him—hard. With a phone book on a body part no one can see, know what I’m saying?”
“So you’re suggesting police brutality?” says Jake.
“Haha yeah, I guess so. Why?”
The flippant comment is a face-palm moment—making light of a practice that is all too common within police departments, and then letting it zip by without a second thought. At the same time, a more charitable reading of this ephemeral joke could be that it shows just how ingrained bullying tactics are in law enforcement, that some cops would think nothing of “smacking” a suspect with a phone book. It’s a fine line to walk.
Perhaps worse still is the upholding of Samberg’s Jake as overzealous hero cop, a character type that can feel disturbing in these current times. He’s not quite as high on the scariness scale as Michael Rapaport’s disturbed cop in a recent episode of Louie, but the potentially harmful elements are still there. A huge part of Jake’s character is his penchant for glorifying his job to extreme, cartoonish levels. In just this past week’s episode, his storyline centered around his obsession with “hunting down a murderer, recovering millions in stolen money, rappelling out of a chopper with a knife between my teeth.” (The knife is between his teeth, he says, because “both of [his] hands are holding giant machine guns, and THAT’s how it’s going down!”) Yet ultimately, he’s still a “good” cop—his overzealousness is never truly threatening.
The cast and crew seem content with this portrayal. Said co-creator Dan Goor prior to the beginning of Season 2, “A police station was a shortcut in some ways because people are very aware of how police television works. You know instantly who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.” He added, “We can’t have Jake arrest the wrong person and interrogate them and keep them in jail for six hours or 10 hours.”
Actually, they could, but then Brooklyn Nine-Nine would be a completely different show. A recent episode of New Girl managed to do a pretty good balancing act in maintaining its silly humor while touching on socially relevant issues when newly minted police officer Winston (Lamorne Morris) lied about his occupation in order to impress a woman who was an active protester against police brutality. This led to a fairly enlightened discussion with his friend Nick (Jake Johnson), where he admitted for the first time that when they were kids, he and his other black friends would run from the cops “even if we did nothing wrong. It was just out of habit.” But New Girl is not inherently a cop show, so a one-off episode about such things doesn’t feel like a cop-out in the way that a one-off episode on Brooklyn Nine-Nine would. I do think, however, that Brooklyn Nine-Nine could attempt to subtly address race, gender, and police tensions without getting bogged down by them, just as Parks and Recreation, another show Goor and co-creator Michael Schur helped shape, managed to do with feminism.
And yet—and yet—these things have not deterred me from falling under the spell of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. To be sure, it is a spell that is being cast: The focus is on detectives, not patrol cops (though all NYPD detectives start as patrol), and this detail is effective, at least for me, in distancing the characters from my discomfort with real-life officers who stroll around my neighborhood. The show has been rightfully praised for its diverse ensemble (only two of the main detectives, Jake and Charles, are white and male), and it’s a talented one that works incredibly well together. Over the past two seasons, the characters and their relationships to one another have developed naturally (especially between Jake and Terry), and overall the show is just consistently, genuinely funny.
And so I’ve decided not to feel guilty about diving into fantasy once a week, so long as I can still identify it as fantasy—it’s sort of like dancing to creepy, arguably misogynist pop songs while knowing that in real-life, I would never want to be friends with, let alone date, the kind of guy who would say these things.