Though they’re often mentioned in the same breath, Hitchcock and Scully—Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s laziest, most accident-prone detectives—are actually very different people. Michael Hitchcock (played by Dirk Blocker) is an incorrigible pervert and brimming with unearned confidence, ready to get an ill-advised tattoo of his own face or whip his shirt off at a moment’s notice. Norm Scully (Joel McKinnon Miller) is more of an unlucky schlub, susceptible to heart attacks and Nigerian email scams, with a hidden cache of surprising talents. He sings opera, speaks French, knows Morse code, and is a jigsaw puzzle wizard, but he’s frequently interrupted before he can finish explaining how he mastered all those skills.
Scully is well used to being interrupted, because he and Hitchcock are Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s go-to punching bags. Though they rarely get storylines of their own, they’re almost always the butt of the joke, even when they’re just hanging out in the background. For Halloween, they dress up as mustard and … mustard. They scarf down potato chips when they’re supposed to be on a hunger strike. And they’re dismissed and mocked by the rest of the squad for their ineptitude: When the precinct goes on lockdown and Hitchcock is trapped outside on a balcony, the captain’s response is “Good, sounds like we dodged a bullet there.”
On paper, it’s hard to reconcile the squad’s treatment of Hitchcock and Scully with the overarching spirit of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which over its six seasons has distinguished itself from other, cringier workplace comedies with its optimism, inclusivity, and sweetness. The writers have had to walk a careful line to maintain that sweetness while the rest of the ensemble subjects Hitchcock and Scully to near-constant ridicule. If the audience feels too sorry for them, it could spoil the joke—or worse, make the heroes look like bullies. Somehow, though, that never seems to happen, maybe because we’ve seen prototypes of Hitchcock and Scully on other sitcoms. They’re not just ordinary punching bags but a specific kind of character that has emerged over the past decade: the older white man who finds himself out of touch with the rest of the much younger and more diverse cast.
Community had Pierce Hawthorne, the racist, misogynist heir to a moist-towelette empire whose desperation to be liked was matched only by his determined unlikability. Pierce was a punchline on Community from the very beginning, but the show was, true to form, self-aware about making him one; plus, as time went on and he grew more and more overtly villainous, it was difficult to argue that Pierce didn’t deserve it. Parks and Recreation went in the other direction with Jerry Gergich, the affable klutz and office scapegoat. The disdain for Jerry (whose real name is Garry, but is such a pushover that he answers to Larry and Terry) was a rare mean streak on Parks and Rec that persisted even as the show grew gentler over time. The writers compensated by giving Jerry an idyllic home life: His daughters are devoted, his gorgeous wife adores him, and he has the biggest penis his doctor has even seen. He loves even the most menial, envelope-stuffing parts of his job, and he reacts to his colleagues’ barbs with a patience that borders on beatific.
On the surface, Hitchcock and Scully are in the same mold as Pierce and Jerry, paragons of mediocrity who failed upward and are living in a changed world they can’t fully understand. But they work so well on the show because they occupy a middle ground between the two, neither villains nor saints, just buffoons. It helps that there are two of them, too: Their colleagues might be cruel and their home lives might be a mess, but Hitchcock and Scully always have each other—and, as it turns out, they’re happy to be underestimated together. In Season 2’s “Sabotage,” the show began chipping away at the partners’ characterization as useless, sloppy desk jockeys by putting them on an extortion case, where they prove to be perfectly competent when they want to be—though they urge Charles not to tell anyone about their success, lest they be given more responsibility. They did their field investigating in the ’70s and ’80s, they explain, and now they just want to sit in their chairs and do paperwork. “If we’re away from our desks for too long, they’ll update our computers, and we’ll lose Minesweeper.”
Since then, though, Hitchcock and Scully have remained mostly sidelined, and even their subsequent victories have fed into their doofus personas, saving the day by sweating in abundance or performing Olympic-level feats of sitting. Until this week, that is, when they stepped into the spotlight once again, with an episode that opens on a flashback to their past adventures. The joke of the origin story is that everything went downhill for Hitchcock and Scully after a case in 1986, when “Flat Top and the Freak,” as they were known, were at the top of their game—and hot!—but fell victim to the temptations of a Hooters-style restaurant called Wing Slutz. (Here, the writers engage in a little revisionism: Jake insists he’s “personality-shaming” Hitchcock and Scully rather than “body-shaming” them, but the show has a well-established history of fat jokes.) Still, even that is tempered by some typical Brooklyn Nine-Nine compassion: Hitchcock and Scully only became addicted to Wing Slutz because they were helping an informant escape her vengeful husband.
Community and Parks and Rec both acknowledged their punching bags as such, featuring storylines where that person was removed from the group and the other characters immediately started sniping at each other, the point being that in their absence, all that meanness had to go somewhere. Brooklyn Nine-Nine spreads it around a bit more (Charles and occasionally Amy get their share of the mockery) but is happy to keep firing most of the bullets at Hitchcock and Scully. After all, they can take it—their bulletproof vests are made out of “slut sauce.”