It almost seems unfair to accuse any episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine of being a Very Special Episode. Yes, it’s true that the show has occasionally dedicated individual installments to exploring a serious topic, as it did with active shooter situations in “Show Me Going” or Rosa’s coming out in “Game Night.” But it’s to the show’s credit that those storylines felt natural rather than shoehorned in or forgotten, goldfish-style, by the very next week; Rosa is still working on repairing her relationship with her mother a whole season later. And while Brooklyn Nine-Nine usually keeps it light, it has remained consistently socially aware, not shying away from issues like the institutional racism and homophobia facing Capt. Raymond Holt within the ranks of the New York Police Department.
Still, it’s remarkable that Brooklyn Nine-Nine managed to go five and a half seasons without ever really addressing sexual assault, considering it’s set at a police station. Drug use, organized crime, and even murder are business as usual in the 99, where just a couple of weeks ago Jake expressed his disappointment that the victim lying face down in a blood-smeared apartment had a boring name. But while the detectives often find themselves working alongside other departments, we haven’t exactly seen Ice-T and the cast of SVU stop by to flex some NBC synergy. Bill Hader even once joked to star Andy Samberg during a Comedy Central roast, “What’s going to happen when you run out of funny crimes like graffiti and pickpockets? Can’t wait to see Episode 10 when Brooklyn Nine-Nine has to deal with a rape.”
The joke’s on you, Hader, because it didn’t take 10 episodes for Brooklyn Nine-Nine to deal with a rape. It took 120. And if you’re looking for an explanation for the holdup, look no further than the cold open of Thursday’s episode, “He Said, She Said,” directed by Stephanie Beatriz. It begins with the captain announcing that the squad’s next case involves an investment banker with a broken penis, leading the detectives to take turns eagerly guessing what happened: Did he numb it with cocaine and play croquet? Was he attacked by a goose while peeing out the window of his Bentley? The captain corrects them. “He was actually struck by a female coworker who claims he attempted to sexually assault her.” Everyone immediately cringes.
It’s difficult to meaningfully address sexual assault and still be funny, and it’s difficult to tell jokes about or even around sexual assault without coming off as insensitive, which is a fine line for a progressive network sitcom in 2019 to walk—especially when it would be so much easier to avoid it altogether. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine has walked that kind of line before, with racial profiling, in the critically acclaimed Season 4 episode “Moo Moo.” When Terry Crews’ Sgt. Terry Jeffords is stopped by another cop in his own neighborhood, he must decide whether to report the incident and jeopardize his career or, as Holt advises, to let it go and rise in the ranks so he can change the NYPD from the inside.
There’s a similar dilemma at the heart of “He Said, She Said” as husband-and-wife team Jake and Amy partner up on the case. Amy advises the penis-breaker, Keri (guest star Briga Heelan), to refuse a $2.5 million settlement from her company, which would require signing a non-disclosure agreement. Instead, Amy urges her to press sexual assault charges in hopes of getting a creep off the streets. Rosa, eavesdropping in the break room, suggests Keri should have taken the settlement, since with no physical evidence, it’s unlikely that Broken Penis will be convicted, and a public trial could harm Keri’s career. It’s the kind of ethical quandary you’d expect to find on The Good Place: Is it better to look out for the interests of this one victim or to ask her to sacrifice herself for the mere possibility of a greater good?
Keri, used to working in a male-dominated industry, hardly seems traumatized by the incident, only expressing regret that she didn’t also whack Broken Penis in the testicles as well. That speaks to the everyday sexism highlighted in the episode: Amy explains to Jake that, as a woman, she experiences little moments differently than he does, whether it’s receiving weird “compliments” from the coffee vendor or a civilian not realizing that she’s a police officer even when she’s in uniform. Even sadder is that she’s resigned to it, as Jake points out. Though Beatriz was busy directing, it would have strengthened the episode considerably to put Rosa on the case with Amy instead, allowing them to further explore their idealist and pragmatic approaches to shared experiences, as Terry and Holt did. Instead, it’s left to Jake to process issues that even he, a good guy, wasn’t previously aware of, with Samberg delivering some wonderfully self-aware commentary: “I feel like maybe I shouldn’t be here—or maybe I should be here because men should be part of the conversation? I’ve landed on active listening. I will no longer be chiming in.”
The episode’s B story, in which Holt persuades Terry and Charles that an elderly serial killer is still a threat, is somewhat distracting, given that it’s totally disconnected from the sexual assault case. Part of what made “Moo Moo” such a powerful piece of storytelling is that even its minor plotlines related back to Terry’s predicament, a missed opportunity here. The Disco Strangler case also sidelines Crews, one of the most prominent voices of the #MeToo movement and particularly of male victims, from participating in the conversation. That’s not necessarily a fault of the episode itself, but it does call attention to how Brooklyn Nine-Nine has treated these issues in the past, when the gender dynamic was flipped; Gina was long a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen, but her relentless hitting on the sarge was often played for laughs.
“He Said, She Said” handles misconduct with both humor and sensitivity, from the corporate culture closing ranks around one of its own—all of the people Jake and Amy interview have been fed the same “good guy, professional workplace” lines—to the case’s outcome, which is optimistic without being overly sunny. (Though Keri is fortunate that her case falls under the jurisdiction of what must be the most open-minded police department in the country, because despite the episode’s title, Jake and Amy accept her account of events unquestioningly.) Ultimately, the episode argues against its own singularity, as in a poignant scene in which Amy reveals she has been the victim of workplace harassment, something she has in common with “literally every woman I know.” If the writers really want to stress just how widespread stories like Amy’s and Keri’s are, they might consider revisiting the topic in Season 7, because sexism, harassment, and assault are everyday occurrences that can’t be comprehensively addressed in a single episode, even one as thoughtful as “He Said, She Said.” There’s nothing Very Special about them.