Television

Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Return Tests the Limits of “Good Cops”

The comedy survived cancellation. Can it survive changing feelings about the police?

Stephanie Beatriz and Andy Samberg on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Stephanie Beatriz and Andy Samberg on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. NBC

In most respects, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s existence has been a miracle. The series, created by Dan Goor and Mike Schur, was unusually thoughtful for a half-hour comedy, addressing issues like workplace harassment and discrimination without ever coming across as treacly or preachy, and doing it while maintaining an incredibly high density of laugh-out-loud jokes. The biggest miracle of all: After the show was canceled by Fox in 2018, fan outcry reached such a fervor that NBC brought it back from the dead the very next day. However, its eighth and final season, premiering Thursday, will demand the biggest miracle yet: How can a comedy about a bunch of goofy cops continue on in the wake of the George Floyd protests, in a world in which it has become impossible to ignore the prevalence of police violence and corruption?

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The first episode, “The Good Ones,” pretty much lays the season’s cards on the table. There’s no way of ignoring the issues at hand, so it doesn’t. Charles becomes performatively woke, flashing Terry the Black Power fist and bragging about listening to anti-racism podcasts; Rosa decides to quit and become a private investigator to help victims of police brutality; and Jake, in a “not all cops” move, attempts to aid Rosa on her latest case, claiming that he is, as per the episode’s title, “one of the good ones.” It’s only when he’s confronted by another cop who says the same thing that he realizes the fallacy he’s trying to sell himself. The cop in question has no qualms about deleting incriminating bodycam footage, explaining that they can now clear the victim’s name but won’t bother trying to discipline the abusive police officers, because every step along the way seems designed to keep police officers from facing any real consequences. The episode’s ending avoids any real resolution—in fact, it ends in awkward silence. Jake has come to understand Rosa’s decision to leave, but his decision to remain with the NYPD isn’t so easy to reconcile.

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That has always been the problem with Brooklyn Nine-Nine coming back when it has. There’s no way that every character would quit the force in protest, and there’d be no show if they did. But there’s also no way for all of them to remain on the job without addressing their reasons as to why, lest they come across as sympathetic to or ignorant of police brutality. That’s the nebulous middle ground that this season (or at least the five episodes that were sent out to critics) is stuck in. The show can’t escape the “but these cops are good” mentality, as evidenced by the way the lead characters are the only ones who stay out of a “blue flu” strike protesting perceived anti-cop prejudice. The fifth episode, “PB&J,” sees Jake wrestling with whether Doug Judy, the criminal with whom Jake has become best friends, deserves to be in prison. The fix that he comes up with is only temporary and clearly demonstrates the limits of what the show can do. There’s no way that Jake and co. are going to take on and dismantle the carceral system or the issue of police violence in a half-hour, or even an entire season.

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Some of the season’s episodes largely ignore the cultural context altogether. Each is compelling on its own, but there’s no overall sense of direction. For instance, Captain Holt’s marriage hits the rocks due to the pressures Holt has felt as a Black police captain, but attempts to address his marital discord in subsequent episodes fail to address the source of the stress that caused it. That isn’t to say that every episode should have some grand moral—that would put the show at risk of seeming as disingenuous as Charles, who is desperate to make sure everyone notices how enlightened he’s become—but it leaves the show in a strange sort of stasis.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine does the best job possible of acknowledging the problem with portraying cops as uncomplicated heroes while still remaining a good-natured, funny show, but it feels fitting, and fortunate, that this is its final season. There’s nowhere to go that won’t feel like some sort of a cop-out (no pun intended). But the show has pulled off miracles before, so the fact that the new episodes are at least thoughtful about the predicament its good-guy characters are stuck in is promising for the series’ finale—and its legacy.

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