When Brooklyn Nine-Nine debuted on American screens in 2013, some were wary of a sitcom about a New York Police Department precinct in a time when the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum. But as time has passed, the cop comedy has proved to be one of the most progressive shows on television, taking a nuanced approach to social issues while avoiding Very Special Episodes.
It all begins with the show’s cast in which, for once, the actors of colour outnumber the white ones. With representation recently becoming a hot Hollywood topic, TV has started to embrace multiculturalism, but it has often struggled to move beyond including minorities in a tokenistic fashion. Even in the past work of Brooklyn Nine-Nine creators Michael Schur and Dan Goor, secondary characters like entrepreneur Indian-American Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) in Parks and Recreation and grumpy black sales representative Stanley Hudson (Leslie David Barker) in The Office are drops of diversity in a white cast, used to create the illusion of inclusivity.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn Nine-Nine's lead Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) may be your typical white male goofball, but the punchlines are shared with two black men — the stoic, gay Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher) and the family-loving Sergeant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) — as well as Latina detectives Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) and Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz).
Beyond fulfilling onscreen diversity, the show steers away from tokenisation by subverting racial stereotypes, and not just by amusingly playing on them. Crews' character champions this by turning the Angry Black Man trope inside-out. In fact, he’s written as the exact opposite — a caring, mother-hen figure who is too afraid to shoot a gun, fearing he’ll die and never be able to see his daughters grow up. He has an innocent quality, too, referring to himself in the third person and listing things he loves (yoghurt, foreign films and love itself, in case you didn’t know).
But the character of Terry is more than just subversion, it reflects conflict between how the media portrays black victims versus the truth. Although Brooklyn Nine-Nine may be a satirical, almost idyllic vision of the American police force, they can’t ignore many African-Americans’ real relationships with law enforcement. When Eric Garner was choked by an NYPD officer in 2014, the media dug up petty offences and labelled him a career criminal while those close to him said he was a dedicated father of six.
These societal issues resurface regularly, most notably in the episode "Moo Moo", when off-duty Terry is frisked by a police officer in his own neighbourhood and the seriousness is cleverly interwoven with trademark silliness. At the episode’s crux, Holt warns Terry that a formal complaint could prevent him from getting a coveted job. It’s a heart-wrenching and honest conversation about what it means to be both black and a cop, but just when it seems like it may head into cringe-inducing territory, one of Holt’s dinner guests interrupts, saying she’s about to show a slideshow of her trip to Scottsdale, Arizona. “There are no highlights in Scottsdale, Margo!” Holt bellows. Small moments like these stop "Moo Moo" short of becoming preachy, and prevent characters' personalities dramatically changing or the show’s tone being sacrificed for the sake of a lesson.
There are other subtleties, too, like how Jake mentions political trends whenever he tries to support women. “Women can be drug dealers, too,” Jake awkwardly says in "The Bank Job", adding “#I’mWithHer”. Then, in "Halloveen", Jake announces that “any man, or woman — #Resist — can enter” the precinct’s Halloween heist. It’s a jab at male feminists’ often clumsy attempts to be pro-women’s rights by following popular hashtags and not much else.
But there’s one unexpected way Brooklyn Nine-Nine talks about what’s going on in the world, and it's maybe the show's most effective: pointing out injustices for what they are. When the series is built around ridiculous gags and unrealistic banter, audiences listen when characters blankly and unpredictably state the facts. In "Moo Moo", a confused Scully (Joel McKinnon Miller) is shut up by his usually clueless partner, Hitchcock (Dirk Blocker), who yells, “He got stopped for being black. Get woke, Scully!” Even in "The Big House, Part 1" when Jake complains to a strict prison warden — an emblem of authority — that snitches are less popular than cops in jail, the warden suddenly reacts with, “Well, let’s be honest, it’s not great in here for trans people.”
What Brooklyn Nine-Nine can teach other shows is that it’s not enough to fill the diversity quota with one or two minorities and an episode teaching us that prejudice is bad. It’s possible to be both funny and inclusive, wacky and political, because that’s the world we live in today.
Watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Wednesdays at 8pm on SBS VICELAND. You can watch episodes fast-tracked after US broadcast from 3pm every Monday afternoon.
Watch the latest episode at SBS On Demand: