Police comedies have never been easy to get right. You can count the successful ones on one hand; depending on your sense of humour, you might even have a few fingers left over. Even in the US, a nation that made a hit out of a comedy set in a prisoner-of-war camp (Hogan’s Heroes), making a comedy out of police work has been tough at the best of times. And 2021 is not the best of times.
For most of its run, Brooklyn Nine-Nine weathered the storm just fine. Even now, it’s going out on its own terms. This season was part-way into filming when the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 really hammered home the way much of the country feels about the police. So filming was halted, and the episodes retooled to better reflect the changing mood.
There’s little doubt the ten episodes in this final season are going to feel like a victory lap, a much-deserved final farewell for a show that already survived one cancellation and a change of network. Eight seasons is an impressive run for any sitcom, especially in this day and age; if Brooklyn Nine-Nine was finishing up at just about any other time in history, people wouldn’t think twice about the reasons why.
But over the past year the USA has taken a serious look at the true nature of its police forces, and many people haven’t liked what they’ve seen. A seemingly endless string of killings by police; brutal crackdowns on lawful protests; some police officers failing to live up to even the most basic standards of behaviour while their commanders defend them and attack the public they’re meant to serve. This hasn’t exactly been fertile ground for comedy.
It’s not like Brooklyn Nine-Nine didn’t know it had a tough job ahead of it as a police comedy. Right from the start, it made all the right moves. It was a wacky workplace comedy about fantasy characters (and not just in a “any good cop is a fantasy” way) where the criminals were just as outlandish as the police. There were always complaints that the series was putting a halo on police, but it was always so unrealistic, so clearly a comedy, that it could largely shrug them off.
And when serious issues did creep in around the edges, it treated them seriously. Racism, homophobia, police brutality; these weren’t central to the show (remember: it’s a comedy), but when they came up they weren’t dismissed or laughed off. The characters were cartoonish, but they had heart, and time and again it was clearly shown to be in the right place.
It’s hard to imagine another police comedy coming out of the United States any time soon. Barney Miller and Police Squad aside, the police never were all that funny; there’s barely been a handful of mildly successful police sitcoms since the 80s, with only the gleefully absurd Reno 911! lasting more than a season or two. Even serious police dramas are in decline, replaced by high-tech fantasy shows where super-cops ID terrorists by DNA-scanning satellites. And they’re still more believable than a team of good guy cops who care about their community.
For decades, American television has worked hard to show the police as the good guys. Some call it copaganda. Over and over we’re told that police work is exciting, dangerous, a thrilling job protecting society from serious threats when in real life police work is often dull, monotonous work writing reports and dealing with personal squabbles and the mentally unbalanced.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine was a feel-good fantasy at a time when America told itself it had many of its problems sorted. Now that it’s woken up to those problems, holding onto the fantasy would only get in the way. It had a run many other series would envy; there’s no disgrace in knowing when it’s time to hand in the badge.
The eighth and final season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is being fast-tracked to SBS and SBS On Demand on Fridays, with new double episodes airing and streaming weekly. Episode 3 is streaming until 17 September:
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