As the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against police brutality have reached a boiling point in the past few weeks, following the horrendous murder of George Floyd by a police officer, many discussions about accountability and media influence have sparked.
After everything that we have seen being executed by “officers of the law” in the United States, I have felt the need to properly sit down and take a critical look at the ethics and power of my very favourite show on air: Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Set in today’s New York City, this comedy follows a squad of detectives as they solve crimes and go on other office adventures. Although it has always been praised for its diverse cast, characters, and progressive stories, it has also been met with criticism and claims of being ‘copaganda’.
NBC / Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Andre Braugher, Stephanie Beatriz, and Melissa Fumero
The main police squad features Andy Samberg in the lead as the childish yet smart detective Jake Peralta; Joe Lo Truglio as the overly and intensely supportive best friend and food expert detective Charles Boyle; Melissa Fumero as the book smart and now sergeant Amy Santiago; Stephanie Beatriz as the secretive and intimidating detective Rosa Diaz; Terry Crews as the soft-hearted muscleman sergeant Terry Jeffords; Andre Braugher as the stoic and robotic, yet at times also ridiculously theatrical, captain Raymond Holt; and then, of course, Chelsea Peretti as the hilariously egocentric assistant Gina Linetti.
The show is not only outstandingly refreshing with its representation of black men in positions of power, captain Holt being openly gay as well, and with two Latinas – and Rosa recently having come out as bisexual – as main characters who’s personalities are distinct and not just fill-outs of a stereotype template, but it has also taken on some really serious issues and discussed it with sincerity.
Particularly in the most recent seasons, the show has found its balance in discussing topics such as racial profiling, sexual harassment in the workplace, homo- and biphobia, corruption in the ranks of the NYPD, etc. while still remaining light-hearted and comedic.
But it definitely wasn’t always like that.
Progressive, but at times half-hearted
NBC / Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta
When we are first introduced to Jake and Amy in season one, they are in the middle of a bet where the one with the most arrests wins. At first sight, this could just be seen as a fun way to get them to be more productive and work harder. But if you scratch at it just a little bit, it could also implicate rushed detective work and the idea that it is more important to close a case quickly regardless of the measures than to solve it thoroughly and achieve actual justice.
In the first season, Jake is frequently confronted by Holt about his poorly done paperwork. Jake’s instinct reaction to this is simply, what does it matter? What does it matter that he mislabels evidence and forgets details, as long as he puts the bad guys behind bars?
Holt is very much portrayed as a joy kill here, as one of those annoying rule-obeying superiors making it impossible for the protagonist to catch the bad guys full on vigilante-style. This is a problem we can see across many police procedurals on TV; the idea that police officers should be able to do whatever they want/need to as long as they end up getting the job done.
There’s also the issue of the fact that they just always seem to get the guy. They never arrest the wrong guy – even if they do it with no evidence whatsoever.
FOX / Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Kid Cudi and Andy Samberg
In the seventh episode of season one, ‘48 Hours’, Jake arrests Dustin Whitman (Kid Cudi) – a black man who just got out prison after being arrested by Jake two years ago – for a robbery that matches his M.O. The problem is that Jake has no proper evidence other than his ‘gut feeling’. Because of the lack of evidence, he now only has 48 hours to prove that Whitman did it, if not, Whitman walks.
48 hours pass and the squad got nothing. Everyone is mad at Jake, not only for making them stay overnight to work on his irrational arrest but because he has potentially opened up the precinct for a lawsuit. But just as Whitman and his lawyer are about to leave, Jake has an epiphany and solves the case.
At the end of the day, they always get the guy. This is not the reality. Not only do cases go cold or take several arrests to find the right perp, but an estimated up to 5% of U.S. inmates are innocent of the crimes they are convicted for – this means that potentially over 100.000 people are sitting behind bars for no other reason judicial ‘mistakes’.
Jake & Sophia
In the second season of the show, Jake starts dating Sophia – but then he finds out that she is a defence attorney and things start getting a tad problematic.
FOX / Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Eva Longoria as Sophia Perez
Throughout the episode, defence attorneys referred to as ‘sub-human piece of human garbage’ and professions with no ‘moral compass’ – unlike police officers. They are consistently painted as the corrupt enemy that ‘high-fives criminals’ (because cops are always right), and not the very vital profession that is there to assure a fair trial.
Though the two tries to date, they do eventually break up as their jobs are just too incompatible. The attorneys’ point of view on the NYPD is also presented, but because Jake is the protagonist, the narrative is biased and we are lead to follow and agree with his point of view.
After rewatching the first couple of seasons, there are many small details and issues that I now pick up on as I have more information on the reality of police procedures. From how a murder victim who was obese was consistently made fun of for his weight in episode 4 of season 1, to the weird throw-away comments and insinuations in the first seasons that Rosa commits a fair amount of police brutality, to again how the squad is just always right.
I do want to preface, though, that the show has evolved a lot since the first two seasons, and has become significantly more critical and self-aware of the surroundings they represent. The episode ‘Moo Moo’ in particular comes to mind.
FOX / Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Terry Crews and Desmond Harrington
In ‘Moo Moo’, Terry Jeffords is walking outside in his neighbourhood in the evening, searching for his daughter’s lost toy. A white officer approaches him because he thinks Terry looks ‘suspicious’ and immediately gets very hostile and arrests him – this is, unfortunately, a daily reality for black people in America.
After being released – not because he didn’t do anything, but because he was able to prove that he was a cop – he struggles with the decision as to whether or not to report the fellow officer for racially profiling him.
At first, captain Holt doesn’t want to file the complaint. He knows how often it backfires when a cop blows the whistle on another cop, and instead advises him to rise through the ranks so he can eventually change the system.
But Terry approaches Holt about it again and he hits it right where it’s at:
“When I was stopped the other day, I wasn’t a cop. I wasn’t a guy who lived in a neighbourhood looking for his daughter’s toy. I was a black man, a dangerous black man. That’s all he could see: a threat.
And I couldn’t stop thinking about my daughters. And their future. And how years from now, they could be walking down the street, looking for their kid’s [toy], and get stopped by a bad cop.
And they probably won’t get to play the police card to get out of trouble. I don’t like that thought. So I’m gonna do something about it.”
On this episode, the writers worked with Terry Crews and based it off of his own experiences with law enforcement. Acknowledging the reality of racial profiling and prejudice in arrests was a big step for the show.
It put a lot of fans – myself included – at ease; they knew that the officers they put on screen were nowhere near the officers out on the real streets. Since then, they have also shifted the antagonists from perps to corrupt higher-ranking officers.
Police Brutality and ‘Good Cops’
So what is the problem? It’s a fictive comedy that is aware that what is presented is not the truth!
Well, it comes down to the fact that to a vast amount of people, interaction with law enforcement can be counted on one hand. Their impression and perception of the police are therefore heavily influenced by the way cops are portrayed on screen.
Here they are made out to be heroes; the ones that serve and protect us. Many choose to join police departments because of how idolized and badass they look on films and TV. Hell, even Jake became a cop because of John McClane from Die Hard!
And up until these past few weeks of events, I didn’t consider this show propaganda in the slightest. And I still don’t think that was ever the creators’ intentions either. I was able to separate it from reality.
But after everything that has happened, all the death, bloody baton beatings, rubber bullets making people blind, pushing elderly men and cracking their skulls open (then lying about it), teargassing to the point of killing a young girl, tasing pregnant women in the stomach, keeping detained people in inhuman conditions with restraints so tight their blood circulation cuts off… all on innocent and peaceful people exercising their constitutional rights to protest after a cop murdered a man by kneeling on his throat for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, it just does not feel right to watch happy and good-guy cops anymore.
Imagine if there was a fully unironic sitcom about a group of KKK members. If instead of showing lynchings, they just showed these down to earth guys sitting down with a beer after cross burning or board meeting. If they were portrayed as goofy guys you would want for a friend. That would be insane. And if you think that’s a bit of a stretched comparison, read the above paragraph on more time.
Something has to change. Not just for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but for all cops on screen.
FOX / Brooklyn Nine-Nine
When Terry Crews was on Late Night with Seth Meyer he said that him, the cast and writers, had already started having conversations about how to handle the situation and what the future might look like for the show. The cast and showrunner have also taken public responsibility for portraying cops and profiting from it, and released this statement on June 3rd:
“The cast and showrunner of Brooklyn Nine-Nine condemn the murder of George Floyd and support the many people who are protesting police brutality nationally. Together we have made a $100.000 donation to the National Bail Fund Network. We encourage you to look up your local bail fund: the National Bail Fund Network is an organization that can lead you to them. #blacklivesmatter”
Most notably, they have also announced that the writers have scrapped the original four episodes written for the upcoming season 8. Action, change, and accountability is happening, and the 99 is stepping up to do just that.
I love this show, I do. And I think I speak for many fans when say that it is not the police environment that makes the show, but the characters, their personalities, and relationships to each other. So however they choose to handle it in the next season, I have confidence that it will be done well.
While this (copaganda) is an important and impactful subject matter that we need to address, we also can’t let it distract us from the real change that needs to happen which is deep within police forces and the so-called justice system.