Back in 2013, which feels both recent and long ago, the network sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine premiered on Fox. Created by Dan Goor and Michael Schur, the series garnered a fair amount of popularity, even snagging the 2014 Golden Globe awards for Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy and Best Actor - Musical or Comedy TV Series (Andy Samberg). To the surprise of many, Fox later cancelled the series in its fifth season in 2018, citing low ratings. NBC quickly stepped in to add it to its own roster, airing the sixth and seventh seasons, announcing an eighth season renewal in fall of 2019. Then George Floyd was murdered in May 2020 which, according to long-time cast member Terry Crews, prompted the showrunners to scrap four episodes. If accurate, that means that nearly half of the ten episode season was tossed out and completely reworked. Now that I’ve seen the season premiere, I can say this much: you can tell.
There are, of course, perfectly legitimate reasons to rework a season. In the wake of the massive 2020 protests against police brutality, Dan Goor and company were in a delicate position of having to decide whether or not this typically fluffy cop series would address these real-life issues. Glossing over or ignoring them was an option (one I’m sure was brought up at least once or twice), but with Goor and Schur insisting that Brooklyn Nine-Nine was intended to be grounded in real life from its inception, to do so would have given the impression they were being, at best, neglectful. On one hand, I acknowledge the effort it must have taken to throw away, edit, and reform your creative work in order to maintain a sense of reality. On the other hand, I wish like hell it was done better.
The season premiere cold open makes it obvious that COVID-19 exists in Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Officers Jake Peralta (Samberg), Charles Boyd (Joe Lo Truglio), and Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) make their eighth season debuts with masks on. With the reported inclusion of police brutality as a larger theme in the season, it’s understandable that they also wouldn’t gloss over the pandemic. However, it doesn’t change the fact that watching actors perform with their faces covered is a bit of a killjoy—this does not apply to you regular folks; wear a damn mask—as well as diminishing any escapism for those who seek it out. What’s odd is that aside from the cold open, the subject of COVID-19 is dropped entirely for the rest of the episode, which renders their acknowledgment of the pandemic moot (nor in the second episode, though one can assume this episode was in the season that was originally planned).
The subject of police brutality, however, is prominent throughout the episode, with Rosa and Jake investigating an attack on a Black woman by patrol officers. Meanwhile, Charles is going through a white guilt spiral, and his tendency to overdo everything manifests as constant overtures of shallow allyship towards Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews). The problem is that it’s tremendously difficult to incorporate these topics in a way that can lend themselves to jokes, which is an issue for a network comedy. So now the series finds itself in a bind of not only being incapable of creating worthwhile jokes, it’s also not sophisticated enough to go into the topic with any real depth. When it tries to do so, it shrugs it off rather than take the risk of simply letting the moment be in earnest. When Terry does the hard task of telling his white friend and co-worker that his methods of displaying allyship is wrong, this was a great chance to illustrate something that happens often with performative white liberals. But the moment the lesson lands, Boyd proceeds to do it again, which isn’t funny as much as it’s achingly frustrating. Jake and Rosa’s storyline feels less like it’s tripping over its own feet, though the futility of their mission, combined with Jake’s continuing belief that he can enact change in a system perfectly designed to ensure that never happens, is a level of sadness the show isn’t equipped to handle.
Although this may seem like a lengthy parting shot at a once-beloved show, the hard truth is that praise for Brooklyn Nine-Nine and its progressiveness was always overblown. Much of this was likely because at the time of its premiere, we were clamoring for feel-good representation (little has changed). But for all of the talk about diversity, the series possesses little, with their main roster featuring two Black men and two white Latinas. It’s not nothing, but it’s not a beacon of inclusiveness either. The series is still predominantly white, and out of its countless number of guest stars, there have only been a handful of Black women with substantial speaking roles. That’s … not great. Admittedly, the show has addressed LGBT issues on numerous occasions, specifically with Captain Raymond Holt’s (Andre Braugher) struggle with not only being a Black man trying to move upwards in a largely racist workforce, but doing so while being gay as well. There was also a notable arc in which Rosa contends first with coming out as bisexual to her friends and colleagues and then to her family. These stories absolutely matter and work in the show’s favor. I don’t bring up those aforementioned critiques because I think the show was a failure; I bring them up because of the multiple ways the show was a success. It mattered watching Jake Peralta, the stereotypically cocky white male lead, evolve over the course of multiple seasons, developing a better sense of self-awareness and deep respect for his colleagues while still maintaining his trademark sense of humor. It mattered watching a gay man not only be in a healthy, loving relationship, but one that was free of tragedy. Though the series was never perfect, its success was fairly earned.
“You know, the system can still work sometimes,” Jake insists, yet the series begins with one of the Nine-Nine quitting the force because they know otherwise. This same wishy-washy sentiment permeates the beginning of the season. There will surely be some watchable gags that will occur in the upcoming final episodes, but between the consistently uncertain run and a world that has seen such a substantial shift in mindset, it’s safe to say that viewers are more than ready to say goodbye.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs Thursdays on NBC, available to stream on Hulu the next day.
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t researching what products hair and makeup use on Stephanie Beatriz, she can be found on Twitter here.
Header Image Source: NBC