In Its Final Season, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” Attempts to Correct All the “Copaganda” Criticisms

The show threw out all its season 8 scripts in the wake of the George Floyd murder. Here's what it came up with instead.

August 12, 2021 7:59 am
Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Terry Crews as Terry Jeffords and Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta in "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"

This post contains mild spoilers for Season 8 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Even before the nationwide protests and calls for police reform last year sparked by the horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other unarmed Black people who were killed by cops, Brooklyn Nine-Nine had to toe an awkward line as a sitcom set in an NYPD station. Making a workplace comedy about a group of people whose line of work happens to be rooted in decidedly unfunny circumstances like violent crime (and yes, the systemic racism and sexism in our criminal justice system that runs rampant to this day) is a tough needle to thread. But by the summer of 2020, the appeal of a show that paints the police as goofy, well-intentioned heroes who play harmless pranks on each other, worship Die Hard and sing Backstreet Boys songs during murder investigations had waned completely, and the show was called out by many for being “copaganda.”

Fortunately, rather than simply ignoring the elephant in the room and going on as planned, the creative forces behind the show decided to address the issue head-on in its eighth and final season, which premieres on NBC tonight at 8 p.m. As actor Terry Crews, who plays Lieutenant Terry Jeffords on the show, revealed last year, that meant scrapping everything they had planned and going back to the drawing board.

“They had four episodes all ready to go and they just threw them in the trash,” he said. “We have to start over. Right now we don’t know which direction it’s going to go in. We’ve had a lot of somber talks about it and deep conversations and we hope through this we’re going to make something that will be truly groundbreaking this year. We have an opportunity and we plan to use it in the best way possible.”

The show’s cast also collectively donated $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network last summer to express their solidarity with those protesting police brutality, and Stephanie Beatriz, who plays Detective Rosa Diaz, called on other actors who have portrayed law enforcement officers to follow her lead and donate as “reparations” for playing a cop.

To its credit, the show has attempted to address a lot of the systemic failings of the criminal justice system in the past. It’s got a diverse cast (of the six main characters, two are Black, two are Latina, one is gay and one is bisexual), and that has provided opportunities to highlight the extra adversity anyone who’s not a straight white man often has to face. A 2019 episode about a sexual assault investigation led to the revelation that Rosa had herself been the victim of such an assault at one point, and a 2017 episode focused on Terry being racially profiled and arrested in his own neighborhood by a white police officer. Previous seasons have been centered around Captain Holt’s losing battle to become Commissioner, pointing out the ways he hopes to change the system from within as a Black, gay man and the way he keeps getting shut down by less-qualified white officers who don’t want to hear it.

But even if its heart is in the right place, its very nature remains problematic. As Off Colour’s Iman Saleem writes, “The real problem with Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that it’s palatable. The same person who feels angry and heartbroken watching a video of yet another Black person being brutalized or murdered by police could, perhaps not even an hour later, enjoy an episode of B99 without making a single connection between the goofy, lovable cops on their screens and the overly weaponized, aggressively racist ones on their streets.”

There’s no way Brooklyn Nine-Nine could possibly fully rectify that in its last season (which is only 10 episodes long) without completely reinventing itself as a gritty drama. But in its season 8 premiere, it does its best to try anyway, revealing in its opening moments that Rosa quit the force after the George Floyd murder because she could no longer in good conscience remain a police officer. Instead, she’s a private investigator now who focuses on helping people of color who have been victims of police brutality or wrongfully arrested collect enough evidence to prove their cases. Captain Holt has separated from his husband Kevin as a result of the stress of 2020. “It’s been a tough year to be a Black man,” he tearfully explains. “And a police captain. And a human. I’ve been pushed to the brink emotionally and physically. I went into survival mode, and it seems I have neglected my personal life.” (Of course, this being a sitcom, zany hijinks ensue later in an attempt to get him and Kevin back together.)

There’s a new villain this season — Frank O’Sullivan, head of the patrolman’s union (played by John C. McGinley) — who does everything he can to obstruct any attempts at reform while making all sorts of ridiculous arguments about “reverse racism.” One episode sees the station dealing with a “blue flu” after uniformed officers who aren’t allowed to strike all simultaneously call in sick to protest “anti-cop hate” after an officer finds a mouse in his burrito. (Naturally, it’s later revealed that he bought the mouse at a pet shop and planted it himself.) Another episode sees Amy Santiago pitching a pilot program to reimagine how uniformed officers are deployed in the community in an attempt to cut down on bad arrests and brutality.

The show also goes out of its way to poke fun at performative allyship, with Charles walking around in dashikis and Venmoing reparations to Terry. Jake (played by Andy Samberg) also awkwardly tries to distance himself from any “bad apples” while helping Rosa investigate a case in which a Black woman was thrown to the ground and arrested for refusing to allow cops to search her bag without a warrant. “I know you’re nervous about talking to a cop, which I totally get, but rest assured, I’m one of the good ones,” he tells the woman. “And I know how that sounds. But I’m not one of the bad ones who says they’re one of the good ones, I’m actually one of the good ones who says they’re one of the good ones. And I know how that sounds…”

And ultimately, that’s where this all gets tricky. As far as cop shows go, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of the good ones. But in times like these, that’s not enough, and focusing on the good cops when there are so many bad ones who continue to face little to no consequences is irresponsible. In its final season, it does its best to course-correct, but there’s nothing funny about the issues it attempts to tackle. It was a risky move, and an important one. But when it’s all said and done, is it too little, too late?

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.