Writing in The New Republic, David Grossman recently argued that Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, under its smiley exterior, is a conservative sitcom with the agenda of glossing over police brutality in New York City. It’s not, but let’s hear him out:
It’s easy to miss a sitcom’s conservatism when the jokes are good, but “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is dead-set on maintaining the shiny-on-the-surface, gross-on-the-inside legacy of the Bloomberg/Ray Kelly era.
[T]he ultra-conservative NYPD is an odd setting for a sitcom about scrappy underdogs. The NYPD is a small army, complete with international spies and air-to-air capabilities. While in custody several months ago, Kyam Livingston was refused medical attention due to being an alcoholic—and died, her family says, as a direct result. When 16-year old Brooklyner Kimani Gray was killed by plainclothes policemen earlier this year, an intended vigil for him became a protest during which the crowd turned on the police, rioting and throwing bricks at cop cars. … The decision to make the police department one big family surely has its roots in [co-creator Mike] Schur’s time as a writer on “The Office.” But Schur and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” take the strange position that we should view the NYPD like Dunder Mifflin, full of loveable kinda-losers who are just trying to get by. It’s fine for a fantasy land, but Brooklyn’s law enforcement system is a real, deeply problematic place.
It’s tempting to just say, “Jeez Louise, it’s a sitcom!” and leave it at that. But the wackiest sitcoms can express serious ideas about the world. Grossman’s scrutiny of this one just doesn’t hold up.
The biggest problem with it is that it mistakes “does not advance a liberal critique of the NYPD” with “is conservative.” It’s the most tendentious kind of political arts criticism, or political writing generally: there is no neutral ground, nothing is apolitical, if you’re not taking my side you’re taking the other side, if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem. And it combines that with a fallacy that critics are often guilty of: attacking a show for not trying to do what you want it to do, rather than critiquing how it does what it actually does want to do.
There have been brutal dissections of policing on TV, like The Wire, and gritty-comedy pictures of flawed cops, like Denis Leary’s The Job. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not that. It’s a workplace comedy that happens to be set in a precinct, and–not unlike the fantasy NYC real estate on Friends–one that people are not likely to mistake for real-life Brooklyn. (Nor even for familiar movie Brooklyn; that last night’s episode featured a “Sal’s Pizza” only underscored the difference between this show and Do the Right Thing.) It’s a show whose premise accepts that we essentially like its characters, which means none of them is going to be Vic Mackey. You could argue that the only honest cop sitcom would be a searing, DeBlasionic critique of the stop-and-frisk policy, but that would be an awfully narrow-minded view of story and its audience.
Within its frame of pie contests and Jim Halpertian pranks, though, Brooklyn Nine-Nine does have a sense of good policing and bad policing. One recent storyline was built on the consequences of Jake Peralta’s impulsively arresting a suspect without enough evidence. And an episode guest-starring Stacy Keach as a hardboiled journalist who write a book celebrating ’70s cops recalls the NYPD’s spotty history on diversity. (In a flashback, Ray Holt walks in for his first day at his precinct, and one of the room full of white cops asks if he’s there to turn himself in.)
Grossman is right, though, that Brooklyn Nine-Nine depicts a fairly sunny, quirky view of the streets in 2013–much as Barney Miller did in a much rougher era. In this case, though, it feels not just like a decision to keep things light, but a way of rethinking the NYPD sitcom for an era of less-mean streets.
The 99th is fictional, but some location shots, street references,* and maps used in the show suggest it’s roughly modeled on the 78th precinct, where I happen to live–gentrified Park Slope, Prospect Heights and environs, where the sidewalks are clogged with baby strollers and the gutters run with pour-over coffee. What’s jumped out to me so far if anything is not the niceness of the show, but, conversely, the fact that they’ve already referenced a couple of murders–while the actual 78th has had a total of one murder each this year and last.
*(Also, there’s the occasional reminder that the show is being made by people in Los Angeles. DeKalb is an Avenue, not a “Street”! But again, I do not watch this sitcom for gritty realism.)
It would be interesting to see how Brooklyn Nine-Nine would look if, God forbid, there were suddenly a 1980s-style crime wave. As it is, New York City is currently on track to have another in a string of record-low murder years. (While, by the way, the percentage of stop-and-frisks has already plummeted.) Maybe another, more satirical sitcom might look harder at the policing context for those stats, but the fact that Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t does not make it a conservative whitewash. It just means there are eight million cop stories you can tell in the naked city–and it’s decided to tell one with Andy Samberg making robot noises.