The daring idea of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” has always been to merge a sitcom with a classic ‘70s/‘80s-style cop show like “Hill Street Blues.” (“Barney Miller” is the clear progenitor.) On one level, it has worked terrifically so far, with a well-balanced cast and two enormously appealing leads in Andy Samberg and, especially, Andre Braugher, who’s taking a rare opportunity to use his deadpan gravity to comedic effect. But as the weeks of the show roll along, I find myself wondering: Hey, why does everybody in the New York City of this show love cops so much?
As funny as the show is, there’s a deep cognitive dissonance embedded in it, because, arguably, the NYPD is as unpopular as it has ever been. (Which itself holds some cognitive dissonance, considering past scandals like the shooting of Amadou Diallo, and the fact that crime in NYC is at historically low levels.) Even with stop-and-frisk supposedly in the past, the department has endured a series of scandals in recent months, most glaringly, the tragic death of Eric Garner, the loose-cigarette vendor fatally strangled by an NYPD cop. When the NYPD, in one of those “playful” social media games “brands” are always coming up with to promote themselves, suggested on Twitter “Do you have a photo w/ a member of the NYPD? Tweet us & tag it #myNYPD,” it was bombarded with responses of people accusing them of excessive force, with photos to boot. The NYPD currently has its lowest public opinion ratings in more than 14 years.
This hasn’t reached the world of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” The only people who hate cops on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” are the wretched perps our heroes keep hauling in. The sitcom is standard cop-show fare in that regard, except more so; while a drama can allow our cop heroes the shading to become anti-heroes (“The Shield” and “The Wire” were particularly brilliant at this), the sitcom can’t really go that dark. Thus, the cops of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” are upstanding, untroubled public servants simply trying to follow the letter of the law, leading to the odd specter of Samberg—a man who once asked Mark Zuckerberg for “weed money”—arresting teenage kids for smoking pot with a total absence of irony. Comedy is chaotic and anarchic, but on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the law’s the law.
The appeal of any great sitcom is that it takes the doldrums of real life and makes magic from it. Everyone on the best sitcoms is smarter, funnier, and better-looking than everyone in my real life, but they still feel like they could be a part of the actual physical world. Sitcoms don’t reflect the world as it is, but the way we wish it would be, if we all just had a team of writers at our disposal. Thus, everyone on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” is sharp and hip and funny and has a tendency to talk like a well-honed comedy writer, constantly spouting pop-cultural references. Which is to say: They’re all cool, even when they’re playing dorks, like Joe Lo Truglio’s hilarious Detective Boyle. They’re all worldly people with rich inner lives. They’re not, say, the sort of people who would bust into a comedy show to arrest a suspect in the crowd and seem completely taken aback and angered that there’s someone on stage talking into a microphone.
Also, another thing the cops of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” are that the actual NYPD is not? Diverse. Of the seven main characters on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” three are women, two are Latino, and two are black. The actual NYPD? Not so much. In the age of Ferguson, a time when 96 percent of NYPD shootings are of blacks or Latinos, the world of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” looks less like a bunch of police officers and more like a bunch of actors hanging out on a stage, pretending to be cops.
This could maybe work in the “Barney Miller” age, when no one really expected much verisimilitude from their sitcoms, but today, thanks in large part to “The Office” (which was co-created by “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” co-creator Michael Schur), we need that connection to the real world. The greatness of “The Office” is that it found so much humor, and even hope, in the depression and bleakness of workaday life. But if you’re going to make a comedy cop show, you eventually need to make them recognizable cops, with their struggles, their conflicts, the understanding that the “law” is a tricky beast and that cop culture as a whole isn’t all fun office games and wacky quips in between harmless fake fistfights. And a lot comes with that, not all of it—or much of it—funny.
The show is getting steady ratings and is becoming a staple of Fox’s Sunday night lineup, which means it’s likely going to be around for a while. So you wonder how long it’ll be able to stave off the ugliness of actual police work and of the culture it reflects. Do we have a stomach for a sitcom with a season-long arc about accidental deadly force? Or chasing down a serial killer? Or hosing down protestors? "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is an extremely funny show. But it's not about cops. Not yet.