Openly conservatives comedies are rare on TV, but those that do lean right tend not to pull any punches. Take Tim Allen’s horrible "Last Man Standing," which is full of Obama-from-Kenya jokes. Or Greg Gutfeld's late night show on FOX News, "Red Eye", a bizarro libertarian funhouse where Dennis Prager is treated like a rock god. These shows have a new companion in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a sitcom from Dan Goor and Michael Schur, co-creator of the American “Office,” starring Andy Samberg as the best detective in Brooklyn. “Nine-Nine” is one of this TV season’s top new shows, garnering critical raves and strong enough support from its network, Fox, that it’s going to follow the Super Bowl this year. Samberg plays Jake Peralta, a detective who can figure out anything except “how to grow up.” 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.
But the 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.
It’s hard to imagine anyone greenlighting a sitcom about the NSA right now, trying to figure out the best way to detect email keystrokes and maybe get lucky in love. Or maybe it would be possible if the show was winkingly aware that its characters were violating civil liberties, and thus in on the joke. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" isn't, and the NYPD has credibility issues perhaps even deeper than the NSA's. Earlier this year, the Vera Institute of Justice polled young people in high-crime areas of New York, and found that only four in ten respondents would feel comfortable seeking help from the police if they were in trouble, and eighty-eight percent of young people surveyed didn’t believe that their neighborhoods trusted the police. Forty-six percent of young people said they had experienced physical force beyond being frisked by a police officer.
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” tries to get around this problem by pretending the actual Brooklyn doesn’t exist. Sure, there’s a mention of Boerum Hill here and DeKalb Ave. there, but none of these are real places in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and that’s not just because the show is filmed in Los Angeles. In her initial review of the show, Slate’s Willa Paskin wrote that “[t]he first episode pivots around a stolen Iberico ham worth $6,000, suggesting the writers are well aware Brooklyn is currently well-stocked with punch lines.” This fictional Brooklyn is all quirky charm and high-end charcuterie.
This is not the first cop show to make a joke of law enforcement. Much as superhero comics went a through cultural re-evaluation in 1986, when Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Rises and Alan Moore’s Watchmen series were released, television cops changed dramatically in 2002, when both “The Wire” and “The Shield” debuted. There had been morally questionable cops on TV before, but nothing like “The Shield”’s Vic Mackey, who murders a fellow officer in the first episode.
But then came the one of the greatest cop shows ever made, and it was a comedy: “Reno 911!" a pitch-perfect parody of “Cops” that quickly decided to make its police terrifyingly horrible law-enforcement agents. In the first two episodes, the members of the Reno Sheriff’s department get drunk on the job, steal illegal fireworks for their own use, get maced with their own canisters, and have a campfire using confiscated marijuana. They are often befuddled by how to act around people and turn to unnecessary violence as a first resort. Who cares? They’re cops! "Force doesn’t kill people, people do,” one deputy says. These are giant, psychopathic, cartoonish children with police badges who give worse than they get. And the setting of Reno gives the show a certain larger-than-life outrageousness.
But “Brooklyn” bounces between goofy surrealism and uncomfortable reality. This police department takes pains to paint itself as progressive, given the NYPD’s history; for example, one character has had his career held back because he is gay. Yet the show easily jumps from there to tone-deaf jokes conflating sexual harassment with stop-and-frisk—one cop defends touching an older woman with the groan-worthy “I frisked her butt!” Sure, the show has some redeeming qualities. Terry Crews stands out as the boss who’s lost his edge since the birth of his two daughters. The most imposing cop this side of Idris Elba’s "Luther," watching him struggle while attempting to build a dollhouse for one of his girls is a delight. But it's notable that these small scenes, as opposed to actual crimes, are the best parts of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which is much more workplace comedy than crimefighting comedy.
The decision to make the police department one big family surely has its roots in 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. So a show in which we’re supposed to laugh at the NYPD in the age of Kimani Gray is going to take a lot more than Andy Samberg.
David Grossman is a freelancer writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him @davidgross_man.