Can Brooklyn Nine-Nine Ever Accurately Portray the NYPD?

Photo: NBC

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a fun, wacky, well-cast sitcom set in a Brooklyn police precinct. Since 2004, approximately seven unarmed people of color have been killed by real cops in real Brooklyn. It stands to reason that a network sitcom would be uncomfortable addressing something so horrifying. What, then, should a sitcom about police officers in New York City be, when the world outside of that sitcom is one of fear and violence?

Not all sitcoms will address their contemporary world; arguably, that’s nowhere close to the point of sitcoms. For every show like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which includes a few contemporary stories every season, there’s a dozen like The Dick Van Dyke Show, where fads were ignored to keep the show from feeling immediately stale (definitely a problem faced by shows like Murphy Brown, whose jokes may not make sense to modern audiences). Brooklyn Nine-Nine, recently renewed for a third season on Fox, somewhat walks that line between timely and out-of-time, and in doing so does a disservice to its audience’s understanding of world events.

The news can create challenges for sitcoms. After years of portraying New York City without poverty or people of color, it was no surprise that Friends didn’t address 9/11, but it did further distance the world of the show from the actual, lived experience of New York residents. It may be worth asking, though, what the point of a sitcom’s setting is if the show refuses to grapple with the specific issues and stories that come with that setting?

It’s not entirely accurate to suggest that Brooklyn Nine-Nine completely ignores the messy, upsetting history of NYPD’s bigotry. But the ways it addresses them only serve to highlight how strange it is to portray modern NYPD as friendly, cuddly, and color-blind. The Nine-Nine’s chief, Ray Holt (played by Andre Braugher), came up in the NYPD as a black gay man in the 1970s; flashbacks to his earlier days with NYPD show him struggling to be taken seriously by the overwhelmingly white and homophobic force. He describes his partner at the time as “a great partner: smart, loyal, homophobic but not racist — in those days, that was pretty good.” On an episode where the series lead, Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), meets his hero, a 1970s crime journalist (Stacy Keach), he learns the hard way that the NYPD he’s been romanticizing was violent, thoughtless, and sloppy. The NYPD has changed dramatically since the 1970s, Brooklyn Nine-Nine keeps insisting (though Frank Serpico disagrees). But once you address police bigotry and violence from the 1970s, you have opened the door to a politicized world; you cannot call the past bad without making an argument about how it’s changed. It’s not reasonable to ask viewers to suspend what they know about NYPD in 2015 while reinforcing what they think about the NYPD forty years earlier — to do so is to make an actual argument: progress.

Ironically, in those bad old days of the 1970s, a network sitcom set in an NYPD precinct directly addressed its contemporary failings. While The Barney Miller Show is far from perfect (its theme song, on the other hand…), it did genuinely appear to grapple with the issues facing police officers at that time: The title character, Barney Miller, was a police chief determined to bring civility and kindness to the job. His cops would focus on rehabilitation, not punishment, and the precinct saw a revolving door of gay men and prostitutes busted for vice offenses — the petty, hurtful arrests that were NYPD’s bread and butter at the time.

To find a cop sitcom whose “progressive” politics more closely parallel those of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it may be instructive to look to the 1960s and The Andy Griffith Show. Like Barney Miller, Sheriff Andy Taylor was determined to treat those in his care with kindness and respect, and many episodes of the show revolve around his reluctance to enact harmful laws; there are many episodes where he finds ways to avoid evicting someone. This, in itself, is a political issue the show was addressing: It is not moral to evict a person from their home. The issue wasn’t new then, and it’s not old now.

But of course, the show missed something huge. For a show taking place in North Carolina in the 1960s, The Andy Griffith Show completely ignored the Civil Rights movement. Later in his life, Griffith expressed regret for this, explaining: “At that time black people didn’t want to play subservient roles, to do maids and butlers and all that, and we were unable to make it so people would rush into a black doctor’s office. And I’m sorry about it, too.” To put it another way, it would have been unrealistic to show black characters integrated into the higher levels of North Carolina society, and black actors wouldn’t want to play the types of jobs black people could get in that time and place. Instead, there was one black character, on one episode, in the series’ entire run (a professional athlete). To watch The Andy Griffith Show was to visit a fantasy of an all-white South, presided over by a kind and friendly avuncular sheriff, so unlike the Southern sheriffs one saw on the TV news. In Griffith’s obituary, LA Times called Sheriff Taylor “the last of a breed: a white Southern authority figure as good guy.”

Andy Griffith himself was a noted progressive and campaigned for Democrats his whole adult life. Like Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s apolitical-politicism, it would not be correct to suggest that by omitting black characters The Andy Griffith Show avoided political issues altogether. At The AV Club, Noel Murray wrote, “Because the show was so apolitical, it could’ve made a strong statement, just by including African-Americans as a vital part of Mayberry life.” The omission itself is a political stand, of course, but it wasn’t the only one the show took.

The Andy Griffith Show did regularly deal with political issues of the day — an episode is devoted to the turmoil that comes from a woman (Andy’s girlfriend Ellie) running (for the first time in Mayberry’s history) for city council. At the end of the episode, Mayberry’s men, including and especially Andy, have learned a valuable lesson about chauvinism, as have we in the audience. A special point is made to indicate that children learn from the behavior of adults; soon Opie is mimicking Andy’s sexist rhetoric, bringing Andy around. To quote Richard Kelly’s book, The Andy Griffith Show, “It may have required Andy’s intercession, but the fact remains that Ellie wins the election and the women triumph in the end. The feminist theme is raised a few more times in subsequent episodes, but after the character of Ellie disappears from the show, so does the theme.” To wit: The show allowed issue-specific episodes to come out of character. The show’s whiteness and its head-in-the-sand approach to Civil Rights fed into one another. Black characters certainly would have helped with cringe-worthy scenes like this:

Andy frequently found himself making arrests for bootlegging or public drunkenness. He generally let Otis, the town drunk, sleep one off in a cell, and Andy would confiscate bootlegging materials without prosecution whenever possible. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, similarly, spends a lot of its time on the kind of crime that’s less upsetting for sitcom viewers: drug dealing. Like in the Jump Street film series, the belief is that to keep things light, police comedies should focus on nonviolent drug offenses.

This past season, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s second, has had one major thread of continuity: a task force devoted to taking a new designer drug, Giggle Pig, off the streets. Giggle Pig is a cute name for cops to say, and it does keep the cast from spending much time around corpses. In real life, of course, police making nonviolent drug arrests has led to the systematic and genocidal destruction of communities of color. On the show, drug dealers arrested are often white — like on Law & Order, this serves to disseminate the harmful idea that the justice system is truly color-blind.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine does occasionally feature black criminals, notably the recurring Craig Robinson as Doug Judy, the Pontiac Bandit — someone who gleefully messes with cops without any fear of violent reprisal. Kid Cudi also makes an appearance in a first season episode, in which Peralta arrests him without any evidence, and his fellow officers agree to hold the suspect for the maximum time they legally can — forty-eight hours — while Peralta searches for evidence to make the arrest (he finds it at the last minute!). In real-life Brooklyn, black men are regularly dragged off the street by cops. In the world of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, they’re guilty. In The New Republic, David Grossman wrote, “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.” (Full disclosure: Grossman and I are friends, and he’s sent me dick pics.)

When black NYPD officers are out of uniform, they experience the same kind of profiling black people who aren’t cops do. Holt, in 2015, experiences no discrimination at all — the modern-day NYPD is friendly and beloved. As Will Leitch noted in Bloomberg, “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.” That isn’t quite true. There’s another character who hates cops: Holt’s husband, Kevin, who had to watch Holt fight against racism and homophobia to rise through the ranks of the NYPD. Here we see a (white, gay) man reacting to NYPD’s ancient bigotry; there is no one to react to its present-day bigotry.

It would be beyond the scope of this essay to suggest that this disconnect between real and fictional NYPD is truly harmful to viewers — plenty of progressives, including the many working on the show, love it. The obvious danger is hindsight. When we look back at The Andy Griffith Show, especially in the wake of breathtaking historical storytelling like Selma, we can only be embarrassed by the show and its dogged refusal to actually address its setting. Look how stupid White Guys Of The Internet look when they try to defend these omissions.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is written and filmed in Los Angeles (like The Andy Griffith Show was); L.A.’s police force of course has its own problems. But Brooklyn is not Pawnee (though we celebrate that show’s progressivism). Brooklyn is a real place, where residents — primarily black, brown, queer, trans, and low-income ones — live in fear of violent reprisal from the police. Again, Leitch wrote, “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.”

One can only hope that these difficult, painful times are the mark of great change — that we are doing the work today to push against the out-of-control racist violence that marks modern policing. We can envision a day where streets are no longer patrolled by uniformed racists looking for petty offenders to strangle to death. And years from now, future generations will look back at Brooklyn Nine-Nine and ask, “Did they even know what was going on?”

Can Brooklyn Nine-Nine Ever Accurately Portray the NYPD?