An Ode to Brooklyn Nine-Nine

L-R: Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta and Melissa Fumero as Amy Santiago.

Here’s my confession: For a long time, I didn’t really get Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I’d seen some of the beginning and been underwhelmed by it. Andy Samberg’s character, Detective Jake Peralta, seemed childish in a way that felt somewhere between dumb and upsetting. Stephanie Beatriz’s Rosa Diaz was gruff and felt one-dimensional. And the worst, to my unenlightened eye, was Melissa Fumero’s Amy Santiago, who came off as an un-fun, rule-oriented nag, primarily positioned to harsh Jake’s buzz and clean up his messes. I was not a fan.

I was so wrong. And now that Fox has cancelled Brooklyn Nine-Nine after its fifth season, I’m heartbroken the show won’t be around anymore (though there’s hope yet it could get picked up by another network). It’s not just that it’s developed tremendously from my initial, unimpressed glance — it’s that the show’s project for five years has been to subvert all of those troublesome character types. All the things I disliked from the beginning were also exactly the same things Nine-Nine worked so hard to dismantle.

There’s a fantastic Brooklyn Nine-Nine Twitter thread by David Schwartz going around about the growth of Jake Peralta and the way his character has become a thorough negation of the badass rule-breaker cop archetype. Peralta loves the idea of the bad-boy lone wolf, the masculine superhero who saves his friends by being his own man. He loves John McClane and the Rush Hour movies. He loves wearing leather jackets, and code names, and impressive cases, and he begins the series as a dude who would love nothing more than to prove his colleagues wrong while also saving the day. But as that thread by Schwartz argues, Jake Peralta’s entire arc of the series has been about learning how damaging that myth is, and figuring out how to turn off the voice in his head that prods him to put his own need for glory above the needs of his friends.

Jake Peralta’s role on the show has been to slowly orient himself inward, toward his friends, and to subvert the opening premise of his character. It’s true of nearly all the characters. Gruff Rosa Diaz is also dedicated and talented and wildly romantic, and the final (sob!) season of the show has included a beautiful story about Rosa coming out as bisexual. The strange squad admin, Gina, has gotten stranger and less manageable over time, gradually becoming something close to a Shakespearean fool. Hitchcock and Scully, the characters who you’d assume are actually the fools of the group, are more like endearing, obnoxious mascots. Boyle, Peralta’s ever-dedicated partner, could so easily have slid into pitiful hanger-on territory. Instead, there’s a weird, undeniable, and resilient dignity to his goofiness.

Terry Crews’s character Terry Jeffords came into the series as a punch line: a brawny, bald black man whose physicality on any other series would’ve seen him cast as a bruiser, is instead a yogurt-loving nerd and devoted family man. Jeffords has often stayed in that punch line territory — on a recent episode, a gag that involved him catching a bird saw him outfitted in full bomb-squad gear, noting, “Terry hates birds.” But Nine-Nine has pushed him elsewhere, too. He’s had to have serious, wrenching conversations with his boss about the reality of being a minority seeking higher rank in the police department, and how to combat racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies. And more importantly, the opening gag of him (the large black man who loves fantasy novels and Yoplait) has become less of a gag with time and familiarity. It’s just who he is: a walking, caring, delightful indictment of every racist assumption about the threat of black masculinity.

And then there’s Amy Santiago, who so offended me in the beginning. Brooklyn Nine-Nine fully accepts her difficult, rule-bounded overachiever impulses, and it does not let her off the hook for how obnoxious they can be to those around her. The course of Nine-Nine takes the completely predictable (and earned!) route of pairing Amy off with Jake, and much of her personality gets leavened through that relationship. But Amy’s recent ascension to sergeant also brought with it the opportunity for the show to give us the Amy Santiago thesis statement it’s been spinning for so long. Amy’s granted the opportunity to lead a squad, and she immediately realizes that one of them, named Gary, is “an Amy.” She cannot get anything done, and she worries that he undermines her authority. Holt, invariably, corrects her perspective. Being in charge of an “Amy” is a joy, he tells her. It’s a privilege. She should take all the feedback and all the help and all the intense desire for approval, and she should nurture it. Amy’s intensity is not softened or made palatable by her romantic arc with Jake; it’s sharped by her promotion and fostered by her mentor.

Which brings me finally, inevitably, to Raymond Holt. In a medium so littered with cops that you could trip over half-a-dozen and hardly even notice, Holt shines like a glorious beacon of originality and humor. Andre Braugher’s performance as the squad’s stern, finicky, perfectionist, detail-oriented, competitive, righteous, compassionate, paternal, black, gay, John Philip Sousa–loving captain is one of the all-time best depictions of a cop on TV. He towers — looms — over the squad room, and every single person in the Nine-Nine desperately want his approval. Holt grants it, time and again, but never when it’s not earned and never with more than a few careful words. He’s a man who greets his husband after a lengthy absence with, “Hello, it’s me, Raymond Holt.” He’s a man who signs his text messages, “Sincerely, Raymond Holt.” Every person he’s ever met must remember exactly who he is, because Braugher plays Raymond Holt like his face should be carved into Mount Rushmore, and yet Holt is also a man who spells out his own last name over the phone, when speaking to his husband. Because that’s the most sensible, careful thing to do. He is magnificent.

I live in hope that Brooklyn Nine-Nine will be rescued by some other outlet. But I know that the ratings of the show got to this point at least in part because its best qualities were never flashy or buzzy. It was never telegraphing its politics or drawing controversial attention to itself. A show about a bunch of goofs who love each other and are kind to each other (and who occasionally make suspects perform Backstreet Boys songs) does not get the same hand-wringing attention as a character with a MAGA hat. The outpouring of grief at its cancellation has been evidence there is an intense need for shows like this anyhow, shows that celebrate humanity and goodness and silliness, and weave those things together with diverse faces and a real insight into the world. If this is all the Brooklyn Nine-Nine we’ll get, I am so thankful for what it’s given us. I feel so silly for all the time I lost.

An Ode to Brooklyn Nine-Nine