After the death of George Floyd and the protests that arose across the nation last summer, the team behind Brooklyn Nine-Nine had to take a look at its role in what has been coined “Copaganda.” With a bright light finally cast on the brutality that police officers too often inflict on non-white communities, how could the lovable goofballs of the 99 just go on with business as usual? They dismantled the in-production eighth season, and star Andy Samberg said they were “rethinking how we’re going to move forward” and “taking a step back.” So where did taking a step back take them?
It’s been over a year, and the officers of the 99th Precinct are finally back on the job in the final season premiere, “The Good Ones,” an episode that cleverly calls attention to the criticism that goes with performative TV episodes like this. At the same time, it smartly weaves issues of changing dynamics into three separate plotlines, landing its most emotional blow in a beautifully acted moment from Andre Braugher (and a few passionate ones from Stephanie Beatriz). Some of the social commentary feels a little thin at times, but this is an episode with a high degree of difficulty in terms of tone management, and this underrated writers’ room gets it mostly right.
Of course, the episode’s title refers to the commonly held belief, especially in police stations, that problems with race relations and officers come down to a few bad apples. Everyone who knows a cop will tell you they’re one of the good ones. And everyone knows that Jake Peralta (Samberg) and his squad mates are “The Good Ones,” right? He sure thinks so, and that’s why he’s so hurt when Rosa (Beatriz) quits the force in the pandemic-masked prologue to become a private investigator, deciding she can do more good outside the system than within it. Months later, after becoming estranged from the 99, which hurts Jake, she’s working a case of racial profiling and abusive behavior from a district in which Jake knows the captain. He offers to help, thinking justice will be served in a way that reinforces his belief that there are still some “good ones” in the police force while he’s fixing his broken friendship with his longtime ally.
Meanwhile, Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) has listened to a few too many podcasts about race relations (like “Two Wrongs Make a White”) and has become obsessed with culturally relating to Terry (Terry Crews). While this plotline is clearly designed as straight comic relief in what’s overall a pretty serious episode, it’s still smartly imbued with the idea that allyship isn’t just about fashion choices, hanging out at a barbershop, and paying reparations over Venmo to a non-white colleague. Like the producers of the show, Boyle knows things can’t just be business as usual after a year and a half of social unrest in response to police violence, but like so many people, Jake included, he’s stumbling through how to address it. The best line in this arc is Terry’s after he tires of the “listening noises” Boyle makes during their conversation and yells, “Listening doesn’t require noise!” More people should remember that, especially on social media.
Finally, another changing dynamic at the station is threatening to break up “Raymy.” When Santiago (Melissa Fumero) returns from her maternity leave, she’s startled to hear Holt (Braugher) making small talk with her in the break room. Something must be wrong. The scenes in which they work their way through a self-help relationship book lent to them by Terry (via Scully, of course) are the weakest of the episode, but then the entire subplot lands in a revelation that Raymond and Kevin have separated. As if that’s not heartbreaking enough, Raymond gets one of his best dramatic moments in years, telling Amy, “It’s been a tough year to be a Black man. And a police captain. And a human.” It’s one of his strongest moments in the entire series, and the emotion in Braugher’s eyes and the quiver in his voice feel true.
As Boyle is making mistakes trying to impress Terry and Amy is learning the truth about Raymond, the main plot between Rosa and Jake plays out. The great John C. McGinley pops up as the head of the patrolmen’s union defending the officers Rosa and Jake are trying to investigate. He’s a bit of a caricature (complete with an undying love for his ma, the NYPD, and Billy Joel), even if he nails some of the bluster and bluff of people who have a defense ready for how reverse racism is worse than “classic racism.” The push and pull of the Jake-Rosa arc is easily the hardest for the writers this week, and it’s nice that they don’t wrap things up in a tidy bow. It would have been disastrous to watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine “solve” race relations in the NYPD in one episode, and the show has always been smarter than that. It sometimes feels here like a punch or two were pulled, but the show is definitely taking more swings than any other cop program on the air right now.
One of the smartest elements of the season premiere is how much it feels willing to look in the mirror. When Jake stutters through overheated sound bites, Rosa is there to stare daggers at him. Working a performative angle into the writing of the episode sometimes tempers its commentary, but it doesn’t let the show off the hook. Jake may bumble his way into saving Rosa when she’s breaking and entering, but he doesn’t help her get the justice her client deserves. And the scene in which the captain of the “bad ones” breaks down how difficult it is to actually bring cops to justice illustrates the systemic problems at hand without sounding preachy.
The season premiere of Brooklyn Nine-Nine needed to feel familiar to fans of the show while recognizing how the world has changed since it debuted nearly a decade ago. The writers pulled off that tricky dynamic; now let’s see if they can maintain the balancing act for the entire final stretch or if this season will be one of the bad ones.
• Would anyone else watch a spin-off starring Beatriz as a tough-talking P.I. who uses her experience to take down corrupt cops? Make it an hour long and shift the tone from comedy to drama (but allow for an occasional cameo from the 99 regulars). Where do I contribute to this Kickstarter?
• What do we expect in terms of the staple over the final season? The Pontiac Bandit (Craig Robinson) will return. Will we get a final heist? What about other recurring guest stars? Vulture? Wuntch? Could we see Gina again?!?! Please?!?!
• The last beat is fantastic. As Jake says he’ll work on walking that fine line of doing his job in a broken system, Beatriz and Samberg look at each other with the uncertainty that they must have carried into the production of this season itself.