In Its Final Season, ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ Is Trying Its Best To Be Better

Tackling police brutality and Black Lives Matter was always going to be an insurmountable task for 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine'.

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Throughout its eight seasons, the chaotic, silly, and determinedly wholesome Brooklyn Nine-Nine has always been about people trying their best.

In the final season, which has started streaming this week, scrapped and re-shot in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in June last year, it’s very clear that the show is still grappling with that ethos.

— Warning: This review contains spoilers for Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 8, episodes one and two. — 

We’re only two episodes in, but the show has decided to use its platform of roughly 23 minutes per episode to tackle the huge societal issue of systemic racism in American law enforcement in its first episode ‘The Good Ones’. For any show, it would be a lot to cover. For a light-hearted comedy, it feels like it’s probably too much to digest.

“Hey! Welcome To The Murder.”

“Trying your best” is such a simplistic moral — the kind of nuanced ethics you’d expect from a children’s storybook — but it works very well for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which follows in the same kind of light workplace comedies as Parks and Rec and The Office (US), which tread the line between absurd gag factories and heartwarming character narratives.

While jokes are important, it’s also equally crucial that the characters learn and grow and love each other. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is such a successful show precisely because of how much care and affection they lavish on their characters — they’re all flawed people, with problems that range from the outright comedic to the actually serious — and every episode they try their best to be good people, to be good friends, and in this particular show, to be good cops. Sure Jake is childish, but he’s trying to be more responsible. Sure Amy is uptight, she’s reliable. Sure Terry…loves yoghurt. He also loves his friends. They’re all trying.

It even works within the genre — in its own way, Brooklyn Nine-Nine falls into the same dilemma that the actual cop shows they are parodying deal with: what is the point of a police officer? What is the point of the law? When crime never ends, and the world continues to be horrible and injust, is there any reason to try and make it better? Brooklyn Nine-Nine has never been immune to this question, but has always skirted the issue, first by being well and truly a comedic parody of the genre, and also by the broad and wholesome answer that these characters, these cops, are just good people trying their best to make a difference.

And finally, the show has always adhered to this ethos in how its tackled social issues. For a half-hour show that’s very committed to being silly, that is defined by the kind of goofy gags that exclude it from the label of any sort of “edgy” comedy, it has consistently tackled some bigger issues along the way.

Every episode they try their best to be good people, to be good friends, and in this particular show, to be good cops.

Along with the madcap shenanigans of trying to capture the Pontiac Bandit, or a funny Backstreet Boys-themed cold opening or the joys of the Jimmy Jab games, there have been some lovely episodes about bisexual representation, about Captain Holt’s experience as an out gay cop in the seventies, and even about racial profiling. It’s always done in a way that shows it doesn’t truly believe the episode is going to solve inequality, but it does use its platform to shine a light on them, to promote representation, to give space for their discussion.

They sometimes come across as a bit “special episode” — but they’ve rarely sacrificed the tone of the show, and they’ve always kept it funny. The show tries its best, and the appreciation from the audience for doing so has been sincere.

One Of The Good Ones

Using Brooklyn Nine-Nine as a platform to discuss inequality is great, but the sheer scope of what they’re trying to grapple with in Season 8 shows that perhaps there’s a limit to what that platform can support.

Back in 2020, Brooklyn Nine-Nine announced that it’d be making fundamental changes to the show, all tied to the conversation around police reform in America following the death of George Floyd and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests. It was reported that the writers scrapped the first four episodes, and re-worked the storylines.

“We’ve had a lot of sombre talks about it and deep conversations and we hope through this we’re going to make something that will be truly groundbreaking this year,” cast member Terry Crews told Access Daily. “We have an opportunity and we plan to use it in the best way possible. Our showrunner Dan Goor, they had four episodes all ready to go and they just threw them in the trash. We have to start over.”

What we get in episode one ‘The Good Ones’ is a deeply discomforting viewing experience. The episode launches with an awkward cold-opening about high-fives during COVID, and the reveal that Rosa has quit being a cop. The thrust of the episode is around Jake’s uneasiness with her decision. Rosa has quit because she is questioning the ethics of being a cop, especially when people who suffer from systemic racism in law enforcement tend to be from her community. She is working as a private investigator, and helping people who have been unfairly targeted by the cops. Jake sees her decision as being a judgement call on himself (one of “the good ones” as he keeps repeating) and helps her out. Throughout the episode, they are confronted over and over with how broken the system is. It ends with the two of them reaching no conclusion about whose decision is better — but just a general acceptance that things are bad.

Andy Samberg, who plays Jake Peralta, said that “…it’s important for us and for anyone watching our show to keep in mind if we’re looking for a half-hour comedy show to be the ones to solve this problem, we’re in trouble.”

The episode has a frantic feeling to it, like we’re being rushed through someone’s crisis of conscience. Part of this deeply awkward feeling is manifested through Charles, who pivots to being overly and performatively woke, sending large sums of money to the Black members of the team, delving into well-meaning cultural parody. He’s a wink at the audience, but also deeply indicative of how awkward the show feels about trying to **do justice** to this huge topic.

The feeling of watching Boyle try too hard is the same as watching this episode: teeth clenched, hoping for the best. At the same time, they go for the personally emotive, with a sad scene where Captain Holt explains how his marriage has dissolved, saying “it’s been a tough year to be a Black man and a police officer and a human.”

“So We’re Just Dispensing With Subtext Now?”

It’s a tough watch — I think mostly because Brooklyn Nine-Nine has always been a light, fluffy form of escapism. Even having COVID acknowledged in the show made me furious — I come here to get away from the reality of the world.

What could have helped was if either episode were funny — but the show has had diminishing gag returns for the last few seasons, with the characters ballooning into parodies of themselves, their quirks and foibles turning into two-dimensional running gags. But you also have to ask: what jokes can you make about Black Lives Matter? What funny gags are going to help make this massive societal interaction with racism and brutality more palatable?

You have to wonder if it was worth Brooklyn Nine-Nine even making this effort — it’s not exactly a brilliant piece of comedic entertainment that we’ve been left with. Racism has not been solved. But you can also understand their feeling of culpability — when the police system is so profoundly broken, the show could be seen as extremely fluffy propaganda for it.

But it’s also not for me to say — the audience of Brooklyn Nine-Nine who are affected by racial profiling, systemic racism, and police brutality might appreciate the efforts the show has taken, and find it comforting in some way to see this struggle depicted at all on the show. Perhaps it’s deeply necessary to them, and the people in the show wanted to try as hard as they could for those fans, and for their own peace of mind.

Regardless of how the episode turned out, the show is clearly trying its best, and that’s worth applauding.

Patrick Lenton is a journalist, author, and former editor of Junkee. His new book Sexy Tales of Paleontology is out now. He tweets @patricklenton.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is now streaming on SBS On Demand.