Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not exempt

Brooklyn Nine-Nine tends to get a pass when we criticize cop shows, but it deserves to be interrogated too.

Back in April, I included Brooklyn Nine-Nine on my weekly TV power rankings and wrote, “If you consider the show to be pro-cop propaganda and thus reject it entirely on those grounds, I feel sorry for you but respect your principles, I guess.”

I am sorry for that statement now because as much as I love the Mike Schur workplace sitcom, there’s snark in my tone that I regret. The sentiment, too, is something I am actively working through.

Anytime there are protests, especially in response to anti-Black police violence, there are those who speak up to remind people how pop culture and entertainment perpetuate pervasive and dangerous perceptions about cultural and political institutions. In other words, social critics and activists seek to remind people of the passive and subconscious power of entertainment to influence our opinion of the police. The show that inspires the most pushback when this happens is Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

It’s easy to think of Brooklyn Nine-Nine as different from the procedurals or thrillers that more explicitly proliferate the myth of the cop-as-hero. And in some ways, it is. It’s a workplace comedy. It’s funny and silly, its cast is diverse, its creator is an outspoken liberal. It weaves racism and sexism within the police department, as well as community animosity to the police and racial profiling, into its storylines. It’s hard to believe it’s intended to be propaganda, which, by definition (forgive the “the definition of” writing crutch), is something created with the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, cause or person.

And yet, it is its differences that make it arguably even more effective than the badasses busting down doors. As Vulture critic Kathryn VanArendonk wrote in a piece published Monday morning that takes a broader survey of the historical and contemporary representation of cops on TV:

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is fun, but its silliness doesn’t change the way it prioritizes police perspectives over anyone else’s. If anything, the show’s lightness makes it an even more effective way to generate empathy for the police, who come across as sweet, thoughtful people just trying their best. It sanitizes the police.

(I also want to cite and recognize academic and writer Dr. Steven W. Thrasher (@thrasherxy), whom VanArendonk cites as helping to open her eyes with his 2018 Twitter thread.)

It’s easy to see — it’s easy to blame — a show like S.W.A.T. for inspiring the trigger-happy “bad apples,” but it’s the Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s of the world that protect the institution itself. That allow us (namely, white people) to settle back, when the protests have passed, into the presumption that the police are, by and large, a force for good.

I’m not saying you need to stop watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine or even, necessarily, that it should be canceled, though I personally have found it impossible to continue my quarantine rewatch. Intentional or not, its subject matter and, in fact, its excellence as entertainment, serve a purpose at odds with my — and if you’re reading this, perhaps your — politics.

If you’re ready to think critically about the role of the police in our society, it’s essential to think critically about how the police are represented on TV. It’s essential to interrogate how your consumption of those stories informs your perspective. And Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not exempt from that interrogation.

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