Cancel Brooklyn Nine-Nine again

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine was, in fairness, a very good idea. Cop shows are one of the most enduring dramatic engines on television: taking the police procedural and crossing it with the workplace sitcom was, if not inspired, certainly a clever conceit, offering a premise that could easily sustain ninety-nine episodes and then some. Really, it’s no wonder that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is as popular as it is. It’s smart and it’s funny, the cast are fantastic, and it’s reliably charming in a way that makes for perfect comfort-food television. It’s better than a lot of the shows it most clearly resembles, too – better than Parks and Recreation, better than The Good Place – and better than a lot of shows it doesn’t resemble too.

It’s also a lie. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the police are sweet and silly and basically harmless; the actual New York Police Department is plainly anything but.

Cop shows are essentially image control for police departments. They always have been: Dragnet, one of the earliest examples of what we understand now as the modern police procedural, was strictly fact checked by the LAPD’s Public Information Division, and many of its contemporaries were written by former policemen. Decades later, with crime dramas spinning off into one franchise after the next, that perspective has calcified and become ubiquitous: the police are always the protagonists. The supposed need for police and policing is always being reinforced, even if individual officers are singled out or structures are criticised – cop shows don’t have, and can’t have, a frame of reference beyond the police. There will never be a meaningful critique of the police within the confines of a cop show, because cop shows fundamentally believe in the need for the police.

Those inclined to defend Brooklyn Nine-Nine would point to those episodes where it engaged more directly with a complicated reality. But that too serves to exculpate the police, whether intentionally or not. Sometimes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine critiques the past, but in doing so it comments on the present, and the implication of progress whitewashes the very real problems that still endure. In contrast, when Brooklyn Nine-Nine has made efforts to address contemporary failings on part of the police, it’s always been in terms of individuals rather than structures, positing that it’s just a case of ‘one bad apple’ rather than anything wider. Its widely-celebrated fourth season episode Moo-Moo is deft and sensitive, but it’s so focused on the actions of one individual it misses the point of the systemic criticism levelled at the police; if anything, Moo-Moo is more of an argument as to why ‘good’ cops might choose to stay silent, portraying them as sympathetic rather than complicit.

In eliding those systemic issues, Brooklyn Nine-Nine sanitises the police. The idea that there are individual good and bad police officers is an unhelpful one, belying the reality that the problem isn’t the individuals at all, but the wider structures and unjust laws they uphold. (Although it’s also worth just digressing briefly to point out that they aren’t even good cops in Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Jake makes arrests on intuition rather than evidence; Rosa is quick to use excessive force; so on, so forth.) Arguably, it’s not a million miles away from sharing staged pictures of police officers kneeling at protests: at best it’s a distraction from the real issues, and at worst it actively encourages complacency and ignorance.

Terry Crews has said that Season 8 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine will touch on recent protests, the cast and crew having had “eye-opening conversations about how to handle this new season”. The idea of an lazily caricatured activist finding a heartwarming compromise with the ‘good cops’ at the 99th Precinct is repugnant, but there’s something about it that seems almost unavoidable – Brooklyn Nine-Nine won’t be able to ignore the protests entirely, nor will they be able to meaningfully critique the police while still holding to their original premise.

Perhaps the show could be salvaged through total reinvention – if, when season 8 started, the characters were all teachers, or journalists, or postal workers, refuting the cop show premise entirely and tacitly admitting to its flaws. Arguably it’d be the strongest textual statement they could make about police brutality, far more meaningful that any ‘very special episode’ could hope to be: such a reinvention would be a genuine acknowledgement that, yes, the narrative Brooklyn Nine-Nine advanced as a goofy show about lovable police was and is a harmful one that need be abandoned.

Short of that? It’s time for the show to end. At this point, it’d be no great loss: it’s nearing its conclusion anyway – the ninth episode of the ninth season no doubt an attractive stopping point – and these are all talented enough performers that they’ll easily find work elsewhere. (Stephanie Beatriz can be the new Batwoman, for one thing.) As it is, though, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is tantamount to propaganda – a slick, well-made comedy that tacitly argues that the solution to police brutality is simply a nicer and more diverse police force. It whitewashes real issues and obscures real solutions, to the point of being actively harmful – so it’s time, surely, to cancel Brooklyn Nine-Nine again.

For more, A World Without Police, by the organisation of the same name, is a useful starting point. Meanwhile, Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing is currently available as a free eBook, and Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? can be found here.

You may also want to donate to Black Lives Matter UK or to the Black Visions Collective in America.

Related:

Space Force is too deferential to be satirical

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Best of 2019 | #10 – The Good Place 4×09, “The Answer”

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For the most part, I actually do not particularly like The Good Place.

I often find it twee and overly saccharine; as a character drama, it rarely convinces; worst of all, it’s almost never funny. Far moreso than any television show currently airing, The Good Place makes me feel hugely out of step with both critical consensus and the zeitgeist as a whole. (Somewhat ironically, my favourite stretch of the show has been the much-derided third season. Go figure.) Every time it’s appeared on a best of the year list, I’ve been mystified – the fact it’s routinely showed up on best of the decade lists, often in the top twenty or so, is entirely baffling to me.

More than once, I’ve thought about trying to articulate the things that bother me about The Good Place – a few weeks ago I almost wrote a piece I was going to title “The Bad Place” – but it’s never really felt worth it. Unlike, say, Game of Thrones, this critical darling – however much I don’t connect with it – never really felt like it warrants a concerted attempt at a takedown. (For now, anyway; I am quite keenly of the belief that The Good Place is going to age much more poorly than its direct predecessor, Parks and Recreation.) Besides, even if I’m not convinced it’s that good, I don’t think it’s actively bad per se – I mean, if nothing else, I’m still watching it each week. I do enjoy it, however qualified and caveated that enjoyment is.

The Answer – one of the last ever episodes of The Good Place, given it’s coming to a final conclusion at the beginning of next year – is, maybe in light of that, an odd choice for this list. Neatly enough, though, this feels like not only the best episode of The Good Place’s fourth season, but also a fairly neat articulation of all the things I genuinely do love and enjoy in a show I’ve often struggled to get to grips with.

It’s a midseason finale, presented essentially as a clip-show – the sort of cheap contrivance sitcoms use to save money – though here that structural conceit is instead styled around largely new footage. (Clever, but not innovative – the gold standard for this device is surely, as with most sitcoms, Community.) Still, it’s a neat way to reflect on Chidi’s life: taking in all his worries, anxieties and doubts in their entirety. And, much more importantly, it’s a neat way to finally recentre Chidi within the narrative, after side-lining him for too much of this season.

Which is, of course, illustrative of The Good Place’s chief strength, and the reason it’s never quite lost me: that cast, surely amongst television’s most charming. Granted, I’ve never been especially convinced by the show’s comedy credentials – it’s the only show on television I could imagine making a 30-50 feral hogs joke, and I do mean that as a criticism – so for me the appeal has always been primarily in terms of those performances. You could credibly highlight the performance of any of the regulars – they’re all that good, all in their own way the ‘best’ of the cast. It’s better to just appreciate their chemistry as an ensemble, though, because singling any of them out misses the point – it’s not how good they are, it’s how good they are together.

The Answer feels like the first episode this season that really gets this – or the one that comes closest to it, at least. Finally, Chidi – or, actually, more accurately, finally William Jackson Harper, the best actor in the cast – is actually emotionally and narratively present, rather than just flitting about the edges. Yes, it’s a showcase episode for him in much the same way Janet(s) was for D’Arcy Carden, the best actor in the cast (an excellent episode, even if it too wasn’t actually as innovative as it’s often credited as).  As a Chidi character study, it’s often poignant, with a sweet sort of levity to it as well, the sort of thing that’d stand out in any show.

But it also, at last, reunites him properly with the other characters, learning something from each: the value of spontaneity from Jason (Manny Jacinto, the best actor in the cast) the significance of failure from Tahani (Jameela Jamil, a better actor than an activist); his first kiss with Eleanor (Kristen Bell, also the best actor in the cast), a neat reminder that everyone who dislikes that relationship is wrong; that final, devastating moment with Ted Danson, the best actor in the cast. Sure, the whistle-stop tour version doesn’t quite emphasise the cast as an ensemble, but it does let them all sparkle. The intimate, thoughtful introspection of The Answer – setting aside the afterlife-lore that’s become as complex as it is twee in favour of something grounded in real emotions – is easy to point to as a high-water mark for the show.

And that’s it from The Good Place, until the (probably, in one last bit of structural playfulness, in real time) two-part finale next month, with the actual answer – even if that’s no answer at all. For a show that I’ve often found frustrating, and don’t think quite deserves the reputation it’s gained – there are two, arguably three, further entries on this list that do a better job of interrogating morality under late-stage capitalism and what we owe to each other – this was a neat reminder of all the ways in which The Good Place actually is, well, good, even when the show itself has recently lost sight of that a little.

So that’s why it’s snuck into tenth place on this list – because I feel like I’ve finally got a little closer to the answer myself.

Check back tomorrow to find out my ninth favourite television show of the year! Well, I say that – I am actually already a little behind where I wanted to be with this, and it’s the election tonight, so that’s obviously going to take up a chunk of time. But I am determined to keep as close to schedule as I can!

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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