The first time I watched Brooklyn 99, I was packing up my life to move across the country after graduating from college. Feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task in front of me, I’d texted a friend asking for light-hearted, background-esque show recommendations to stream while I packed. While I wasn’t a fan of Andy Samberg at the time, I generally trust this friend’s taste more than most others’, so I decided to give it a shot.
I binged all 5 then available seasons in a week.
I had quickly fallen for the goofy, enthusiastically reckless Detective Jake Peralta. Even more so, I couldn’t get enough of his equally charming fellow detectives’ antics. Over the last two years, I’ve probably rewatched the entire series at least 6 or 7 times. I’ve held my breath for them during intense cases, I’ve laughed with them during their annual Halloween hijinks, I’ve frequently nearly cried with them at their weddings. No matter how dire the situation, I always knew things were going to work out one way or the other, and I was rooting for them.
Which is exactly why I can’t love this show anymore.
Brooklyn 99 is arguably fairly progressive, especially with regards to the representation offered by the characters: about half of the main leads are people of color, and precinct Captain Holt’s (Andre Braugher) identity as a gay Black detective in an interracial relationship is at the center of multiple episode storylines. The show also made headlines in its fifth season when Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) came out as bisexual. The highly emotional storyline, based on the actress’s own coming out, served as a critical moment for queer representation, particularly for queer children of immigrants who have struggled with coming out to their parents.
As someone who is always trying to be socially conscious and advocate for justice, I always felt a little guilty telling people how much I loved B99, particularly when one friend refused to take my recommendation because as an abolitionist, he was uncomfortable that it was a cop show. Even then, I didn’t listen, and instead tried to justify it to myself by pointing to the aforementioned representation, and the snippets of real-life issues it injected in targeted episodes. Look! I would say. They did an episode on racial profiling! They openly discussed the complex realities of reporting sexual assault!
Yet even as the show tries to have the tough conversations, it will always remain a fantasy – one where the cop is always the hero to root for, one where the line between “good cop” and “bad cop” is clear, and one where the defense attorney character can be a brilliant, sexy love interest. It is still written off for defending exclusively ruthless criminals. Forget that it’s become abundantly clear that the “good” and “bad” distinction between cops is arbitrary when the entire institution of policing is rotten at its core. Forget that public defenders are frequently the last hope for numerous people of color who are disproportionately criminalized by our very broken American “justice” system. In the fantasy world of Brooklyn 99, systemic racism’s role in police brutality is a one-episode story arc – not the inherent foundation of an institution with its origins in the slave patrols.
To their credit, the cast of Brooklyn 99 has attempted to demonstrate the same minimal self-awareness that their show has. In the wake of uprisings in response to the racist police murders of Ahmad Arbury, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, cast members donated $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network in support of protesters. But it’s not enough.
No matter how much the cast donates as reparations to society, the point remains that shows like B99 quietly causes significant harm. By painting cops as flawed but still ultimately heroes, Brooklyn 99 will always offer reform and redemption as an option. This is especially harmful right now, when we’re increasingly having conversations about how reform is ineffective as a solution versus the defunding and abolition of police. As long as the show refuses to reckon with the fact that police brutality is not just a problem with “a few bad apples,” viewers will continue to have an example for “Not all cops!” too.
Brooklyn 99 has been a wonderful escapist fantasy that’s kept me entertained through multiple turning points in my life, but more critical consumption of our media is long overdue – and unfortunately, a show that glosses over the reality that police are agents of a white supremacist state, not the heroes, just doesn’t make the cut. As much as I’ve loved it, I can no longer deny that this show only serves and protects the reputation of an institution upholding white supremacy.
If only they could’ve been those rival firefighters or those wholesome, underfunded US Post Office workers instead.