ACAB: Title of your sex tape. (Or, on BROOKLYN NINE-NINE.)

by waxbanks

My wife and son watched the whole run of Brooklyn Nine-Nine over the course of 2021, and I saw a bushel of episodes from the couch and many more out of the corner of my eye from the other room. It was a perfectly ordinary workplace sitcom, i.e. a low-calorie pleasure, and ended…poorly.

Cocreator Mike Schur’s earlier show Parks and Recreation began as an experimental ‘how the sausage is made’ serial reminiscent of a Christopher Guest flick (or the UK Office), but gave up on its ambitions after Season One — also wisely shedding its painfully unfunny Male Romantic Lead — and ended as an insufferably sweet waste of time, a hell of endless hugging and affirmation with each member of the ensemble taking turns doing his or her schtick. The show’s writers didn’t know anything about Parks Departments, but I’m sure one or two of them grew up in parochial towns, and the show did find its rhythm as its ‘Hillary Clinton stars in…Green Acres!‘ premise softened into an unusually saccharine iteration of the standard American workplace-sitcom ‘These people are our real family’ autocelebration. But it had a strong ensemble — Amy Poehler is an extraordinarily reliable ensemble performer and the rest of the cast brought vivid distinct personalities to their roles, especially Nick Offerman in the role of a lifetime as Ron Swanson and the unassimilable Aubrey Plaza as April — and enjoyed the usual two or three strong years before the novelty wore off and the show utterly deflated.

B99 maintained structural integrity a bit better, but it didn’t start with much. It had two big problems, and found ways to work around them to varying degrees but eventually succumbed to both.

Its first shortcoming is this: its ensemble was extremely inconsistent.

Andy Samberg’s ‘Hot Fuzz: the series’ setup cast him undemandingly as a cocky manchild, but he grew into his lead role; his performance anchored the show and he’s due all praise for learning as he went. Luckily, or perhaps craftily, Samberg’s three main scene partners — Melissa Fumero as Amy Santiago, Joe Lo Truglio as Boyle, and Andre Braugher as Capt. Holt — are all expert ensemble performers with plenty of miles on them (Lo Truglio was a writer/performer on The State; Braugher was the heart of NBC’s Homicide series; Fumero put in more than a half-decade on One Life to Live — soap-opera work might be an aesthetic crime but it’s a proper acting bootcamp). The core of the ensemble, then, was dead solid. Braugher in particular, like Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock, gave a career-altering comic performance, as (kudos to the writers for seeing this) his initial ‘humourless’ deadpan opened up into an increasingly weird and complicated character with Braugher obviously loving every second of it.

The trouble started once you got beyond those four.

Terry Crews has wonderful charisma and appears to be a truly excellent human being, but in the role of, uhh, Terry he needed more and couldn’t bring it. You can see him working hard and he attained a certain clumsy dignity at times, but — not coincidentally — only in his scenes with Braugher, his superior officer and the only other black guy around most of the time, did Crews settle into a real performance.

It’s said that Stephanie Beatriz is a strong actor, and her vocal performance in the overpraised Encanto is absolutely fucking incredible, but you just wouldn’t know it from watching B99. I’m sure that working in her second language, in a weird artificial vocal register, without her glasses, made the job extra difficult. But her Rosa Diaz was an underwritten character and then an overwritten one, and Beatriz never figured out how to make her funny. The contrast between the goth-butch Rosa and Fumero’s anxious-perky Amy was wonderful in theory, and it’s a tiny miracle to see two Latinas holding down those roles. But Beatriz, or perhaps Rosa, was a weak spot in this ensemble.

Chelsea Peretti presented a bigger problem: she definitely cannot act to save her life, and while she might be funny In Real Life, she was an utter null in the Weird Chick role of Gina Linetti, an expressionless void for the cast’s manic energy to fall helplessly into. Unlike, say, Aubrey Plaza, Peretti can’t communicate intelligence or imagination onscreen; her Gina was just a vector for canned putdowns and tired alt-cool schtick. It’s useful (if unfair) to compare clips of the two: Plaza’s bizarre energy prickles through her stage monotone, giving it a surprising variety of colour, while Peretti just hammers one note the whole time. Note that while Plaza and the intuitive dude’s dude Chris Pratt turned out to be a brilliant comic pairing, Peretti never found a successful match in the entire cast. I can’t think of another recent TV character (minus the entire cast of The Big Bang Theory) who could so completely suck the energy out of a scene.

As Hitchcock and Scully, Dick Blocker and Joel McKinnon Miller embodied a single joke each — the same joke, really — and while they might’ve been strong comic performers in other settings, they collectively functioned as a blinking light saying ‘This is a workplace sitcom and these guys are the obnoxious loser coworkers.’ They didn’t have enough (or varied enough) material to make an interesting Greek chorus like the drunks on Cheers; they just sat there.

The supporting players were stronger — Wunch, Pimento, and Professor Kevin Cozner are impressive roles that were fine on the page but blossomed onstage, and Craig Robinson was as funny as ever playing the silly ‘Pontiac Bandit’ — in that regard, B99 was similar to Seinfeld, able to rely on a deep bench of supporting actors to bring weird stories to life. But Seinfeld only had one dud in the cast, Jerry Seinfeld himself, and it only took him and Larry David a couple of years to figure out how to write for his limited toolset, by which point he’d toughened up enough to hang with his three world-class castmates. B99‘s ensemble felt, to me at least, like a bunch of lightweight players carried by a handful of seasoned pros (and the gifted but untempered Samberg).

And that might’ve been fine, had the show not aspired to seriousness and ‘relevance.’ The Rosa-comes-out plot was a duff note, an example of its simultaneous under- and overwriting: as Rosa, Beatriz projected no sexual energy or identity at all (an impressive feat by the producers and directors: how the hell do you so completely mute an Argentine fashion model?!). So making a big deal out of her bisexuality had more than the usual network TV tokenism to it. Her relationship with her parents were telescoped and TV-conventional; the writers gave them too little substance and too much airtime, so at least they had something in common with Rosa.

Jake’s (Samberg’s) parents were more richly imagined — but what do you expect? I bet you $10 everyone on the writing staff was raised by people like them (hence Jake’s constant ‘I’m fucked up because I’m a child of divorce’ asides, which had a writerly special-pleading quality), and bet you $20 none of them have ever set foot in a house full of working-class Latinos like the sketched-in Diaz family. Terry’s family life might’ve been interesting, but again, the writing smacks of projecting white-bourgeois values onto a black actor (a bit like the way Sonja Sohn’s lesbian cop character on The Wire was essentially written as a man and gender-swapped in performance; note that Deirdre Lovejoy’s Jewish woman lawyer character was much more richly imagined by the same writers; well, you push yourself a little more to differentiate characters closer to your own experience, because you can’t congratulate yourself just for having created them). And Crews played the character with everydad generality, letting the writers off the hook in writing a black cop.1

But then…the show wasn’t really about cops. This is the smaller issue on paper — workplace sitcoms are about dumb hijinks and chosen family, not the intricacies of any given field, right? — but in the eighth season of the series it suddenly became a serious problem, because the show’s writers made it one.

The annual Halloween Heist episodes perfectly illustrate B99‘s strengths and weaknesses. They’re basically tightly structured absurd summer-camp fantasies that the writers and actors clearly looked forward to — but the concept flatly does not work in an NYPD precinct…unless you completely abandon any pretense of realism. Doing so is a good choice! Brooklyn Nine-Nine was comfort food and it’s fine to make it silly. The heist episodes are excellent — even I looked forward to them, and as you can see, I hate everything.

OK, so you’ve committed to a show that has nothing to do with actual police, that means you’re free to—

Aah, but no. The show’s perfectly conventional Hollywood writers wanted to tell Socially Relevant uplift-cliché stories in which our sympathetic lead characters, themselves banal NPR liberals (except the half-villainous Hitchcock and Scully of course), run up repeatedly against all that’s Incorrect about modern social mores. Again, this on its own would be perfectly fine; sitcoms have long aired Very Special Episodes to get people (and critics) talking, and it’s well within the expected meretriciousness envelope for network TV. But how do you tell a story about a committed black father (his twins weirdly named Cagney and Lacey!) working under a black mentor in the post-9/11 NYPD if you only occasionally remember to give him an inner life beyond ‘harried father-husband’? How do you make the story of a Latin Catholic bisexual coming out to her standard-traditional immigrant parents interesting if none of those character tags have ever mattered to the story? (Answer: you don’t, it’s not supposed to be interesting; instead you pull out a sitcom script from the 1970s, change ‘lesbian’ to ‘bi,’ add the line ‘Title of your sex tape!’ and hope no one notices that they’ve seen this exact episode a hundred times before.) How do you tell stories about Holt’s life as a gay black senior NYPD officer if you’ve never shown any interest in the topic beyond the purely personal dimension — i.e. if you don’t actually care about his place at the NYPD, only its function as notional backdrop for Andre Braugher’s unsung comic genius?

The writers demonstrated the ability to infodump Wikipedia quotes in the middle of Heartfelt Dialogue Scenes but they only ever approached dramatic weight or even believability when they found ways to analogize the show’s stage-scrim ‘NYPD’ to their own world, i.e. the B99 ‘serious’ stories that worked were the ones that would also’ve worked on a show about a TV writers’ room. And that’s why Season Eight was an off-putting mess. The writers notoriously scrapped half a season’s worth of finished scripts in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and cast and writers made noises in the press about the importance of Rethinking How to Tell Funny Cop Stories in the BLM Era. Their solution to this nonproblem was to spend a large portion of Season Eight lecturing the audience in the form of implausible, half baked Biden-supporter wish-fullfillment: Rosa honourably bails on the NYPD — but she’s still around all the time to mope at the rest of the cast. Holt shifts his career toward reforming the police from within — but he’s still around all the time to participate in the foolishness. Jake wrestles with How to Be a Good Ally in the usual Hollywood-corporate way, and ends up quitting his dream job to be a stay-at-home dad, which nicely completes his relatable-to-the-writing-staff ‘daddy issues’ character arc at the expense of the show’s widely advertised social responsibility.

(The final seasons’ running plotline about Jake and Amy’s baby-scheduling troubles really did work, but only to the extent that it was a costumed version of ‘How can I afford a nanny on a Production Assistant’s salary?’)

In chasing virtuous relevance — and assuaging the Money’s justifiable white guilt — the writers couldn’t hide their inability to balance sentimental lectures with silly farce the way, say, Rick and Morty or Arrested Development manage to; the problem is that B99 took the deflated USA Office and Parks and Rec as its template and tonal model, and lacked the astringency and authentic lived-in self-criticism of Harmon/Hurwitz’s shows. (B99 didn’t break the fourth wall, if I remember rightly; its vanilla earnestness was part of its appeal, though in Season Eight it didn’t quite work.)

The upshot is that the show didn’t have anything interesting to say, wasn’t pathbreaking or fearless or hilarious — it was just a good workplace sitcom with an inconsistently strong cast — so its decision to ‘engage in serious conversation’ in its final season yielded the sanctimonious nonsense you’d expect from a Hollywood that’s terrified of ‘left’ cultural gatekeepers and prefers simplistic #ImWithHer fantasy to uncomfortable complexity.

(The Wire remains the high-water mark for mainstream TV depictions of crime and policing; nearly everything else seems faintly silly in comparison, and B99 functioned superbly when it didn’t really pretend to be about policing at all.)

Critics liked this shit, of course, and made predictable proclamations about the Importance of the show’s Efforts to share What We’ve Learned (or at any rate What We’ve Recently Read on ‘Progressive’ Twitter) About Policing — but the series’s self-congratulatory ending, like the contemptible final season of Lost, felt like a farewell to our new best friends in the Drama Club rather than an ending to a story about cops (or human beings stranded on an island). Nobody wants a ‘realistic’ Brooklyn Nine-Nine, are you kidding me? Just basic believability. Just the slightest effort at keeping the story’s head from flying up its ass.

Pretentious mediocrity bothers me. I’m good with art that reaches for something extraordinary and fails spectacularly, or tells an ordinary story in extraordinarily precise and personal fashion, or just nails its beats and doesn’t fuck around making excuses for that being its goal. But art that’s ashamed of its ordinariness, which trades on perfectly familiar spectacle and manipulation to deal with its status-anxiety about having nothing deep to say…this is worthy of contempt. Ordinary isn’t a sin. Be ordinary, but don’t insist despite evidence that you’re extraordinary. Be weird, but be all the way weird! Tell a cop story, but don’t fall back on telling a generic sitcom-office story when you turn out not to know anything at all about cops. Tell a wacky-coworkers’-holiday-hijinx story, but don’t stick a badge on it and claim you’re something you’re not…

Brooklyn Nine-Nine was really good at being itself — a lightweight show about a bunch of office drones entertaining themselves in a dumb job, with handcuffs and pistols for set dressing instead of spreadsheets and HR departments. (You know they even did a whole episode about how frustrating it is to deal with an IT department, right?) It was frankly terrible at being anything more, just like Parks and Rec proved terrible at telling stories about local government, and B99‘s eighth season brought out its weaknesses while needlessly sacrificing some of its biggest strengths. If not for the tight core cast working at a high level right up to the end — check out that beautiful final conversation between Jake and Holt, the show’s only believable love story — it would have been intolerable.

If I’d been in charge, I’d have doubled down on the fantasy, rather than trying (and failing) to make a Wacky Workplace Sitcom that Appeals to Limousine-Liberal TV Critics. You could still have ended everyone’s stories the same way — Rosa and Jake can leave, Terry and Holt and Amy can push for reform — their characters could handle those plots — but there was no need for pedantry and sanctimony on top of the self-congratulation and sentimentality that inevitably go with the end of a sitcom that’s reached syndication age.

Well, I shouldn’t be in charge.

The best of the Nine-Nine was blissful semiserial comedy, and the worst was tedious banal horseshit. And that’s what I have to say about Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

  1. The show got reliable but hollow laughs out of Crews’s extraordinary physical presence — his periodic dancing-pectorals trick felt obligatory and lame, the fit-dude equivalent of the writers finding a lame excuse to flash cleavage, ‘apologizing’ for it, but doing it all the same. Crews has remarkable charisma and presence, but it’s not exactly stage presence: he commands attention but doesn’t use it like a skilled stage-comedy performer. (But scenes where he, for instance, led the group in aerobics brought him instantly to life.) Like Beatriz, Crews often seemed half-paralyzed in performance, his vocal equipment limited and physicality punishingly restrained — the writers would use the two of them as furniture to play with rather than letting them play, and we can understand that decision while still regretting it.