By Stephanie Sartori
When “Brooklyn 99” was cancelled by Fox last spring, social media erupted with horror and sadness as fans learned they were going to lose their beloved TV show. The cop comedy about detectives working at the NYPD’s 99th Precinct had gained quite a following in its five seasons. When news broke that the show wouldn’t be continued, Twitter exploded with activity, and even celebrities ranging from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mark Hamill to Josh Groban tweeted their love for the show and begged for another network to pick it up. Thankfully, NBC picked it up within a day and the show just began its 6th season there. Though it’s on a new network, nothing about the series has changed.
If you haven’t seen“Brooklyn 99” and are wondering why people were so up-in-arms about its cancellation, it’s because this show is unique in its diversity of their ensemble cast, and in its writing and storylines. Helmed by Andy Samberg, this cast includes two Hispanic women (Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz) and two black men (Terry Crews and Andre Braugher), making for four people of color out of nine total cast members. Again out of these nine, there are three women who have equal status in the precinct alongside their male coworkers and who also get equal amount of screentime and parts in storylines. There’s also one gay and one bisexual character. In terms of on screen representation, this is a big accomplishment. The ensemble cast in this show allows for this diversity. Shows focusing on a few characters might not get opportunities to involve as many characters of color, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else. This diversity means that more audience members can relate to the characters and their story. It means a lot to those who are in marginalized groups and don’t see their likeness in the television shows they watch.
However, the representation motives on “Brooklyn 99” are unclear- is the diverse cast the result of writing with the intention of diversity, or blind casting? Holt and Jeffords (Braugher and Crews) are the only characters that have storylines that deal with racism. Holt is running in a tight race for commissioner, and his motivation is driven by his past as a cop where he wasn’t promoted because of the racist leaders of the NYPD. Jeffords gets racially profiled when he’s stopped and questioned by cops as he’s walking down the street in his own neighborhood. During these plotlines, race becomes a part of these character’s identities.
Besides these two storylines, there’s no other reason that the rest of the show was cast the way it was. It might have to do with representing the NYPD accurately, but it may have been because of blind casting. While this answer matters because it determines the motives of the show’s creators (were they going for representation because of today’s social climate or was it by coincidence?), either way, the representation is better than many shows out there now. The writing here is great at not ignoring this diversity, but also not dramatizing it in a way that makes the show about only this diversity. Kristen Baldwin says in an Entertainment Weekly article, “The matter-of-fact nature of the comedy’s inclusion keeps it from feeling preachy,” which allows it to touch on social issues but still be entertaining. Again, this could have been because of blind casting, but also because TV creators, no matter what, are going for entertainment value.
The writing makes this series “never solely an issue show, but its commitment to approaching policing from an ethical place was fundamental to its sense of decency, a quality which was itself fundamental to the series.” The show approaches today’s societal issues with clarity from different points of view, and deals with the humanity of each situation. For example, when Holt is running for commissioner, the detectives question whether Holt should get the job because the front-runner who he’s up against is a woman. Would it be better if the new commissioner broke barriers by being female, or by being black? There’s not a single answer given here, but a candid conversation is had about minority groups in today’s society.
Diversity alone isn’t enough to address representation, so here is where the writing is really important. One might see diversity on screen, but it would be meaningless unless the storylines also have good representation. In “Brooklyn 99,” the minority characters don’t fall into stereotypes. In the show, Jeffords is a nerdy family man, and Holt is a gay precinct captain who’s uptight, straightfaced, and monotone. Diaz (Beatriz) can take down any criminal, being strong emotionally and physically as the men she works with.
None of the characters of color or those who are LGBT are the laughingstock of jokes, nor do their minority characteristics define them. The humor in this show comes from it being a brilliant spoof on cop shows like “Law and Order,” and manages to be funny while focusing on (somewhat) serious police work and still honoring the work that real cops do every day. All of these things together make for a hilarious, engaging, and heartfelt series.