Cop Out“Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s” Finale Fails to Reckon with Its Pro-cop Legacy

Doug Judy, left, and Andy Samberg wear matching tiger track suits and sit on the hood of a car that has a bird decal on the hood

Craig Robinson as Doug Judy, left, and Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta in Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Photo credit: NBC)

In the midst of the summer doldrums, Brooklyn Nine-Nine stumbled to a quiet end with the release of its eighth and final season. The series finale, “The Last Day,” brought viewers full circle with the return of a classic Nine-Nine heist, and fans also saw some familiar faces. Yet, in the end, the beloved series failed to grapple with many of the concepts it attempted to confront, struggling to turn the lens to 21st-century policing in an authentic way. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s clumsy handling of glaring problems within the criminal-justice system demonstrates the limits of the half-hour comedy format. It also reflected the inherent difficulties of centering police work in popular culture.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has long struggled with its own role in pro-police propaganda. Like Law & Order, CSI, Castle, and countless TV series of past decades, Brooklyn Nine-Nine was, at heart, copaganda—a show that, in the midst of a growing real-life reckoning, made viewers feel good—or, if not good, better—about American policing. This was a particular source of tension for liberal viewers who just wanted to like the show, rather than interrogating what that impulse told them about the show, and themselves. The setting of a police precinct for the ensemble comedy was a deliberate choice, and one that became harder for some viewers to justify over the course of the series. Though Brooklyn Nine-Nine occasionally made reference to controversies around policing—for example, in the Season 3 episode “Boyle’s Hunch,” NYPD propaganda posters are vandalized with mustaches and scrawled phrases like “die pig”—the sitcom format allowed it to bypass politics and instead bring fans into a warm, madcap bubble.

The final season was a chance for the show to engage in some systemic critique; its attempts to do so, however, largely fell flat. In the season opener, “The Good Ones,” Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) assists his former colleague Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), who has turned private eye after leaving the police force in disgust after tiring of the systemic racism on display in policing. She now focuses on cases of police violence and ethics violations, and brings Peralta on for a case involving a Black woman who’s been harassed and assaulted by officers. Over the course of the episode, viewers are reminded that police unions are evil and cops are corrupt, but they’re given hope that “good ones” may exist. Peralta is quick to identify himself as a “good one,” and his ultimate inability to help secure justice is the result of a corrupt police captain (Rebecca Wisocky) who protects her officers by erasing body-camera footage. Other episodes depict similar tensions of good vs. bad: “Blue Flu,” involves a mass “sick out” that pits detectives against patrol officers; “The Set Up” finds Peralta again confronting corruption and crooked cops. Peralta functions as the anchor for the season’s running theme: Yes, there may be problems with individual cops, but policing is an inherent good as long as the right people wear the badge. The resistance to any meaningful systemic analysis is a reflection of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s ethos—one that’s deeply rooted in the norms of episodic TV comedy, which make room only for superficial references to real-world happenings even in shows meant for progressive audiences. The Nine-Nine has always, after all, been about a precinct that’s better than the others, filled with “good” cops who don’t shoot unarmed civilians or racially profile people. And over the course of the eighth season, the Nine-Nine also emerges as the home of an innovative police-reform project. The alternative to these things, you see, isn’t very funny.

Thus this season’s “PB&J” reunites Peralta with his old “friend” and rival Doug Judy (Craig Robinson). After years of evading the law, Judy is given a five-year prison sentence. As a final hurrah, Peralta drives the Pontiac Bandit to prison—but leaves plenty of time for the duo to take a riotous tour of beloved foods, activities, and matching outfits. Peralta, even as he delivers a Black man to prison, is positioned as virtuous, and even serious moments—for instance, Judy’s brief comment about how his criminal record ruined his life—are swallowed by buddy-movie hijinks. By shying away from reality, the feel-good climax to their relationship has Judy making a successful escape, allowing Peralta to have his cake (being a cop) and eat it (watching his friend evade prison) too.

“PB&J” highlights the deeper issue with Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Viewers spent eight seasons getting to know characters as whole, real people with good intentions, who placed a high value on ethics and cared deeply for each other. But at a time when a growing number of Americans are starting to doubt their perception of the police, it became impossible to separate these characters from their chosen professions. And despite the knowledge that shows like this are used as police recruitment tools, Brooklyn Nine-Nine lacked the self-awareness to truly reckon with its impact. Just as the military leverages media that shows military life in a positive, friendly, even fun way, Brooklyn Nine-Nine never existed in a vacuum.

During the series’s run, increasing tension around policing made the show more and more difficult to watch, and the creators could have harnessed that. What about a Brooklyn Nine-Nine where Diaz quits, but so does Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews), frustrated with the violence and abuse of power that he sees on a daily basis? Or where Peralta and Boyle, best friends to the bitter end, walk out as they realize policing cannot be fixed? Where Detective Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) turns away from her pilot program exploring reduced policing and embraces a more radical approach by turning in her badge? What kinds of friendships might these characters build with each other post-force in Captain Raymond Holt’s (Andre Braugher) vacation home as he, too, decides to make the leap? What does the adjustment period to civilian life really look like for police officers who choose to leave the force because they think they are doing the wrong thing, and don’t buy into the notion—still widespread despite centuries of evidence to the contrary—that they can change the system from within?

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was, at heart, copaganda—a show that, in the midst of a growing real-life reckoning, made viewers feel good about American policing.

The wish fulfillment of the finale is, in its own way, a metacommentary on the policing conversation: Brooklyn Nine-Nine ends on the note that reform, not dissolution, is a viable path for policing. Santiago and Holt both receive promotions to expand a reform pilot project, and Jeffords is left in charge of the precinct. Peralta, meanwhile, leaves the force to spend more time with his son, allowing him to retain his positive relationship with the force and absolving viewers of any guilt they might feel about loving a cop. It’s implied that the old gang will get back together every year for one more heist, keeping Peralta and Diaz deeply tied to policing—a reflection of the real world, where people never truly leave the force and, in fact, identify deeply with it, down to the blue line flags on their porches.

Is it a half-hour comedy’s job to fix the ills of the world, or to cover every possible social issue imaginable? No. But when a series is set in a police precinct at a time when the rot at the heart of policing is in full view on a national stage, it has some responsibility to viewers—as well as the chance to offer sharply funny critique. Over the course of the season, Brooklyn Nine-Nine could have had characters peeling away from the force one by one until a bold, visionary ending that brought the viewer to a different relationship with the characters, and policing. Instead, the finale told the viewer that whatever they thought they might have been hoping for with Brooklyn Nine-Nine—a sound criticism of policing to justify eight years of fandom, for example—they got exactly what they deserved: A soft-pedaled version of policing and the people who do it, joining a long tradition of media that turn problematic professions into fun adventures.

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by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.