Brooklyn Nine-Nine still an unlikely social pioneer

Ollie Gratzinger | Staff Writer


In 2013, Brooklyn Nine-Nine premiered as Fox’s daring police sitcom with a heart of gold. Its creators brilliantly intertwined compelling, diverse characters with seemingly effortless humor from the start, all while daring to tackle issues rarely addressed in the world of situational comedy. With Season 4 delving into racial profiling and systemic bias among America’s police force, the ongoing Season 5 had a tough act to follow. But so far, it’s living up to the challenge.

The series follows the misadventures of NYPD’s fictitious 99th precinct, fronted by the stoic Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher). Part of the show’s appeal has always been its characters, all of whom have consistently felt real and continue to thrive throughout Season 5.

At first glance, they seem like a cookie-cutter variety: Raymond Holt, the strict boss; Jake Peralta, the class clown; Rosa Diaz, the femme fatale; Amy Santiago, the teacher’s pet; Terry Jeffords, the muscleman; and Charles Boyle, the weirdo. But it doesn’t take long to notice the characters’ pointed three-dimensionality.

Peralta isn’t only the immature boy that never grew up, but rather a lonely young man thirsty for affection and a father’s approval. Holt is quick-witted and willing to do anything for his squad, Diaz has a sensitive side and Santiago learns how to break a rule. Jeffords, despite his strongman persona, is a loving and sensitive husband who adores his three daughters. Boyle, while definitely still a weirdo, turns out to be a passionate chef and a loyal friend.

Season 5 opens with detectives Peralta and Diaz serving time in prison after being framed for a crime they didn’t commit. Peralta’s childish humor stands out in the brutal landscape of the jail, and interwoven within his tragic longing to talk to his girlfriend, Santiago, is a series of social commentaries on the American prison system.

The guards are easily antagonized and barbaric and the inmates are treated like animals in a cage. Peralta notices that one of the men in his cell block has committed suicide, and in a later conversation with Diaz, Holt discusses the way constant dehumanization impacts a prisoner’s ability to live a “normal” life upon release.

It isn’t often that police procedurals address the dark side of the criminal justice system. It’s more common to see self-congratulatory hotheads angstily lamenting the difficulty of forcing evil from the streets, but in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Peralta actually struggles to arrest perps after experiencing prison for himself. After bearing witness to how broken the system is, he fears accidentally putting away the wrong person. This fear becomes part of Jake’s character arc throughout the first half of the season as he readjusts to life on the outside.

Peralta, like all of the characters, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. He isn’t static. The things he experience affect him and his worldview, but it isn’t some dark, cinematic cliche. Peralta doesn’t end up nihilistic or depressed; he just starts to grow up. Puerile jokes and Die Hard references are still part of his daily lexicon — some things never change — but he learns a thing or two about empathy, responsibility and consequence.

Peralta’s humor has long-since been revealed as a mask for abandonment issues spawned from his father’s departure. Throughout the series, he heals in some ways and regresses in others, but by Season 5, he seems to reach catharsis. His romance with Santiago is healthy and thriving, he and Holt have developed a familial bond, and his relationship with his biological father begins to stabilize after elusive cheat Roger Peralta returns from years of depravity. It finally looks like Jake might get the big, happy family he’s longed for since Season 1.

Things aren’t instantly okay, though, and that’s another important part of Brooklyn Nine-Nine that adds to the show’s sense of realism. Peralta still struggles. Underneath the humor and wit, he obsesses over Holt’s approval and worries that Santiago is too smart to love him, and when he’s faced with a wild, reckless half-sister who couldn’t possibly be any more like Roger, his first instinct is to push her away.

Peralta’s emotions are raw, relatable and authentic, and the series avoids all traps that could trip up a character like Jake. He isn’t only a lovable and funny dude with a sad past. He’s also a well-executed success story working toward becoming better, and that distinction is endlessly important.

In “HalloVeen,” during the team’s annual Halloween competition, he proves to Santiago that he’s grown up enough to take their relationship to the next level, providing fans with a long-anticipated and sentimental exchange.

Season 5 is also ripe with feminist allegories and emblems that come in the form of strong, independent Latina women and their penchant for general spunk.

While most cop shows depict strength in women as synonymous for tomboyishness, Brooklyn Nine-Nine avoids getting tripped up by this. In “Gray Star Mutual,” Santiago chases a perp through an alley, somersaults and tackles the bad guy before he can get away, all while wearing the elegant wedding dress Diaz had talked her into trying on.

As a newly-appointed sergeant, Santiago worries that her identity as a Latina woman will make it more difficult to earn the respect of her subordinates, but with the support of Diaz and the rest of the Nine-Nine, she excels. Strength and femininity aren’t forced toward the opposite ends on a spectrum of womanhood. Instead, they coexist alongside one another, making Diaz and Santiago great cops and feminist icons.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has never shied away from LGBT-related topics in the past, either. Holt’s loving, interracial and hilarious relationship with Kevin — his equally firm husband — has earned the series a nomination in the GLAAD Media Awards every year since 2014, though it was Season 5 that finally afforded the series a win. Not only does Kevin finally get more screen time after a dangerous deal made in good heart threatens to catch up to Holt, but another LGBT character joins the lineup when Diaz comes out as bisexual.

Diaz dropped the bomb to Boyle in the season’s ninth installment, “99,” on a road trip gone wrong. In “Game Night,” she comes out to the whole precinct, and she’s met with love, support and affection. Holt remarks that things have changed a lot since he came out to his peers in the late ’80s, but the reactions of Diaz’s parents demonstrate that there are still miles to go.

She faces biphobia, which isn’t usually addressed even in LGBT circles, let alone on television. Her heavy sadness is well recognizable to anyone who has been in similar situations and easily understandable for those who haven’t. A heartwarming scene at the end of the episode once again reminds viewers of one of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s recurring motifs and one adulthood’s greatest luxuries: the ability to choose who you call your family.

Peralta’s thoughtfulness and consideration prove again just how much he’s grown. Holt’s tenderness comes as a pleasant surprise, but when he and Diaz embrace, they bond silently over a shared emotional ache. With their tension and solace both evenly palpable, the episode’s concluding scene is among the most emotionally moving of the series.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a show for the underdogs. It’s for the people that don’t often have the luxury of seeing themselves represented on screen. Season 5 builds onto something that was already progressive and strong, and with a few more episodes to go before the season finale, there’s no doubt that there are more great things to come.