Film Forward

How ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s’ Embracing Diversity Helped Save It From Cancellation

The "rare gem" lives on.

Our goal at Mediaversity is to reflect the beautifully diverse world, both in front of and behind the camera. While no story will ever be an exact microcosm of America — nor should it be — our reviews strive to be a tool for people who consume their media proactively instead of passively. Until the television and film industries reflect the true face of our country, Mediaversity will be here calling them out and applauding good work.

Title: Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Episodes Reviewed: Season 5
Creators: Daniel J. Goor 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Michael Schur 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Luke Del Tredici 👨🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), Daniel J. Goor 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Justin Noble 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 (2 eps), Carol Kolb 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Carly Hallam Tosh 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), David Phillips 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Matt Lawton 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 ep), Phil Augusta Jackson 👨🏾🇺🇸 (2 eps), and various (5 ♂ and 3 ♀)

Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸

To see our diversity review of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, seasons 1-4, click here.


Technical: 4.5/5

It's extraordinary how far Brooklyn Nine-Nine has come. While the show has always been eager to be inclusive, it took time (and several fumbles) for it to figure out how to execute that concept. Now, five seasons on, its writers have mastered the fine art of inserting socially conscious commentary into the rhythm of its dialogue, managing to keep every #wokeAF aside in the voice of the character without sacrificing any quirky humor.

In the season 5 premiere, an imprisoned Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) laments to his warden that the only people prisoners hate more than cops are squealers. The warden — a minor character without any apparent redeeming qualities — points out that it's hardly a great environment for trans prisoners. No, Jake sheepishly agrees, in Samberg's signature speed mumble. In making a point overlooked in every other instance of the "cop goes to prison" trope, the scene reminds viewers that a marginalized community faces a serious problem without sounding sanctimonious. In fact, over the course of the two-episode arc that sees Peralta incarcerated, they manage to pull off some of their most original and humorous work to date (thanks in part to guest star Tim Meadows, who plays Jake's charming, cannibalistic prison pal) while sneaking in references to a plethora of issues such as the inhumanity and overuse of solitary confinement, prison suicides, violence by guards, and the insidious strains of anti-Semitism and homophobia that persist in the system today.

This ability to thread the needle between humor and real-life issues is what makes Brooklyn Nine-Nine so brilliant. Rather than using the same comedic devices that so many of its contemporaries still rely on — referencing social ills by turning them into jokes that trivialize the problem as in Silicon Valley, or by creating exhaustingly offensive caricatures as seen in GLOW Brooklyn Nine-Nine calls out these issues for what they are. That the show's cast and crew manage do this and integrate it into one of the funniest shows on television underscores just how vital it is for Brooklyn Nine-Nine to remain on the air.

Credit: Scott Schafer / NBC

Gender: 4/5
Does it pass the Bechdel TestYES, but not nearly often enough

Despite having dynamic, stereotype-rejecting female characters, most of its episodes fail the Bechdel Test. The core cast skews male, which means that when characters are paired off — a trend Gina (Chelsea Peretti) references in the delightfully meta finale, noting that she and Holt have the best rapport — the odds of two women working together, let alone having the opportunity to talk about something besides a man, aren't great.

Yet Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a key example of why the Bechdel Test is an imperfect measure of female representation. The show outpaces many more of their consistently Bechdel-passing peers when it comes to having complex, compelling women. As nice as it is to see women on other shows thriving in traditionally male-dominated careers, and as empowering as it might seem when they take down the bad guy, it rings hollow without some context of how difficult it may have been for them to get into positions of power in the first place. Reminding viewers of the reality in which their female characters exist, and how it's impacted their careers, is something Brooklyn Nine-Nine excels at without ever seeming preachy.

For example, after Amy (Melissa Fumero) learns that she's passed the sergeant's exam, Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) offers her a blunt reminder on her first day in her new role: she now represents all Latina officers. It's a moment that offers the audiences some of the show's reliably funny character quirks — Holt's always-amusing lack of tact and the consequential look of terror on Amy's face — while delivering a reminder that as a woman and Latina, Sergeant Santiago is still an anachronism in the NYPD where White men are vastly overrepresented, and the disparity even more significant among higher ranks.

This rarity of women in leadership roles within law enforcement takes center stage again when Captain Holt finds himself up for police commissioner, vying for the position against three aging White guys (two of whom are named John Kelly) and one woman. Holt learns from the head of the selection committee that they only nominated "a girl for PR reasons," having had no intention of ever choosing a woman to lead the NYPD. Knowing all too well what it's like to be kept from advancement because of who he is, Holt calls out the selection committee for its regressive attitude, allowing the audience to reap the dividends of a rivalry between him and Captain Olivia Crawford (Allison Tolman). It's a sort of a second take of the rivalry between Holt and Chief Wuntch (Kyra Sedgewick), which, hilarious as it was, fell into the classic "ambitious women are bad" trope. Where Wuntch was only ever out for herself, Captain Crawford, like Holt, is ultimately driven by a desire to make a positive change as commissioner. In a sort of callback to the 2008 rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Crawford eventually throws her support behind Holt in order to ensure that one of them, and not another old, White John Kelly, will lead the NYPD.

Credit: John P. Fleenor / Fox / Universal Television

Race: 5/5

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been a diversity unicorn from the outset and since maintained its status as such throughout five seasons. There has also been a steady, concerted effort to address the issues that come with being a person of color, from its cutaways to Holt's early days as an officer facing overt discrimination to last season's powerful episode on racial profiling, "Moo Moo." Yet the need to explore the experiences of people of color continues to feel critical.

In season 5's "Return to Skyfire," Jake and Terry (Terry Crews), with a reluctant Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) in tow, get their cosplay on as they work a case for rival fantasy writers being extorted for money. They find the writers at LegendCon, where the authors are taking part in a panel on "Diversity in Fantasy Writing" that, naturally, is comprised of five White men. The episode itself is as enjoyable as any, but at a time when sci-fi fandom has reached a fever pitch of misogynistic, racist toxicity, it was meaningful to see Terry and Rosa — who is won over by the end of the episode — fully engaged in nerd culture.

It's not the overtly ballsy confrontation of systemic racism that Brooklyn Nine-Nine took on with "Moo Moo," but it's another solid example of how much the show has dedicated itself to giving its characters of color stories that defy stereotypes. One of the most consistent rejections of stereotype throughout the series has centered on Terry's role as a father, which serves as a repudiation of the "missing Black father" myth that has been so widely accepted, both in media and American society as a whole (despite evidence from the CDC that Black fathers are actually more likely than White fathers to be involved in the everyday care of their children). Terry's concern for his daughters is an integral part of his character, coming up in "Bad Beat," as, wracked with guilt, he admits to having forgotten his daughter's birthday and hadn't been able to find her a certain toy in time. In "Show Me Going," he becomes so worried about what might happen to his family should something befall him in the line of duty that his blood pressure skyrockets. Terry's vulnerability when it comes to his daughters has been mined for comedy since season 1, and it has occasionally missed the mark when it veers too close to emasculation-based humor. By and large, though, Terry's commitment to his girls, and his involvement in their care, is an important rejection of a harmful racial stereotype, while also lending depth to a beloved character.

Credit: John P. Fleenor / Fox / Universal Television

LGBTQ: 5/5

Since introducing Captain Holt in the series premiere, his status as a gay man has always been played matter-of-factly. Holt's husband Kevin (Mark Evan Jackson) is a recurring figure, and the writers are not shy about acknowledging the sexual component to their relationship. Plenty of commendable and inclusive shows still shy away from explicitly recognizing that a same-sex couple might actually have sex, especially between two men. Meanwhile, Brooklyn Nine-Nine rejects that trend in its usual blunt fashion. For example, at Peralta's bachelor party, Holt — who, for the evening has dispensed with his role as captain in favor of being "Raymond in the Kangol Hat," to Peralta's sheer glee — tries to put the lackluster party back on track by recounting how his husband had gotten him horny that morning. And while hearing Holt, whose status as father figure is referenced frequently, utter those words sounds something like hearing your parents talk about having sex, it's still refreshing in its authenticity.

In the aforementioned arc that sees Holt up for commissioner, his sexual orientation is a key focal point. He repeatedly refers to himself as the would-be first gay commissioner (as many viewers probably were, I was initially confused as to why Holt's race wasn't mentioned in this context. As it turns out, Benjamin Ward became New York City's first Black commissioner in 1984, and Lee P. Brown would become the second in 1990). That both Holt and Crawford represent progress, as opposed to their White-haired, course-staying competition, is a function of their desire to modernize the NYPD. It's also a victory for people whose experiences in a field dominated by straight men make them uniquely attuned to the needs of communities routinely underserved by the department (the city's LGBT Outreach Unit, responsible for training the city's 36,000 uniformed officers, is made up of just four people).

Season 5 also saw Stephanie Beatriz's Rosa Diaz come out to her co-workers and family as bisexual, a meaningful moment for the vastly underrepresented bi community, and one that a lesser show might have fumbled.

In a recent interview, Cameron Esposito (co-creator of the LGBTQ-friendly Take My Wife) pointed out that coming out stories are overrepresented in media because they center on straight people. "When you hear coming out stories," Esposito notes, "the number one question that people ask is 'How did your parents take it?' It's the number one question. That has nothing to do with the queer person."

Rosa's story does follow this trend, spending an episode on her announcement to her parents and drawing Peralta into the story as her moral support system. When asked for advice on how to broach the subject, Jake offers a sensitive, affirming speech that spirals into something of an "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" moment and risks falling into the straight-centric trap that Esposito describes, but is redeemed in part by its self-awareness. "Felt like I sort of straightsplained how to come out to you," Peralta concedes, before Rosa reassures him that it was fine — not unlike the episode, which, while occasionally lapsing into the "wacky misunderstanding" trope and indulging Jake's childish side, is so wonderfully sincere and committed to Rosa's happiness that it can't really be faulted.

Credit: John P. Fleenor / Fox / Universal Television

Bonus/Deduction for Religion: +0.00

More often than not, Jewish characters don't start out as explicitly Jewish, and instead default to a sort of areligious, quasi-Jewish state by virtue of the fact that the actor playing them is Jewish themselves. Samberg has stated in interviews that he's not very religious, and identifies as more culturally Jewish or a "holiday Jew." When season 5 begins with Peralta behind bars, his character asks another inmate how anti-Semitic a particular prison gang is. To his relief, it's just "the regular amount." Like so much of the prison storyline, it's an acknowledgment of a problem — virulent anti-Semitism in prisons — that could have easily gone unmentioned, but didn't. The season contains several more nods to Peralta's Jewish identity, such as the inclusion of his mom's Passover brisket in the post-prison banquet he throws himself, and an alarmed Aunt Linda asking in the finale, "Jakey, what's this that I hear that there's no rabbi?"

Jake's identity as a Jew follows a trend set long ago in which a character's Jewishness is tamped down, and comes up primarily as fodder for jokes or as an aside in a Christmas episode (Friends was so ambiguous about whether or not Rachel Green was Jewish that it remains a debate a decade and a half later). Were Brooklyn Nine-Nine not a show with such a commitment to inclusion, and if other shows were stepping up and exploring what it is to be a Jew in 2018 New York, Jake's ambigJewity (a word I just coined, and expect will catch on) wouldn't bother me much. But as a thirtysomething, areligious, not-very-good Jew in New York myself, I'm starting to resent how little acknowledgement there is that being Jewish is more than big noses, Mashuga Nuts, and menorahs ... and more importantly, that an entire facet of someone's identity is worth more than a few throwaway jokes per season.

Credit: John P. Fleenor/ Fox / Universal Television

Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.63/5

When Fox canceled Brooklyn Nine-Nine last month, the reaction on social media was one of outrage. Not the hateful, vitriolic sort that's seen all too often in the world of fandom, but one rooted in love for what the show represents: diversity, humanity, and empathy. Accordingly, some of the most high-profile mourning came from giants whose own work reflect the same core tenets: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Guillermo del Toro, and Luke Skywalker himself Mark Hamill, pulled no punches in their support for the show. Hamill tweeted: "when networks dump shows I love, I'm known for holding grudges a long, L-O-N-G time."

Days later, when the Peacock swooped in to rescue the show, NBC received more love than it has likely seen since the heyday of Must See TV. The passion fans feel for the show isn't just because it's a great comedy, but because it goes out of its way to speak directly to its audience and say, "we see you." It's a rare gem that I'm thrilled will live on at least another season, one in which it will continue to gift its audience with the acknowledgment that they matter.

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.


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