When I saw that the eighth and final season of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” had begun airing, I was shocked that no one was talking about it. Though it had previously been one of the most popular sitcoms on air, having become famous for its diverse star-studded cast and non-offensive humor, I hadn’t heard anything about the final season until two weeks after it started airing. At the same time, I wasn’t surprised given how public opinion about police has rightfully undergone a massive negative shift since the beginning of the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests in May 2020. When B99’s final season began airing without any fanfare, what we all already knew had become official: the show was going out not with a bang, but with a peep.
Following the unprecedented wave of protests for racial justice and against police brutality, in 2020 the B99 writers threw out all of the scripts they had already written for the final season and began afresh. The series had previously had episodes acknowledging racism and discrimination in policing, including a season 4 episode in which Terry Crews’s character, also named Terry, is racially profiled and harassed by a white cop in his own neighborhood. Such episodes, however, were few and far in between.
The new season opens with a cold-open acknowledging the pandemic and featuring Jake and Charles’s new COVID-safe handshake before quickly transitioning to a future in which everyone has been vaccinated after the title credits. The characters meet in a bar to celebrate Amy returning after being on maternity leave for her and Jake’s son, Mac (named after John McClane from “Die Hard,” another copaganda film), and Captain Holt explains to everyone that Rosa is not present at the gathering because “she quit after George Floyd was killed because she thought that she could do more good by becoming a PI that helps victims of police brutality.” (The episode was written and almost certainly filmed before Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd, meaning the show could not use the word murder.)
Rosa proves to be the only character with any semblance of a moral backbone, i.e. the only character who both understands the harms of policing and decides she wants nothing to do with it. She then attempts to remedy her career wrongs by becoming a private investigator dedicated to investigating incidents of police brutality. The first episode of the new season explores the friction between her and Jake as Jake desperately tries to convince her that he is one of the good ones. They make up, and though Rosa does not rejoin the force, she agrees to help them with investigations into police brutality.
Another running plot line throughout the season deals with Amy Santiago’s proposal to have fewer uniformed officers walking the streets of Brooklyn. Once again, the writers attempt to address a real issue on the show, a message that ultimately falls flat because it still relies on the myth that the good cops can reform the “bad apples.” The president of the police union becomes a recurring character, but the extent to which he wants to deny the wrongdoing of police is treated as a comical matter, not a serious problem that results in the loss of lives while killer police are merely put on leave and allowed to walk free. If all cops are bastards, all cops are bastards. The show cannot simultaneously be anti-police in a meaningful way while also arguing throughout every episode that the cops we predominantly see on our television screens — Peralta, Holt, Santiago, Jeffords, and Boyle — are good, actually. Saying George Floyd’s name out loud on a network sitcom and fostering dialogue about police brutality that doesn’t make sense when prodded even lightly does not make up for the decision to continue airing a police procedural after Black activists and scholars have shown over and over again how such narratives are harmful, if not altogether deadly.
Police brutality can — and absolutely should — be addressed on television and through works of fiction. TV series with serious tones, like Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” have addressed the evils of police brutality and a justice system that treats marginalized people — especially Black people — as guilty until proven innocent. A workplace ensemble sitcom where everyone hugs and learns and wraps up conflict in a tight twenty-two minutes is not even a remotely appropriate platform for addressing police brutality in a meaningful way. If anything, B99’s tonal shift towards acknowledging the harms of police on marginalized communities is an even more nefarious form of copaganda than before, in that it so thoroughly buys into the myth that police reform can work if there are some good apples in the force. Real-life cops, unlike our B99 ensemble, do not hug and do not learn. They do not value diversity and especially don’t value human life. When real cops make mistakes, their misjudgments result in the loss of precious human lives with no accountability, not silly hijinks where everything always turns out fine.
There are a couple of ways that Brooklyn Nine-Nine could have continued without becoming a blunder that remains painful to watch week by week. The show could inexplicably have become about the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of USPS that arrested Steve Bannon. They could have all switched to working for a USPS mailroom, the one staple of the U.S. government that pretty much everyone likes. Or, realistically, the show could (and should) have been cancelled altogether. NBC seems to have acknowledged that they’re just beating a dead horse at this point, given that the episodes have been airing back-to-back every week. Even a generous interpretation of this rapid-fire airing of a previously beloved show leads to the conclusion that they just want the series to be over and done with.
I only watched the eighth season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine out of morbid curiosity, but frankly, I used to enjoy the show. The characters were great and the writing was strong. Before I understood the horrific reality of policing, I saw B99 as just a nice, silly show to watch at the end of a long day like other Michael Schur workplace sitcoms, “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” I’m disappointed that it came to such an unceremonious end instead of ethically going out after the seventh season, and now I wish that a show with this amount of talent had been about literally anything else.
Maybe the writers and producers should have drawn on the message of children’s classic “Old Yeller”: that sometimes the dog just gets too sick and suffers too much to continue living. And sometimes, though no one likes it, the most humane thing to do is just to put the dog down.
The series finale of Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs on Thursday, Sept. 16 at 8 p.m. on NBC.