To love a TV show is to set yourself up for disappointment.
There are exceptions, obviously – Breaking Bad had a pretty much perfect run – but the serialised nature of television means it has infinitely more chances to let you down. Maybe it’ll be cancelled before it’s time. Or worse, maybe it will destroy itself from the inside out. The Simpsons is the greatest TV show ever made, but that fact is obscured now that there are more bad seasons than good. “Classic Simpsons” and “new Simpsons” are fully compartmentalised in my head. It hurts too much otherwise.
But The Simpsons was allowed be good – be great – for nine years. The greatest tragedy, one that seems to be constantly getting worse and puts me off watching new shows, is for a once great show to destroy itself within a year or two, the length of time it used to take a show to figure itself out. There’s more TV than ever now, and the whole cycle moves at double-speed: a show has to find its feet faster to survive, but it also burns out quicker. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had one my favourite seasons of television ever and then immediately fell apart in season two, True Detective revealed itself to be a bloated pretentious corpse in season two after an acclaimed first season, and Westworld didn’t even make it to the end of its first season before people stopped caring. There are fifteen shows currently on air with eight or more seasons, six of which are procedurals and another four of which are Fox’s animated comedy slate. A show can be long-running and soulless, but it’s telling how few long-running shows there are – how hard it is to sustain a show for that long now.
You’d think the rise of shorter seasons would allow shows to continue on for years longer without burning through as much material – and yet, again and again, once-great shows collapse in what is, to the binge-watcher, a few short hours. The Simpsons had nine great years, but more and more, a show has to be exceptionally sturdy to be good for three or four. It becomes harder and harder to remember the shape of the show you once loved, because every time you think you catch a glimpse of it, another wave of crap comes along to drown it once and for all.
I really hate Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
The first two seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine were wonderful. It was funny and sweet and well-made, and in a time when NBC was doing everything it could to kill off its Smart Comedy™ brand, it was heartening to see a show like it get full-length, 22-episode seasons, albeit on Fox. Co-creator Mike Schur worked on the US version of The Office and co-created Parks and Recreation, two of my favourite shows ever, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine promised to be a much-needed dose of sunshine in what would soon be a post-Parks and Recreation world.
Not to mention Andy Samberg, one of the most talented comics of his generation, played the lead.
It can be hard to describe what made Brooklyn Nine-Nine great because it was rarely formally ground-breaking. But what it had was great craft, and it had it in spades. It managed to balance A-, B- and C-plots, incorporating police work and character and relationship building, while also being really, really funny, and it did all that in such a way that made it look effortless. A workplace sitcom set in a precinct of the New York Police Department, Brooklyn Nine-Nine was very much built in the mould of The Office and Parks and Rec, but it found its own voice much quicker than either.
Because Brooklyn Nine-Nine is set in a police station, it had a whole wealth of story potential to borrow from another genre: the police procedural. Any traditional sitcom has a basic structure of combining self-contained episodic stories as well as longer arcs, usually surrounding character and relationship development. That structure has been used in almost all TV, of course, but it has held on the longest in sitcoms and procedurals, where casual watching is still encouraged. Friends has lots of long-term stories, but you don’t need any surrounding knowledge to find Chandler trapped in the ATM vestibule with a model funny, and you shouldn’t need to. On Brooklyn Nine-Nine, they borrowed the case-of-the-week format of procedurals as an engine to run their workplace sitcom: a built-in story generator, designed to prevent the need to write episodes with plots like “Jake and Amy have to house-sit for Captain Holt but then the dog goes missing and also Boyle is blind for just this one episode” or “Jake and Captain Holt have the mumps! Aren’t their face prosthetics funny?”
That basic TV structure – episodic stories, serialised arcs – has been on the wane for a while, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s approach to that structure was one of my favourite things about it. It was simple, but it was well-done: how Jake (Andy Samberg) and Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) slowly went from adversaries to pseudo-father and son, how Jake and Amy (Melissa Fumero) quietly pined for each other in the ancient will-they-won’t-they tradition, or the gradual realisation that Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) is Jake’s best friend as much as Jake is his.
The second season was better than the first, even as it moved away from having a case-of-the-week every week and introduced some more serialised stories like the reorganisation of the NYPD or a multi-episode drugs case. Captain Holt came into conflict with his superior officer and nemesis Madeline Wuntch, which in addition to being hilarious, fleshed Holt out as being more than the sum of his subordinates’ admiration or frustration. Season two ended with Jake and Amy kissing for the first time, and if something in the back of my head said that it was a little too soon, it was still satisfying and joyful.
It’s two years later, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine sucks.
It’s so bad that the only reason I got through the fourth season was a perverse need to get to the season finale, out of the misguided hope that they would walk back some of the mistakes of season three. The only reason I started watching the fourth season was out of the misguided hope that they would walk back some of the mistakes of season three. The only reason I got to the end of the third season was out of the hope that it would somehow fix itself.
The third season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine broke my heart, and it never even tried to put it back together.
I can’t lay all – or even most – of the blame on Jake and Amy getting together, but it’s a good place to start.
In Amy Poehler’s book, Yes Please, Mike Schur offers annotations on the chapter about how Parks and Rec came to be. I think often of what he writes about the Christmas special of the original BBC Office, one of the best episodes of television ever made: “The moment Dawn returned to the office and kissed Tim I jumped out of my chair and involuntarily thrust my hands up in the air… Poehler clapped and cheered. Everyone in the room had a cathartic moment of pure joy. I remember thinking later that I wanted to write something someday that would make people feel that good.”
Tim and Dawn get together at the very last moment of The Office, and it’s a perfect moment. Of course, getting a couple together early on in a show’s run isn’t inherently wrong – Ross and Rachel got together in season two of Friends, Sam and Diane got together at the end of the first season of Cheers. But if one of the main sources of dramatic tension in your show is a will-they-won’t-they couple, when you decide to get them together, you need to create another source of stakes. The easiest and most successful ways to do that are either conflict within the new relationship or by having another potential couple in the pining stages. You could turn away from romantic arcs as a source of dramatic tension altogether, much like Parks and Rec did towards the end of its run by focusing more on the direction of the characters’ careers.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine didn’t go for either of the easy options. They didn’t come up with a new, creative source of dramatic stakes, either.
Instead, they did nothing.
On The Office, Jim and Pam kiss for the first time at the end of season two, get together at the end of season three, get engaged and get married (twice) in season five and have a baby in season six. Their relationship becomes less interesting one they get together, but their relationship milestones are frequent enough and given enough weight that they still create romantic catharsis – I don’t care at all about Jim and Pam’s baby, but my heart sings at their little smiles when they find out about the pregnancy. But even if Jim and Pam became completely emotionally flat, there was Michael and Holly to root for. And Dwight and Angela. And Ryan and Kelly.
I can’t stress enough how nothing Jake and Amy’s actual relationship is. They never have a real fight, even if they have occasional pseudo-fights about Jake not wanting to buy a new mattress or whatever. There’s never any real threat that Jake and Amy might break up, either now or at any point in the future. This is despite Jake and Amy having personalities that would naturally come into conflict: Jake is immature and reckless, Amy is an anal-retentive brown-noser. It’s not that they’ve found a compromise that allows them to mesh together, either, or if they have, the viewer doesn’t know much about it. The only time their relationship was at all called into question – at the start of season four, when, after not seeing each other for months, they’d fallen out of sync – was immediately “resolved” by their just… being in sync again.
The relationship doesn’t progress either. Jake and Amy have had hardly any significant romantic moments since they first got together. I understand the instinct not to make Brooklyn Nine-Nine into the Jake and Amy Show, but so much of their relationship happens off-screen that a casual viewer could easily have no idea that they’re a couple. Their first “I love you”s happen over the credits of an episode that isn’t even about their relationship. Even when milestones do happen – meeting each other’s parents, moving in together – it’s emotionally flat, focused on random gags instead of the characters. There’s no effort to create any tension, and so no cathartic joy.
All of this would be okay – not great, but okay – if there was anything else going on instead.
What were once nuanced and interesting characters are now reduced to a handful of traits, if that. Characters learn the same lessons over and over and discard whole parts of their personalities. Boyle and Jake go from being best friends, one of whom is much more open about friendship feelings than the other, to being our hero and his overly-clingy pet. Jake forgets to buy Boyle a Christmas present because he was so busy thinking about what to get Amy for Christmas, and there isn’t even a moment of realisation that he let a friend down, it’s just a joke. Isn’t it funny how Boyle thought that his best friend in the world would remember to buy him a Christmas present?
Later, Boyle is in contention to be Rosa’s maid of honour – mostly so they can make jokes about his masculinity – and nobody mentions how weird it is for him to be in contention to be maid of honour for a woman he was once in love with. There’s not even a throwaway line about how far they’ve come, when just a few years earlier, Boyle didn’t even invite Rosa to his wedding because it would be too weird.
Not only does Brooklyn Nine-Nine not have a secondary will-they-won’t-they couple, they wrote themselves into a corner that prevents them ever having one. Both Terry (Terry Crews) and Holt have been happily married from the start of the show, so they’re out. Boyle now has an adopted child with a woman who’s appeared in just four episodes out of the forty-three since she was introduced. Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) met a cop who was emerging from years deep undercover and they immediately began a serious relationship, despite his emotional problems and Rosa’s fear of commitment, and while they ended up calling off their wedding, they’re still together – I guess? It’s mostly off-screen.
“It’s mostly off-screen” is kind of the story of Brooklyn Nine-Nine at this point. Terry both sits the lieutenant’s exam and finds out he fails it off-screen, and we only find out to set up a stupid plot about Gina using a space heater that isn’t even about Terry.
Instead, when it comes to having a Terry episode, we have Terry having a crisis of confidence because the guy who wrote his favourite book turns out to be a jerk, which is both a rehash of something that happened to Jake in one of the best episodes of the first season (which nobody mentions in-universe, even though “I met the guy who wrote my favourite book and he turned out to be a jerk” is an incredibly specific thing to happen) and a rehash of every Terry plot ever, because the only stories you can tell about Terry are about how ironic it is for him to feel bad about himself despite being physically large.
The one exception was season four’s much-lauded episode about racial profiling. Terry, while off-duty, is accosted by a white police officer who assumes that he’s a criminal because he’s a black man in an affluent neighbourhood. The episode was fine, but it was jarring when the show has had so many chances to integrate stories about racism and excessive force in policing and actively gone the other way.
In season three, there’s an episode where Terry, Rosa and Boyle are part of a pilot programme for police bodycams. In real life, bodycams are used to ensure that the police are held accountable, and make execution-style murders of citizens harder to get away with. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Terry, a black man, is really excited for the chance to be part of the programme, while Rosa, a Latina, and Boyle, a white man, find it a nuisance. If Brooklyn Nine-Nine was ever going to talk about the massive, systematic problems in the police force, this was surely the moment. Instead, the whole thing is a set-up for a gag about Boyle having a small dick.
Boyle used to be my favourite character. I liked how unashamed he was of his feelings, like a genderswapped Leslie Knope. There was always an element of laughing-at-not-with when it came to Boyle, but it was usually about his many weird quirks: he’s a pretty intense foodie, he doesn’t realise the multiple meanings of things he says (he hands out STDs for his wedding – Save the Dates), he doesn’t cover up his feelings the way that adult society expects of a man. Like Dwight on The Office, we laughed at him, but we empathised with him and loved him and wished him the best. We laughed when Jim pranked Dwight, but we cheered when he became manager. I thought that was the kind of character that Boyle was – the show’s unlikely heart.
I was wrong. Actually, the point was that it’s really funny for Boyle to like lady stuff, because he’s a man who should like man things. A man like Boyle is not even a man at all – he has too many feelings, likes all the wrong things, and just to prove it, let’s laugh at his tiny dick.
But all of this – or most of it, at least – might be forgivable, if the show understood its own tone.
The problem with Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that it still thinks it’s a Parks and Rec or The Office, but it won’t do the work. It expects emotional beats to land but it doesn’t do the necessary character and relationship development to pull it off.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine was always a bit goofier than those shows, but it had enough emotional grounding to land things like Jake saying goodbye to Amy at the end of the first season: “I kinda wish something could happen between us, romantic-styles.” Andy Samberg’s a great actor, and he delivers the line perfectly. Kinda funny but mostly sad. Wistful. It’s not a sob-fest like some of Parks and Rec’s finer moments, but it hits you, because there’s been a season’s worth of pining and it still isn’t a resolution – it isn’t unlike Michael talking about his future with Holly.
But now Brooklyn Nine-Nine is too silly for moments like that to work, but it still insists on having them. Jake and Boyle end up infiltrating the Latvian mob when trying to track down an imported toy that Boyle bought for his son, and Jake gives a speech about how Boyle shouldn’t risk his life when he has a son who needs him. Instead of being touched, I was mostly surprised that I was supposed to think Boyle was in real danger. Even though Boyle has literally been shot on the job before, the way this whole scene had been set up and filmed, it didn’t even occur to me that there was any risk happening. Not long before, I watched an old Cheers episode – a show with intrinsically low stakes, because it’s set at a bar – and I felt genuine fear when the possibility was raised of Cliff losing his job. Then on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Boyle was in the line of fire, and I didn’t even know I was supposed to fear for him.
When I say that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is too silly, I want you to know that I love silly. I am sincerely excited to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I love silly enough to know that silliness is an art, not something you get to half-ass.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine has no awareness of its own silliness, and takes no joy in it. When it worked as a procedural workplace sitcom in the mould of The Office, it seemed genuinely well-made, but it doesn’t know how to do silliness well. Angie Tribeca, Steve and Nancy Carell’s Naked Gun-style police comedy, is the obvious counterpoint: Angie Tribeca has much sillier plots than Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but their silliness is part of the joke. Angie Tribeca does an episode where a man falls from the sky and they have to do an investigation on a spaceship, and calls it ‘This Sounds Unbelievable, but CSI: Miami Did It’. Brooklyn Nine-Nine does an episode where Terry’s old colleagues bully him by sending him kittens and he has to prove himself or whatever, and it’s embarrassing to watch.
The worst part, by far, is to see the talented people locked into this mess. It breaks my heart to see people praise Andy Samberg for Brooklyn Nine-Nine while his comedy group’s masterpiece, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, flopped. It breaks my heart to see Andre Braugher do the same bit over and over again – what if Holt, normally so monotone, had a sudden outburst of emotion? – always delivering a better performance than it deserves. It breaks my heart to think that the same fate might await Mike Schur’s new show, The Good Place, which had a wonderful first season.
But maybe The Good Place will be one of those rare exceptions. Loving a TV show is setting yourself up for disappointment, but that’s a risk worth taking.