It’s the new fall television season, so it’s time for me to pay tribute to some of my favorite shows. I’ll start with the one that took me the most by surprise last year, Sunday night’s “cop comedy” Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Five things I love about this funny, good-natured show:
The characters are engaging.
This show took me by surprise because I don’t normally care for sitcoms. Too many of them, I’ve always thought, rely on one-note characterization and snarky put-downs, allowing little room for character or relationship development. I can recall an Entertainment Weekly article pointing out that sitcoms exemplify the charm of stasis; since the characters don’t change in any meaningful sense, the audience can rely on them to be funny in the same ways, week after week. Good for you, EW; you put into words why I prefer to avoid sitcoms.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s first couple of episodes might not show much departure from that norm. The show needs to establish its characters’ principal traits. Jake is the wisecracking clown who rarely takes anything seriously. Boyle is the foodie nerd with the huge man-crush on Jake. Rosa is the humorless tough gal. Amy is the ambitious overachiever whom nobody in the office likes very much. Holt is the dour, deadpan authority figure who happens to be gay. The one most fleshed out from the get-go is Terry, the iron-strong sergeant and devoted family man. But in the course of the first season, the show carefully broadens these characters beyond these primary identifying traits. Jake is very good at his job and cares about his colleagues. Boyle is smart and observant. Rosa does have a sense of humor; it just manifests itself in unusual ways. Amy earnestly wants to do the right thing and can be a loyal, giving friend. And Holt… more on him in a minute.
Andre Braugher shows he has major comic chops.
Before Airplane!, Leslie Nielsen had never made a comedy. That one film showed he could be brilliant in the genre, and it changed the direction of his career. Likewise, Andre Braugher, who plays Captain Holt, has always been known for serious roles, and acclaimed in those roles even when the movie or show around him isn’t up to his level. To my knowledge he has never given a bad performance, but apparently up until Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it hadn’t occurred to anyone just how he might excel in a comedy. It turns out that Braugher succeeds in being very, very funny by playing Captain Holt absolutely straight. He rarely cracks a smile. He speaks in a deep, serious monotone. He never intends to be funny, or even amusing — an effective contrast to Andy Samberg’s Jake, who is quite self-consciously funny. Holt is hilarious because he has no idea he’s hilarious. One of my favorite moments from last season: Holt in tears as he sits in a theater watching his favorite movie, Moneyball. “Statistical analysis… it’s so beautiful!”
The cast is wonderfully diverse.
Jake and Boyle are white guys. Holt and Terry are African-American. Rosa and Amy are Latina. Holt is in a happily stable marriage with his husband, Kevin (played by Marc Evan Jackson, whom I also know as “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars,” from the Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast). I’m hard pressed to think of a more diverse cast on a current TV show. Yet the show never sets aside its comic storytelling to hand down any heavy-handed sermons about diversity. It simply sets its characters in motion and lets them be who they are — which, in the end, may be the best message about diversity we could hope for.
Two of the main male characters are happily married.
One of the most disheartening features of current and recent comedy, on the big and small screen, is the prominence of the “boy-man,” the male character(s) locked in a state of permanent adolescence, unwilling to commit to a job or a romantic relationship or anything that smacks of responsibility. The Brooklyn Nine-Nine character who most nearly fits the “boy-man” type is Jake, the young dude who likes to flirt and can’t stop with the one-liners — though even he departs from the type, through his dedication to his job, and he may be settling down on the romantic front as well. Two of the show’s most significant male characters, Holt and Terry, go further than that. Mature, sensible men who are committed to both career and spouses (and, in Terry’s case, children as well), they offer sorely needed proof that male characters can be honest-to-goodness adults and still be very funny. And, for bonus points, Terry’s children are named Cagney and Lacey.
It’s funny and good-natured.
The show isn’t perfect. Some of the elements I see as flaws have been praised by others, most notably Kyra Sedgwick’s Madeline Wuntch, whom many of the show’s fans see as a worthy nemesis for Holt but who comes across to me as an unpleasantly stereotyped caricature of the Evil Boss Lady. (Honestly, how many of those do we need?) Yet when we leave Wuntch out of the equation, we see a cast of characters who actually like one another, help one another, and support one another. Even Gina, Holt’s narcissistic assistant who seems to be around to fill that apparently necessary “snarky put-down” quotient, can on occasion be generous and helpful, usually when interacting with Jake or Holt. It’s clear the show’s creators like these characters, and so, even when they’re at their most mistake-prone, we like them too. It’s good to see a show that does not rely on mean-spirited hostility for its humor.