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This past year's EMMY nominees for Best Comedy Series honored a wide number of programs including, network mega-sitcoms (Black-ish, Modern Family), foul-mouthed satires (Veep, Silicon Valley), and dramedies with indie film sensibilities (Master of None, Transparent). Not coincidentally, the six series highlighted above stand as pillars representing some of the most popular and/or acclaimed shows in the landscape of television comedy. While I have no intention to declare any of these shows as unworthy of this praise, observing this exclusive realm of success raises questions about why other worthy programs remain in relative obscurity? Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is currently in the middle of its fourth season on Fox, is one of those shows on the outside looking in. The workplace comedy has never set the ratings ablaze, declining over each of its four seasons amidst various time slot shuffles, but what the masses are missing is one of the sharpest shows that can be found on network TV today.
Nine-Nine, despite its home on FOX, shares both a sensibility and lineage with NBC's famous "Comedy Night, Done Right" line-up of critically heralded sitcoms from the mid-2000's including Parks and Recreation and The Office. The connection is most clearly seen in the creators Dan Goor and Michael Schur's extensive history with both of these programs. Despite taking place in the fictional NYPD precinct of its title, the show has always presented itself a workplace comedy, doing for police work what Parks did for small town politics. And like Parks, the series smartly presents its main characters as competent at their jobs, understanding that there are more laughs to be had from strong characterizations than watching inept characters bumble their way through cases. Though there are occasional arcs and plot points that could recur over several episodes, the show thrives primarily as a self-contained entity, utilizing its large ensemble to assemble unique pairings from its stacked comedic roster.
And make no mistake, this cast is effectively the network equivalent of The Avengers. Beyond SNL and Lonely Island alum Andy Samberg who leads the show and largely serves as its promotional face, is Joe Lo Truglio, Terry Crews, and stand-up comedian Chelsea Peretti all doing consistently impressive work. That's not even mentioning Andre Braugher's performance, who despite being known primarily for dramas, offers a master class on deadpan comedy as the precinct's captain. Beyond simply assembling a talented comedic ensemble, they've created one of the most ethnically diverse casts of any current network comedy, doing so simply by representing the realities of its setting. Compared to the monochromatic leads of other Brooklyn set shows like Girls, this simple concept seems downright revolutionary. Characters are not defined by racial identities (or sexual orientation in the case of Braugher's Holt who is openly gay), abandoning stereotype humor to again allow the comedy to come out of their unique characterizations.
All these promising elements have been in place since the show debuted in Fall 2013, and over its short run it has admirably imitated shows like Parks and The Office in their ability to learn from its early mistakes. One of the most crucial elements of growth has been the characterization of Samberg's Detective Jake Peralta who has managed to evolve from a quip machine to a three-dimensional character largely through arcs focused on Peralta's surrogate father-son dynamic with Holt and his close friendships within the precinct. Another crucial modification came in the decision to eliminate a first season arc where Detective Boyle (Lo Truglio) was characterized with a Pepe Le Pew-ish infatuation on fellow Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) despite her lack of romantic interest. Many found the arc off-putting in its refusal to take seriously Diaz's discomfort at the unwanted advances. But rather than continuing this plotline out of stubbornness, the show wisely moved away from that dynamic by having the character acknowledge his poor behavior and create instead a more organic friendship between the two.
While I certainly can continue to explain why this smart young series is worth taking note of, a more intriguing question for me is why the show has failed to catch on the way I would have expected it to? It's worth remembering that this is a show Fox believed in enough that during its first season, they included it as one of two shows (along with New Girl) to follow Super Bowl XLVIII. The most obvious theory is that there just isn't a draw for comedies like NBC's departed lineup anymore. With seemingly endless options at the viewer's disposal, perhaps interest has moved away from these comfortably goofy shows in favor of more adventurous programing like Louie or Transparent. While shows like 30 Rock and Parks have remained beloved by comedy aficionados, many forget the two were never truly able to gain traction in terms of ratings, instead floating by on critical praise and awards in addition to their cult followings. And while Nine-Nine carries the torch nobly for these departed shows, it still has not reached the legendary heights its predecessors are remembered for, possibly leaving viewers content to re-watch these comfortable workplace sitcoms on Netflix than invest in an entirely new series.
Another important question to consider is whether the show's targeted 18-49 year old audiences are even interested in a comedy centered within the NYPD? Since the show premiered, there has been no shortage of real world police incidents to cloud the humor of the show, including those leading to the deaths of people like Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice. And though the show did address police backlash somewhat in a storyline during a season three episode, the series has largely stayed away from political statements, existing in a world where cops naturally do the right thing. While gritty dramas like Law and Order: SVU or Chicago PD still manage to find success despite police controversy, it is decidedly easier time integrating real world anxieties and storylines to their plots in comparisons to the good-natured antics of Nine-Nine. Ultimately it's not unreasonable to think some viewers might not be able to find humor in the profession, even if taken within a fantasy realm.
Finally, the prevalence of streaming services like Netflix also leads one to wonder whether the show is a victim of its own nature as a network sitcom? With streaming and binge culture becoming more and more normalized with every new Netflix or Amazon show, those interested in a smart comedy may not have the patience to watch the show once a week over the course of 22 weeks. Providing further complications to this has been Fox's several switches of the show's timeslots, moving the show from it's original time on Tuesdays to Sundays between seasons one and two, before bringing it back to Tuesdays halfway through season three. While Fox's efforts to move the show to whatever slot has as strong a lead-in as possible, the confusion of these shifts can inspire issues for audiences that don't exist in the "binge" model.
If news were to break tomorrow that Brooklyn Nine-Nine was cancelled, not much would change in the world. This would not be the first smart, modestly rated sitcom to prematurely meet its end and likely would not be the last either. And while Fox has seemed content with its meager ratings output in the past, it is disheartening to see a show operate with such confidence and feel as though it's happening in a void. We live in an exciting and innovative time for TV programing, and while we certainly shouldn't move backwards, hopefully there remains room for this fun little show, whether or not the EMMYs ever take note.
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