Spoilers ahead for last night's episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine has kept up its sharp humor and creative storylines, arguably getting better as it continues into its fourth season. Last week's episode "The Last Ride," in particular, was one of the series' best—but a question has lingered: Will the series ever address systemic racism and violence within the police force?
Perhaps it isn't fair to demand such an episode from a generally light-hearted comedy that works just as well as a joke factory as it does an escapist sitcom. Brooklyn Nine-Nine gets real laughs from pratfalls, deadpan delivery (Andre Braugher is the show's not-so-secret comedic weapon), and, well, everything Chelsea Peretti does. Maybe it shouldn't be tasked with getting heavy and diving deep into real issues like stop and frisk or police brutality—after all, the show rarely depicts real policing and has never claimed to be an accurate take on police work. (Plus, the show is already progressive: Not only is the cast racially and gender diverse, but it also plays with ideas of ultra-masculinity, depicts multiple interracial relationships, and gives a proud gay black man the top position in the precinct.)
At the same time, it feels odd that Brooklyn Nine-Nine has remained so tight-lipped (save for the season three episode "Boyle's Hunch" that threw in a quick C-story about the public's negative perception of the police) on a subject that's not only taking over our lives—and taking black lives—but is also popping up on television more and more. The story line was included in two of the most talked-about dark comedies last year: Orange Is the New Black (the theme of which continues into the upcoming fifth season) and UnREAL (although the less said about the show's attempts, the better).
There are even entire shows now built around tackling racism, police brutality, and/or the Black Lives Matter movement, such as FOX's Shots Fired and Netflix's near-perfect Dear White People. The latter is important to note because it shows that comedies, too, are not shying away—in fact, the two best episodes to touch on police brutality are from network sitcoms: ABC's Black-ish and NBC's The Carmichael Show. Both did so without sacrificing laughs, and so it shouldn't be a problem for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, either.
That's why last night's "Moo Moo" felt so unexpected, and necessary, for the series as a whole. When Sergeant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) is looking for his daughter's blanket, he's suddenly stopped by white police officer Maldack (Desmond Harrington) because Terry looks suspicious (see: black) in a nice neighborhood—Terry's own neighborhood. Terry doesn't raise his voice but is told to lower his voice; he tries to explain that he's also a cop but is manhandled and frisked.
Everything goes as expected: Terry's free once they run his name, his co-workers are angry on his behalf, and there are parallels made to white run-ins with the cops; in a flashback, Jake (Andy Samberg) wears a hockey mask and breaks into a friend's apartment for a prank, and a cop cheerfully tells him that "sounds fun!" Terry meets with Maldack, who refuses to apologize, explaining, "You don't exactly look like you belong in that neighborhood"—the racism dripping in this statement is infuriating—and implies the mix-up is Terry's fault for not having his badge on him.
None of this is surprising: one of the best running character jokes in Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that Terry is an athletic, muscular, and intimidating dude (actor Terry Crews played in the NFL for six years; he's so built and attractive he was even an Old Spice spokesman) who's actually sweet and sensitive. Sadly, it's absolutely not surprising that a white officer would see Terry and stop him because they assume that he's a big black man up to no good. It's also, because of four seasons of intelligent character building, not surprising that Terry is holding a baby blanket—definitely not a weapon!—as this is happening.
What is surprising is that when Terry tries to file a complaint, Captain Holt (Braugher) is against it. It's a smart twist, because one would immediately assume that his black superior—a man who has faced discrimination for his race and sexuality—would immediately empathize and take Terry's side. But the episode explores these differing perspectives, through a well-written and emotional conversation between two black men; Crews and Braugher are at their best here, hitting all the beats without going overboard and while still maintaining the core of their characters. The conversation also ends with a great, tension-breaking joke—because jokes are what Brooklyn Nine-Nine does best.
Most of "Moo Moo" actually proves why Brooklyn Nine-Nine is an ideal show to tackle this story line, and it's not just because the jokes help to keep things light and move it along. This particular workplace comedy setting means the show can talk about the "brotherhood" of being a police officer: Holt explains how blowing the whistle on a fellow cop—on one of their own—can backfire and end up derailing Terry's career. This setting also means it can show the inner conflict between Terry as a black man and as a police officer—a very real conflict that few shows are willing to address (even in the rare instances where they can).
The characters themselves give Brooklyn Nine-Nine the added bonus of having another black male police officer around to hash this out with, providing viewers with more than one perspective. Terry wants change now, and for Muldock to be punished now. Holt thinks Terry should push his career forward and rise to a rank where he can enact large-scale changes from within. Neither man is wrong, and both are acceptable routes to take—although we understand the likelihood of either option working is slim, and the ending doesn't sugarcoat much. "Moo Moo" is a bit of a departure from Brooklyn Nine-Nine's general tone, but it's a necessary one, showing that even light-hearted sitcoms can get a little real.
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