Welcome to Previously On, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews the first five (of ten) episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 8. The first since protests related to police brutality swept the nation in 2020.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 8 has a tall order to fill. Over the past eight years, the show has grown into one of the most endearing sitcoms on television. When it ends, it’ll join the ranks of co-creator Mike Schur’s sweet and immensely rewatchable completed works, which also include Parks and Recreation and The Good Place. As with those series, engaged fans will want to see a happy ending for the characters they’ve come to love. In this case: the police of New York’s 99th precinct.
This brings us to the more important expectation hanging over this final season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. As a comedy series set in a police station, with cops as its heroes, its first episodes to air since April 2020 must also address a country thoroughly changed by the George Floyd protests and their aftermath. In addition to creating a satisfying end for its large ensemble of characters, the team behind Brooklyn Nine-Nine also needs to be, sincerely and with the level of thoughtfulness we’ve come to expect from them, on the right side of history. It’s a task that the series’ writers seem to be taking seriously, so far. Although the five episodes available to press at publication time fall short of completely condemning the American police state.
Instead of taking a pointed, dramatic stance early on, Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 8 interweaves plots and exchanges about our deeply broken justice system throughout. This is authentic to both the series’ tone and its post-2020 setting. It brings up issues of police ethics organically and often. The nation’s very real reckoning with racial injustice has impacted these fictional characters in big ways. It has led to break-ups, career changes, and even a heaping dose of performative allyship. In one episode, Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) gets on Terry’s (Terry Crews) nerves by transforming into the most obnoxiously “woke” coworker imaginable, listening to a podcast called “Two Wrongs Make a White” and dressing up for Juneteenth. In another, Amy (Melissa Fumero) applies her passionate workplace geekiness to creating a presentation on police reform statistics.
As a show that has always tilted progressive, Brooklyn Nine-Nine might be the only cop-led network series actively trying to reckon with its label as “copaganda.” While this first batch of episodes doesn’t change the hearts and minds of its characters as quickly or completely as I wish it would, the show appears to be building to something big. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 8 Episode 1, the series’ main character, Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), calls himself “one of the good ones,” a sentiment another character with clearer convictions finds appalling. A few scenes later, an openly corrupt NYPD leader uses the same phrase to refer to herself, casting a shadow of doubt over Jake’s claim that pointedly lingers beyond the end credits.
Mike Schur’s shows have always done an excellent job capturing the absurdity of modern American politics — think Parks and Recreation’s nepotism man-baby Bobby Newport, or The Good Place’s tediously bureaucratic heavenly council. With Season 8, Brooklyn Nine-Nine continues the trend with uber-patriotic police union head Frank O’Sullivan (Scrubs’ John C. McGinley), a perfect parody character who ties every conversation in logical knots in an attempt to defend True American Heroes. McGinley is hysterical in the role. Its a much-needed chance to laugh hard at heightened versions of conversations that, in real life, are frustrating to navigate.
The series doesn’t simply use O’Sullivan as a scapegoat, either. Instead, it presents him as just one particularly flagrant example of rampant institutional amorality. If the show intends to engage meaningfully in the conversation surrounding abolition, it’s a safe bet its endgame will involve O’Sullivan.
Somehow, this ethically complex season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine still manages to keep its sitcom equilibrium. The first five episodes include several sub-plots about Jake and Amy’s roles as harried new working parents. There’s also another certified Doug Judy (Craig Robinson) banger and plenty of Captain Holt’s (Andre Braugher) hilarious deadpan attitude — always a highlight of the series. Braugher is better than ever here. When given the chance to be serious, he intones every line with a level of gravitas that reminds us that the series is capable of great emotional depth. These episodes are funnier and sharper than all of Season 7. The show’s penultimate season flagged as it focused so deeply on Jake and Amy’s pregnancy.
It’s tough to imagine a series like Brooklyn Nine-Nine existing in a world like the one we find ourselves in these days. The show has touched on social justice issues before. But it has also long since presented its precinct as a group of hopeful, helpful underdogs. Cops who are seemingly immune to the NYPD’s larger culture of rule-breaking and disenfranchisement.
The reality is, there is no way for Brooklyn Nine-Nine to end that could fully reconcile viewers’ understanding of 2021 America with the mostly-cuddly sitcom world it’s created for itself across seven seasons. Some viewers may want to disengage completely and see the season as a failure. Its unwillingness to stand up swiftly and thoroughly against the entire crooked system may be an issue for them. That’s a perfectly valid response. Others will surely be angry with the show for engaging in so-called “political” discourse at all. But this show was never made for them, and it’s definitely not speaking to them now.
As a white person, it’s not my place to decide whether or not Brooklyn Nine-Nine is capable of reckoning with racial inequality in a way that’s meaningful or acceptable. But I will say this: amid a TV landscape that’s rife with cop-led series that touched on the events of 2020 as if they were a sweeps-week plot, spotlighted then never mentioned again, Brooklyn Nine-Nine stands out. So far, its final season is very funny, and it’s certainly rewarding for longtime fans. Most importantly, it’s also growing, changing, and asking tough questions about its own premise up until the very last moment.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 8 premieres on NBC on August 12, 2021.