I’m baffled on a daily basis by the increasingly awful national and global turns of events littering the headlines. Making sense of politics in 2018 is both a thankless task and a Sisyphean chore. We’re only about a year and some change into the incomprehensible nightmare that is our current presidency, elevated to the zenith of reality TV, but I’ve accepted that every time I think I have a clear-eyed take on the course of American politics, the narrative changes, zigging when I think it’s about to zag. And I’m OK with that.
I am not, however, OK living with the knowledge that we’ve yet to receive notice of renewal for Brooklyn Nine-Nine as the series returns to Fox after a six-month break.
I do not accept that Brooklyn Nine-Nine, after nearly five seasons of excellence, does not warrant renewal when it’s smack dab in the middle of arguably its best season to date. I’ll cop to one unflattering truth: Good as it may be, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has dropped in the ratings since its first season premiered back in 2013, steadily losing numbers year by year up to Season Four. If movies are driven by box office receipts, television is driven by Nielsens, and if the decline is disheartening, it’s equally opaque and irrelevant. People still love sitcoms. Why they don’t love Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a mystery, especially considering one of its co-creators (along with Dan Goor) is Michael Schur, the guy responsible for the much beloved pop culture sensation The Good Place.
For reference, The Good Place pulled in better numbers than Brooklyn Nine-Nine did in their respective first and second seasons, a greater success right out the gate than its predecessor in Schur’s body of work. Objectively, it’s a fresher show, rooted in a tradition as old as television itself and buttressed by an original premise. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, by comparison, is a cop show, and if there aren’t many sitcoms wrapped around cop shows, there are still a whole lot of cop shows. Maybe we’re not as interested in watching wacky police hijinks as we are in watching bad people deal with post-life crises and the possibility of eternal damnation; maybe we’re concerned with tending our own souls, because as The Good Place reminds us, it’s oh so hard to be good and, especially in a culture addicted to social media, way, way too easy to be bad.
In a roundabout way, the morality of The Good Place is exactly why Brooklyn Nine-Nine is so profound, and thus requires renewal: Their sense of morality is one and the same, but expressed in entirely different ways. It’s easy to be bad in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, too! The difference is, the cast is on Earth, not in the afterlife, so the repercussions of their transgressions are grounded. Holt (Andre Braugher) falls back on his old gambling addiction and lashes out at anyone caught in his orbit. When Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) comes out as bisexual to her parents, their reaction is more or less what she feared. Gina (Chelsea Peretti) takes over Hitchcock and Scully’s (Dirk Blocker and Joel McKinnon Miller) napping room as a space to breast pump for her baby, but tricks Terry (Terry Crews) into thinking she’s pumping hard when she’s hardly pumping. This is the thread of the series dating all the way back to the start, of course. Nobody here is genuinely bad, not by any meaningful measure, but they struggle with petty badness, whether their own or others’. That’s Schur’s bread and butter. It has been since his days working on The Office and Parks and Recreation.
And that’s why Brooklyn Nine-Nine needs another season: Low-ranking it may be in the numbers race, but it’s essential viewing all the same for its depth of humanity. If there’s one word to describe Schur, after all, it’s “humanist,” and his humanism reflects in the fabric of the show’s storytelling. He allows his characters their flaws but always provides them opportunities to learn, grow, and become better people; they’re never deprived of forgiveness, either, at least for the most part. I’m not sure Jake (Andy Samberg) will ever forgive Doug Judy (Craig Robinson) for instance, for every time Doug has taken advantage of Jake’s irrepressible and reckless desire to be everyone’s friend. (Then again, if Jake would forgive any one person for exploiting his amiability, it’d be Doug, hands down.) We’re not on the other side of Rosa’s conflict with her mother and father, either, with her dad stepping up first to apologize to his daughter and do the work necessary to accept her for who she is. And what about Terry? You think he’s ever going to forgive the cop who profiled him in “Moo Moo”? Hell, no. There are some crimes you can’t excuse.
But the gang pitches in to help each other when help is needed, busting ass to get Holt back to New York in time for his police commissioner interview in “99,” standing by Terry (and his daughters) after being stopped in “Moo Moo,” supporting Rosa after she opens up to the squad about her sexuality in “Game Night.” That’s just the big stuff, though. It’s the smaller stuff, the minutiae, where Brooklyn Nine-Nine shines most. Each season consists of 22 or 23 episodes, most of them one-offs, and in those one-offs we see the cast gel as performers and bond as characters. Even when not at its best—when it’s merely “good” and not “outstanding”—Brooklyn Nine-Nine showcases top-tier comic timing and interplay between its actors, who banter and drop punchlines with the speed of a moving bullet; the series also reveals the people they play in surprising and often tender moments of fellowship and affection. You have to look pretty hard to find a role model for modern masculinity to top Terry, the very model of male physical strength who is nonetheless in touch with his feelings in ways most dudes aren’t. Because he’s so in touch with his feelings, he’s more in touch with the feelings of others. That’s huge. You don’t need guys like Terry Crews on TV for their physique. You need them on TV for their empathy.
Terry isn’t unique, though. He’s a great fount of empathy, but feelings and empathy drive Brooklyn Nine-Nine all around. It takes a lot to get honest introspection from anyone in the precinct, from reticent badass Rosa to self-soothing goofball Jake to neurotic type-A Amy (Melissa Fumero) to Charles (Joe Lo Truglio), whose very name is an umbrella covering every facet of his very particular weirdness; when you do get that introspection, though, Brooklyn Nine-Nine sings. (Hell, even poor Scully tugs at our heartstrings every once in a while. How can you not feel for him during Season Three’s “The Funeral,” weeping over his pending divorce from his wife?) Absent those moments, the series would, perhaps, be lost in the shuffle and deservedly heading toward cancelation. It’s one thing to write a funny sitcom. It’s another thing to write a sitcom where, over time, humor has become secondary to compassion.
Most of all, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is distinctly American, in tune with the zeitgeist on the page and in its casting. That cuts back to Schur’s humanity: As in The Good Place, he’s interested in perspectives other than his own (even if white male perspectives are central to Brooklyn Nine-Nine on the basis of its lead). Canceling Brooklyn Nine-Nine means canceling a holistically humanist series, where jokes are loosed in giggly salvos and law and order is neglected for antics, and where issues that weigh on America today can be presented frankly, with gravity, all in the same sitcom package. Forget about the numbers. This is a show worth keeping on the air.
airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on FOX. Read Paste’s guide to the series’ nine best episodes here.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist,WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.