Taking home two Golden Globes after only twelve episodes on the air, Fox’s police procedural/workplace comedy hybrid Brooklyn Nine-Nine is already making plenty of waves. The accolades the show is achieving are certainly well-earned — it’s tightly written, juggles its two genres expertly, and has an ensemble cast which has developed fantastic chemistry considerably faster than its predecessors The Office and Parks and Recreation. But what really makes the show stand out is its revolutionary casting — it’s a network sitcom where more than half the stars are people of color (two black men and two Latina women), and features an openly gay cop who is in no way defined by his gayness. All seven main characters are remarkably well-developed already given the show’s age, but of particular interest are the show’s two black men, Captain Holt and Sergeant Terrence Jeffords. Each of these men almost falls into a well-worn black man stereotype, only to escape it by being actual human beings.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine producers Michael Schur and Daniel J. Goor are of course best known for the excellent but primarily white Parks and Recreation (Shur also worked on The Office) Each of those shows, incidentally, featured one (minor) black character, one non-stereotypical South Asian character, and one character played by Rashida Jones. That’s about par for the course for a network show, but certainly not ground-breaking. According to an interview with actress Stephanie Beatriz, Schur and Goor didn’t necessarily set out to make a more diverse show. It’s just that Pawnee, Indiana and Scranton, Pennsylvania make sense as mostly white places, whereas Brooklyn is an incredibly diverse area, and they wanted the cast to reflect that diversity.
Jeffords, portrayed by former NFL Linebacker Terry Crews, is gigantic, muscular, and bald. He sets himself up in the stereotype of the hyper-masculine “scary black man.” However, we quickly learn there is far more to the sergeant. He loves yogurt and French films. He is a gifted sketch artist and oil painter. He is happily married, with two daughters who he loves more than anything in the world. And he’s been confined to desk duty after having a freak-out in a department store and shooting a mannequin.
Prior to being suspended, though, Jeffords was one of the best marksmen on the force. He’s also obsessed with bodybuilding and keeping his impressive physique. When he has a problem with Andy Samberg’s Detective Peralta in “The Ebony Falcon,” he challenges the much smaller man to a boxing match. Terry embodies both the masculine and the feminine, sometimes simultaneously — in one memorable scene, he says to sycophant Scully, with full, glowering anger, “Bring me my oils.” To which Scully replies “Paint, or massage?” Two major threads emerge here — first, the focus on Sergeant Jeffords as a family man seems like a conscious choice, a reaction against the absolutely pervasive trope of the absent black father. Terry not only cares about his kids, but cares about them so much that the very fear of dying in the line of duty and leaving them fatherless led to the breakdown which caused him to be declared unfit for duty. The second thread is his ability to express traits which are typically thought of as feminine — a sensitive, artistic side which he is not ashamed to own up to, probably because he is willing and able to beat up anyone who would criticize him for them. Another contradiction inherent in Terry is that while his instability renders him unfit to carry a gun, whenever the Nine-Nine is taken out of the context of police work — at a dinner party hosted by Holt’s Columbia Professor husband, for example — he proves the most adept at fitting in with normal people.
Holt, the Nine-Nine’s seemingly emotionless captain, plays on a whole bunch of different stereotypes. Portrayed by Andre Braugher, best known for his role on the serious cop show Homicide: Life on the Streets, Holt is a completely by-the-book officer, in contrast to Peralta’s on-the-fly, improvisational style, but the proverbial stick in his ass has a very real reason behind it — as New York City’s first openly gay, black police captain, he feels a strong need to prove himself by making his precinct the best it can possibly be. Later in the season, flashbacks reveal that he was once a lot like Peralta, but breaking the rules is a lot easier when you have white privilege to fall back on. Holt and Peralta’s relationship is the backbone of the show, and it works because Holt’s stoicism is a front — he is capable of a subtle kind of humor which he uses more as he becomes more comfortable with his team.
For Peralta’s partner, the eager and earnest Detective Santiago, Holt fills a different role — the black mentor figure, or, as TV Tropes puts it, the “Magical Negro.” This is a black character who, rather than take action or have agency, exists only to advise and help actualize a white hero. Holt at first seems to fit this trope, as Santiago wants him to be her “rabbi” and confer wisdom on her. It is worth noting that Santiago, as a Latino woman, is also not a traditional protagonist, but Holt also breaks the “black mentor figure” pattern in other ways. While he does often seem to have a lesson for Peralta or the whole team to learn, he is also just as often the recipient of the lesson himself, as when he tries to make the precinct more efficient by manipulating people in “Operation: Broken Feather” or when he tries to win an election of the African American Gay and Lesbian New York City Policeman’s Association (AAGLNYCPA for short) in “Full Boyle.”
Holt’s sexuality is never stereotyped or played for laughs, and, in fact, only even comes up as a source of discrimination (and a running gag about the GLBT community’s obsession with acronyms.) This is less revolutionary for Shur, as Oscar, the gay accountant on The Office was also a remarkably nuanced and non-flamboyant character. But Oscar was a relatively minor character, a safe place to put a gay character to appease viewers who might want to see one without turning away others entirely. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not afraid to put Holt front and center, and put him in one of the most masculine jobs possible at the same time.
The two black men being the only two happily married characters is not only a slap in the face to stereotypes, but it also sets up a parental dynamic among the cast, much like how Ron and Leslie play parental roles towards the younger cast members on Parks and Recreation. Jeffords’ feminine side combined with his protective parental instinct leads to him generally playing the role of “Mom” to Holt’s “Dad” — this is even lampshaded a couple of times, once when Jeffords refers to himself as a “proud mama hen” on staff evaluation day, and also in Peralta’s Thanksgiving toast, where he gives thanks for his “weird family with two black dads.” Jeffords is certainly the more nurturing of the two, while Holt is more of a disciplinarian. But Jeffords is also capable of terrifying freak-outs, and Holt definitely has moments when he feels, and expresses, genuine affection for his team — moments made all the more powerful by their rarity.
What’s remarkable about Holt and Jeffords is not just that they are fully developed black male characters who avoid the pitfalls of stereotypes found in most television, but especially police procedurals. It’s not even that they are two black men on a show who have a relationship with each other and often have scenes or even whole plotlines that focus on the two of them and no white people. What’s remarkable is that Holt and Jeffers are probably the two best developed characters on the show, each with a set of complex motivations that make them feel like real people — just like everyone in the cast, gay or straight, black, white or Latina. In other words, what Brooklyn Nine-Nine shows is you don’t need to carefully write around racial stereotypes to avoid falling into them — all you have to do is write all of your characters as real, three-dimension human beings and treat them with respect. Most of the time, getting it right with race and gender follows from there.