Since the death of George Floyd, the world has started to look critically at the messages projected by popular media. Across the landscape, execs are cancelling and contextualizing content in an effort to be more aware of racial issues. This is particularly true of content where police are the main subjects. How do we tell stories where the audience is meant to sympathize with cop characters in a time when public opinion has shifted away from police?
The team behind Brooklyn Nine-Nine is trying to figure that out. The creatives behind the police sitcom, including stars Andy Samberg and Terry Crews, as well as showrunner Dan Goor, have acknowledged the need for the show to address the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. They are now grappling with how best to use the series to address present social justice issues.
Andy Samberg rose to prominence as a cast-member on Saturday Night Live in the early 2000s. He has since become the cornerstone of the Brooklyn Nine-Nine cast, playing the dopey, but charming Detective Jake Peralta. In recent weeks, Samberg has vocally supported Black Lives Matter. He recognizes a need to reevaluate how the show portrays the police.
He said of his responsibility to the movement,
“We’re taking a step back, and the writers are all rethinking how we’re going to move forward, as well as the cast… We’re all in touch and kind of discussing how you make a comedy show about police right now, and if we can find a way of doing that that we all feel morally okay about.”
He went on to say that finding humor and levity in the current political situation would be challenging. The show depicts police as being lovable and benevolent, if at times incompetent. But this message is in contrast to the international attention on police brutality. While it will be difficult, the show will have to evolve if it wants to be true to the real world it reflects.
The Cast’s Cohesive Message
Terry Crews, one of the show’s two Black stars, said the show has scrapped a handful of episodes from the upcoming season. He said:
“We’ve had a lot of somber talks about it and deep conversations and we hope through this we’re going to make something that will be truly groundbreaking this year… We have an opportunity and we plan to use it in the best way possible.”
Additionally, executive producer Dan Goor was quick to support BLM. He announced that the show donated $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network in support of protesters and lower-income people. He also stated that the entire cast condemns police violence.
Censorship vs. Contextualization
Networks and studios have faced a flood of decisions in recent weeks. In light of shifting public opinion, they have had to find ways to handle older content without alienating viewers.
Paramount recently pulled the highly problematic show Cops, after a 30-year run. At the same time, HBO Max tentatively took down the movie Gone With the Wind. But it plans to reintroduce it with a foreword by a Black media studies professor. The choice between all-out canceling a piece, as opposed to adding context, may vary depending on the content.
For example, in the case of Gone With the Wind, it’s important that the public can access the film with clear context. An influential piece of cinema, it offers insight into how Hollywood portrayed race in the 1930s. We can learn from looking critically at the offensive ways the film represents enslaved people.
But the same can not be said for Cops. It offers little educational value, and manipulates its real-life subjects, mostly poor folk and people of color
Making Light of Dark Times
In the case of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it might be most impactful for the show to remain on air, for at least one more season, in order to convey a meaningful message. Cancelling it outright would feel clumsy, considering the semi-serialized format. It also might cause more backlash than good. Simply disappearing does not rise to the challenge of the times. Rather, it acts as if the events of 2020 have not happened at all.
In contrast, by using the platform to deliver a thoughtful and entertaining story, the writers and cast have an opportunity to reach an audience that might not otherwise be exposed to conversations about police brutality. And if they can manage to make it funny as well as compelling, they spread an important message in a way that stays true to the show’s spirit.