I should open this by saying that I haven’t watched Brooklyn 99 since the second season, and that I’ll eventually start talking about representation in sitcoms and the current landscape of broadcast television as a whole.
So yesterday the internet exploded. Not literally, like in 2037 when Earth is due to be terminated, but figuratively, like it does every day for one reason or another.
The outrage was due to the cancelation of (apparently not-so) hit sitcom Brooklyn 99, which stars Andy Samberg and an ensemble cast of characters who work at a NYCPD precinct. Each episode typically genre-mashes the police procedural with a sitcom, meaning that each broadcast is a self-contained story with slow, network sitcom character growth over time.
It’s for this reason that I believe the show was cancelled. Well, low ratings are to blame, with the final season only managing to reach two million viewers once throughout. But it’s my theory that the show’s ageing format and structure was to blame for the low ratings in the first place.
Okay, so what worked? Why are people rightfully grabbing their torches, pitchforks and Twitter accounts over this?
Well, the entire cast are extremely talented comic actors. Pretty much every single one of them has proven their comedy chops elsewhere and only grew as performers working on a network sitcom. I can’t fault the writing either. I enjoyed the first two seasons, it certainly made me laugh and the story structure was sound compared to a lot of other popular network sitcoms. The characters also gave a positive representation of LGBT+ characters, with one of the characters coming out as bisexual in the most recent series, a demographic that is often overlooked in popular culture.
So if I enjoyed all of these aspects, why did I stop watching after two seasons? Well, it was too formulaic and episodic for my tastes. Personally, I’m not so much a fan of shows that you can hop in and out of at any point. They served me well throughout my childhood and university days, where I just wanted some background colours and shapes to drown out the never-ending noise of constant existence.
But now that I’m (mostly) happy, I want to be compelled and drawn in by a strong, continuous narrative. I want a series to feel like a good book; well written, page-turning and can’t-skip out of fear of missing key details. These days you can find this structure in sitcoms, and they’re becoming some of the most well-received shows out there. Some notable examples are Veep, BoJack Horseman and Barry. But The Good Place is the show I need to talk about, specifically when addressing Brooklyn 99 fans.
Both Brooklyn 99 and The Good Place share a creator. No, not God. Not this time.
This time it’s Michael Schur, who was a writer on The (US) Office and also helped create Parks and Recreation. His sitcom resume is one of the best around and he’s proven time and time again that he’s a master crafter of characters, as well as building the environment they occupy.
In The Good Place he puts all of his acquired skills to great use in this serial sitcom. Every episode is must-watch and the final thirty seconds always have a (by-design) way of pulling you in to the next. We’re in the depths of binge culture, for better or worse, and this kind of structure is what’s required for a successful show moving forward. I can’t recommend it enough, the characters will be familiar yet different and you’ll get the same sort of snappy dialogue and group character interaction that are prevalent in other Schur-created shows.
As well as all the creative wonderfulness that goes into The Good Place, the central character of Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell) is overtly bisexual in the way she is written, yet it’s entirely matter-of-fact. Sometimes shows have a way of branding an LGBT+ character to such a level that they become a caricature of the sexual orientation they’re representing. Now, Brooklyn 99 also managed to avoid these stereotypes, so maybe Schur just gets it.
I’ve seen some websites critique the fact that Eleanor’s character hasn’t had a “coming out” moment, but honestly I think that would ruin her characterisation. To anyone who already watches the show, it’s brilliantly obvious that she’s bisexual. So the representation is present for anyone watching, there’s just no official label, so she can’t be marketed as such. Which I’m told by members of the bisexual community is a good thing, but also that they themselves don’t represent the community at large.
I do understand the importance of blatant representation. If someone is labelled and outed in any community, then it’s a cultural figure that people experiencing similar things can rally around. Be they a real person or a fictional character. But, to be cynical about the whole thing, a lot of shows are doing that at the moment and it feels forced. Eleanor feels like a real person who just happens to be bi. Which should surely be the way forward in representation; every character compelling and well-written first and foremost, so that their sexuality could be anything on the beautiful spectrum and it wouldn’t fundamentally change their narrative journey, beyond maybe a few subplots and/or specific romantic interests.
Obviously if you’re a die-hard fan of one or two shows in particular, and Brooklyn 99 is one of those shows, then nothing is ever going to fill the void. Although I’m not personally a fan, it deserves to be on television a lot more than several network sitcoms I can think of (Bazungo! Borzingle! Bawango! Did I just tell some jokes?). But if you’re like me, and you’re just a fan of sitcoms in general, then The Good Place will help to satiate your appetite between now and Hulu inevitably picking up Brooklyn 99 for a couple more seasons.
The ratings show that nobody was watching Brooklyn 99 on Fox, but I bet it was one of the more popular sitcoms to be streamed. Those are the real numbers that executives are, rightfully, paying attention to.
It’s Friday May 11th and thank you to a couple of good friends who finally convinced me to watch The Good Place, you know who you are.