BROOKLYN NINE-NINE has been getting a lot of press since its debut a few weeks ago. Especially for a show that isn’t exactly burning up the ratings. Maybe a little overthink will tell us why:
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of the most promising new shows to roll out this fall, and one aspect of it in particular seems worth mulling over.
So Brooklyn Nine-Nine is, at the moment, a workplace comedy. I say “at the moment” because workplace comedies, as a genre, have a tendency to devolve into family comedies. This doesn’t mean that the focus shifts to the characters’ home lives. Rather, it means that the workplace stops being a place of work. Ersatz familial ties develop (this character becomes the dad, this character becomes the daughter, this the crazy uncle), episodes are devoted to interpersonal conflicts and group therapy, and — Brooklyn Nine-Nine being set in a police precinct — crime runs rampant in the streets. This is a rhythm old as time. It’s surprising, and oddly touching, to flash back to those early episodes of 30 Rock where the writers were still trying to write jokes about being a TV writer, or the early episodes of News Radio where the characters struggled with potential FCC violations and the like, but neither of those shows really came into their own until their workplace premises were largely forgotten. In that people are the most interesting thing on the planet, the human relationships always end up taking center stage, and in that the nuclear family is still the most important model of human relationships for most of the people writing and watching these shows, family comedy is eventually what you end up with. Given enough time, Brooklyn Nine-Nine WILL succumb to the same fate. But I’m guessing — guessing mind you — that it will take longer than normal. (And I’m pretty happy about that, actually, because although there’s nothing wrong with watching these same family dynamics play out again and again, it’s always nice to have a little variety.)
Why? Well, the first reason is that writing about work in a police precinct is different from writing about work in a paper supply company, not because of the nature of the job, but because there is a readymade and evergreen supply offictional versions of the job that the writers can draw on. This makes it easier to come up with workplace-specific plots. Note that Scrubs, which could draw on every medical drama ever, stayed workplace-specific way longer than average. (And also, interestingly, way longer than 30 Rock, where the writers were trying to write about their actual jobs. “Write what you know,” we’re always told… but apparently what we know is Law & Order and House MD.)