‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ nabs spot amid TV’s best

Police show tackles important topics, piles on the laughs

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At this moment in pop culture history, a television critic has to make a special effort to feel under-employed. But for all the outstanding television that’s aired over the past couple of months, there was a special-shaped hole in my viewing schedule and heart that could be filled only by “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

The Fox comedy, which returned Tuesday night after a lengthy hiatus, hasn’t yet been renewed for a fifth season, which is a shame. There’s no other currently airing show that makes me laugh as loudly or as lengthily, though “Silicon Valley” is a close second. And at a moment of fraught debate about policing in America, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is doing its small part to make space for a new kind of conversation about policing.

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” has always been unusual in the series’ ability to find unpredictable routes into a wide range of issues in contemporary policing. In four seasons, it’s tackled everything from the New York Police Department’s history of racism and homophobia, to the abuse of internal affairs investigations, to how different city agencies work together, to how overzealousness can influence even a good cop’s judgement.

Not every episode has an issue like this as its focus, and the show has thus far steered clear of the most fraught subject in the profession, police-involved shootings. But it’s unusual in that it takes for granted that these questions are an inherent part of police work.

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” doesn’t always nail the balance between the larger issue that is the subject of any given episode. Tuesday night’s episode raised the prospect that the precinct might be closed because crime has fallen so much. That’s a promising subject, especially after a presidential campaign where the winning candidate painted a portrait of American cities as lawless hellscapes despite declining crime rates.

But “The Audit” got distracted from the implications of a situation where politics create perverse incentives for cops, making the episode more about Detective Amy Santiago’s (Melissa Fumero) dull ex-boyfriend Teddy (Kyle Bornheimer), her relationship with Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and the horrors of jazz brunch than about the prospect of the precinct closing.

That’s a rare misfire, though. A scene from earlier this season, in which “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” used Samberg’s marvelous comedic timing to slip in a vicious jab at America’s failures on gun control, was more typical.

The structure of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” means there are limits to how sharp the series’ critique of policing can be. Series co-creator Dan Goor told me last year that he always wanted his characters to be good at their jobs, because in policing, the stakes are too high for the main characters to be incompetent. The cops of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” can make mistakes and run up against the limits the law places on their action, but they can’t be foolish or evil, and still have the show function as a comedy. And on a structural level, the series can critique department incentives and individual leaders but can’t be as comprehensively pessimistic as a series like “The Wire,” lest the characters’ enthusiasm for their jokes come across as a hideous farce.

But “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” can do something that political discourse seems to find incredibly difficult. The series is confident and optimistic about the necessity of good policing, without ever being remotely defensive about the prospect that this essential job could and should be done better.

Its characters are meant to be the best of the NYPD, and they still struggle with bureaucracy and their own impulses. The series doesn’t need them to be perfect — if they were, their excellence would be as deadly to the show’s comedy as incompetence.