Contains spoilers for Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
For all the talk about how streaming is the future of television and that network produced television is nowhere near as potent or as important as it once was, there is something reassuring that the one genre that American network television can still deliver the goods in is comedy.
Certainly, cable and streaming may be able to deliver material that pushes things into the realm of the adult or the R-rating, but there is still something to be said about the occasional gem that can come from a mainstream network, particularly those produced by NBC Universal.
The home of many classic modern-day sitcoms, not least Friends, Seinfeld and Frasier, NBC has proved a fertile ground for not only launching commercially successful comedy series, but also in nurturing talent. Lest we forget, NBC is the home of Saturday Night Live, and with that the launching pad of a plethora of generational divining comedy talent, not least Tina Fey and Amy Poehler who would headline two of the most important comedy series from the network in the 21st Century: 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation.
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Parks was a co-creation between Greg Daniels – who turned the American adaptation of The Office into the phenomenon it became – and Michael Schur, who got his start writing for SNL before becoming one of the most important voices writing for The Office in its early days. But it was Schur who was the most dominating voice in the writing for Parks, and it was the formula for that show (perfectly chosen ensemble cast, good-natured attitude, occasional dips into surreal humour and social commentary) that would come to the forefront in Schur’s next big hit as co-creator, this time alongside Dan Goor who was another equally important voice in crafting Pawnee, Indiana.
Another workplace environment, this time within the confines of a precinct of the NYPD, Brooklyn Nine-Nine may have been produced by NBC Universal, but its home, for a time at least (we’ll come back to that shortly) was the FOX Network. With a cast headed by former SNL star Andy Samberg, Brooklyn Nine-Nine arrived with all the hallmarks of a Schur production and pretty much hit the ground running right away.
There was little of the ground building that marked the first season of Parks and The Office, which each took an initial six episode first season run to figure out what not to do before figuring out how to approach their stories and characters in their second seasons. Brooklyn Nine-Nine almost felt as if it had arrived perfectly formed, and it’s an almost perfect form that has only gotten better the longer it has continued.
Schur’s productions, which would gain another sibling series a few years later with The Good Place, would come to define US Network television comedy in the 2010s, and not only give audiences network-friendly television laughs, albeit laughs with an edge, but also be incredibly reflective of the era they were airing in.
Parks may have begun in 2009, but it would run for seven seasons and reach its conclusion in 2015, and in many ways felt like the perfect comedy for the Obama era: enjoyably political, with just the right touch of political fantasy in a manner similar to The West Wing, borderline surreal, and yet unbelievably positive and fun and with an ensemble cast of characters you wished actually existed.
Parks was maybe a series that couldn’t have existed in an era of Trump, #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter; the toxicity of the current political climate, and a world where hate and cynicism have replaced the optimistic potential that was in the air when Barack Obama was President fed into the feeling of joy that came in watching Leslie Knope try and make Pawnee the best it could be.
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Brooklyn Nine-Nine may also have Parks and Recreation’s knack for brilliant layered, silly comedy, but the setting of a police department and its own handling of some of the themes it opts for feel prescient in an era that has seen the behaviour of American Law Enforcement come in for justifiable criticism. Remarkably, for a series with a lead character obsessed with Die Hard, the series has proven to be unflinching in dealing with racism and homophobia in the confines of an American police force.
That Brooklyn Nine-Nine can offer insightful writing in regard to important subject matter is a testament to how truly great it is. Best of all, even though the series is effectively holding a mirror to the current climate, it does so with fearlessness and a spring in its step. That it can be as silly as it is with while also dealing intelligently with police racism is a testament to how gifted the writing is here.
Headlined by Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta, like many of the lead characters from this stable of shows (and I suppose we have to include The Office’s Michael Scott in here), Peralta begins the series as one thing, but beautifully develops into someone else as it goes on. He begins the ‘Pilot’ episode as a typical idiotic character, but we see him develop into someone who still retains a touch of that silliness but manages to become a better cop and a better person, winning the respect of his boss and even the affections of his colleague, Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero). Yes, this is still an American network comedy so we get a romantic element to cheer on as the series develops, and it all culminates with a romantic proposal and eventual wedding that could only come from an American network comedy series but which you cannot help but be swooned by in any event.
The series is populated by one of television’s best ensemble casts, and while Samberg is the lead, the stand out right from the very beginning was Andre Braugher as Captain Holt. With the most deadpan delivery of any character in television, Braugher’s performance as the openly gay Holt is one of the very best pieces of comedic acting currently on screen, and that Braugher was previously famous for playing a serious cop in the equally serious Homicide: Life on the Street in the 90s only makes the character of Holt all the more fun. His marriage to Kevin (Marc Evan Jackson) is both sweet and surreally deadpan and nearly every episode of the series features a show-stealing moment involving Braugher’s comedically straight delivery of his dialogue. Not since Airplane has American comedy so brilliantly taken an actor known for a serious screen presence and turned it into something approaching a comedic masterpiece as Braugher’s performance here.
Both actors, however, are a small part of a truly gifted ensemble cast, from Terry (Terry Crews) and his muscular frame and obsession with yoghurt, to Stephanie Beatriz as Rosa and her increasingly tough attitude that gets more extreme as the series goes on, and whose coming out as bisexual marked one of the very best and moving episodes of the series, to Joe Lo Truglio’s food-obsessed Boyle and the double act of Hitchcock and Scully (Dirk Blocker and Joel McKinnon Miller). Like the best of Schur’s output, the series would be really nothing without a truly great ensemble that has been fashioned here.
Remarkably, the series was cancelled by the FOX Network after five seasons, but even more remarkably, it got picked up and given a sixth season by NBC the day after and has seen the series continue forward without pausing for breath. It is a testament to how wonderful a weekly, ongoing comedy series of this ilk can be when done incredibly well, and that it’s being done on the most mainstream of television networks, and utilises the set up of a workplace comedy shows, that sometimes the old ways can still be the best, and can also be the most powerfully funny and moving way of exploring the world we live in.