Fox's Newest Cop Comedy Is Quietly Breaking Ground

By nonchalantly making one of the show's main characters an older black man who also happens to be gay, Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine is showing prime-time television how to be funny — without being homophobic.



The men and women of the Nine-Nine (from left): Melissa Fumero as Det. Amy Santiago, Terry Crews as Sgt. Terry Jeffords, Andy Samberg as Det. Jake Peralta, Andre Braugher as Det. Ray Holt, Stephanie Beatriz as Det. Rosa Diaz, Joe Lo Truglio as Det. Charles Boyle, Chelsea Peretti as Gina Linetti

This unabashed intolerance of homophobia, combined with the show's insistence on treating its gay character like all the others, while still acknowledging the character's difference without mocking it, truly sets Nine-Nine apart from its genre and even from its prime-time contemporaries. While other network shows like Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and Revenge readily incorporate gay and lesbian characters into recurring storylines, Captain Holt's full character development and episodic ever-presence makes the portrayal groundbreaking. 

"The time will come one day when nobody cares about the color of a character, or their sexuality, or their origin," says Braugher confidently. "But we're not there yet — people still care."

While Braugher, who is a straight, married father of three, says he's looking forward to the day — "five, 10, 15 years from now, when nobody cares" — he also knows that Nine-Nine's comedy is unique. 

"This happens to be groundbreaking comedy, believe it or not," he says. "And I'm not sure anybody intended it to be groundbreaking comedy — it's respectful and humane, and that happens to be surprising." 

Braugher, who has played several gay characters in his 25-year career in film and television, admits that his son was less than thrilled with the idea of his dad playing a gay police captain. 

"I had to explain that, well, I'm not going to be playing a gay police captain, I'm going to be playing a police captain who's gay," recounts Braugher. "And he said, 'Well, I don't get the distinction.' So I instinctively said … it's a respectful portrayal. I assured him that there's something that I would give Holt to add to that distinction — that's just one aspect of a very complex character." 

As for Braugher, he wasn't concerned about taking on the role of a gay leading man. 

"I never had any doubts that this was going to be something wonderful and something groundbreaking from the very first moment we did it," he says. "It's a really inspired comedy." 

Ultimately, Braugher says he was attracted to the challenge of the role — though that challenge was less about the character's sexuality and more about the dramatic actor's foray into comedy. 

"I'm just grateful, myself, that I get the chance to grow," says Braugher. "Because this is exactly the point in anyone's career where they get pegged, playing the police chief."

Braugher particularly enjoys what he calls the "round-robin" style of character engagement, where each member of the ensemble cast has notable screen time and engages with most of the other characters. 

"I get to act with everybody on this show, and I really enjoy soaking up the comedic talent," says Braugher. 

That comedic chemistry among the entire cast shines through, and results in an effortlessly diverse cast that feels realistically reflective of modern-day Brooklyn and the NYPD.  

While it's arguably one of the most diverse shows on prime time right now, Nine-Nine approaches that diversity with a similar nonchalance as it does its commander's sexual orientation. Of the eight characters who appear in all of the show's 20 episodes thus far, four are people of color, and three happen to be women. Not only is the Nine-Nine led by two established black men — Captain Holt and Sgt. Terry Jeffords, a bodybuilder and devoted father played by Terry Crews — the show's two leading females are both Latina and represent comedic foils to each other. Stephanie Beatriz's Det. Rosa Diaz is hard as nails, unshakeable, and has a penchant for playing with heavy-duty firearms, while Melissa Fumero's Det. Amy Santiago is the professional incarnatation of the teacher's pet, desperately seeking Captain Holt's mentorship and approval by neurotically excelling at her job. 

"We finally have a New York that looks like New York," says Braugher, noting that the show's creators "held a mirror up to life, and decided to portray this [precinct] with appropriate characters, of appropriate gender, ethnicity, and orientation. … We've got an incredible amount of diversity — and that's a brave thing to do." 

For his part, Goor says the cast's diversity was a consideration, but ultimately the roles went to the best actors, regardless of their skin color. 

"We cast the roles in a color-blind manner," says Goor. "And really, the best people won. So all of the roles at the casting stage had very racially neutral first names and surnames — they were all sort of Jane Does — and that allowed us to cast whoever was funniest into the roles to change the names to fit the people, as opposed to finding people to fit the names."

Ultimately, Brooklyn Nine-Nine manages a delicate balance between the physical, slapstick comedy viewers have come to expect from TV depictions of police stations, while simultaneously refusing to engage in mean-spirited attacks that center on its characters' differences. And that's intentional on the part of the creators and writers — who include out writer Gabe Leidman (Inside Amy Schumer, Fodder).

"What we're trying to do is to tell stories that involve a diverse group of people who have unique perspectives on life, and to tell those stories in a comedic way, without resorting to comedy about their differences," explains cocreator Goor. "Which is not to say that there's no conflict, it's to say that the conflict doesn't arise from stereotypical views of their background."

Since Brooklyn Nine-Nine was just renewed for a second season on Fox, viewers can look forward to seeing much more of this "collection of lovable goofballs," as Braugher calls the cast, along with more comedy, heart, and unapologetic inclusion next Fall. 

Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern/Pacific on Fox. The first 20 episodes of the series are also available on Hulu Plus.

Tags: television