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.
As far as prime-time television goes, police precincts haven't historically been a friendly place to be gay or lesbian. If a gay character appears, it's usually as a victim of a crime or, on a rare occasion, as a supporting character. Buddy-cop dramas are generally rife with homophobic humor, rattling off jokes that turn on a central premise that argues none too implicitly that being gay is sick, cowardly, or at the very least, not manly and befitting of a peace officer.
It's against this backdrop that Fox's newest cop comedy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, enters the fray with all the bravado, attitude, and know-how that one would expect from the New York Police Department. While Andy Samberg's Det. Jake Peralta leads the ensemble cast, his commanding officer is a stoic, no-nonsense black man and 20-year veteran of the force. Captain Ray Holt, portrayed with impeccable gravitas by Andre Braugher, also happens to be gay.
The Golden Globe–winning comedy never shies away from discussing Holt's sexuality, but the series also takes a relatively unprecedented approach by simultaneously not making Holt's sexuality central to the plot — or more importantly, to the punch line.
"We weren't going to make [Holt's sexuality] the centerpiece of his comedy," explains Emmy-winning creator Dan Goor, whose past credits include Parks and Recreation, Late Night With Conan O'Brien, and The Daily Show. "That's a part of who he is, but … mining his sexuality for comedy didn't make us comfortable. And at every point, our intention was for him to treat his sexuality the way a straight captain would treat his sexuality."
Goor, who shares the creator credit with fellow Emmy winner Michael Schur (The Office, Parks and Rec, Saturday Night Live) says that while they didn't want to put a rainbow spotlight on Captain Holt, consultation with working NYPD officers confirmed that an openly gay cop in the department would have faced professional roadblocks in the mid '70s and '80s.
The creators had what Goor calls an "un-nuanced" assumption that being an openly gay officer would have derailed Holt's career until the present day, when he finally receives the command post he's been striving for his entire career — and when the audience gets its first look inside Brooklyn's 99th Precinct, affectionately known by its occupants as the Nine-Nine.
"Our [NYPD consultant] told us that that would definitely have been the case in the early '80s," explains Goor. "And then there would have come a moment where the NYPD would have wanted to showcase him, and put him into a public affairs unit in order to show how LGBT-friendly they were. … But [Holt] didn't want to be put down, he also didn't want to be showcased — he just wanted to be a cop."
Indeed, that backstory is introduced as a central plot point in the pilot, where the detectives newly under Holt's command speculate about his sexuality, only to have the captain deliver a guilt-free confirmation that he's gay — and has a husband — and notes that he has never tried to hide it, even pointing to a framed news article on the precinct's wall announcing the department's first openly gay commander.
While Nine-Nine's inclusion of a gay man of color who's over 50 (Holt's age is not directly mentioned, but Braugher is currently 51) as a lead on a prime-time comedy would be enough to pique our interest, the show actively combats the homophobia that has become standard fare in buddy-cop comedies.
When Samberg's Detective Peralta gets a chance to spend a few days with an "old-school" crime reporter whom the young detective idolizes, he bends over backwards to impress Jimmy Brogan, the crime scene–hardened and equally hard-drinking journalist. Peralta takes Brogan's jibes at personal acuity in stride, considering the critiques guidance on how to become the kind of legendary cop he always dreamed of being. But when Brogan dismisses Captain Holt's skills by telling Peralta, "You don't have to stick up for that homo," Peralta punches him in the face.
When Holt discovers what Peralta's done, he declares Brogan's scathing article garbage and reminds Peralta that "Jimmy Brogan wouldn't know a legit cop if he punched him in the face."
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