There are very few cop shows that are both hilarious and progressive, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of them. In fact, its humour is of such a high calibre that I’d suggest that many people don’t know how progressive it actually is. It features a cast of seven from a range of backgrounds and ages and covers a variety of social topics. While the characters cover various archetypes, they are all distinctly different and given enough time to develop depth. The main characters are actually very good at their jobs – they put in a lot of hard work and are dedicated to solving cases, the comedy comes from their individual quirks and personality clashes.
Most of the action occurs in the police station itself, and solving crimes tends to be a secondary storyline compared to events that are plaguing the personal lives of the main characters, giving it the feel of a workplace comedy. They do go out and solve cases, though, and this coupled with the lack of soliloquising to the camera creates a perfect blend between cop show and workplace comedy.
Much of this show is improvised, due mostly to the high calibre of comedic talent present in the cast – Andy Samberg, Terry Crews, Joe Lo Truglio and Chelsea Peretti all have comedy backgrounds. The quality of writing lies in the foundations of the show and is reinforced with each episode, keeping the story’s chugging along but also adding layers to the characters with each instalment. This combination of improvised humour and scripted plot progression allows for the actors to have more input on the progression of the characters that they know intimately.
Strap in and, as always, SPOILERS AHEAD: I will be referencing seasons one and two. If you’ve not seen them, tread carefully.
We begin with Rosa Diaz, played by Stephanie Beatriz. Beware – abundance of gifs ahead.
Rosa is smart, enigmatic and tough. She’s honest, often brutally so, and doesn’t believe in sugar-coating the truth. She’s also lacking in social skills – her inability to empathise with others, coupled with her short temper and overall scary demeanour, can often lead to misunderstandings with her co-workers. She has the “don’t fuck with me” look down pat, and this accompanied by a few well-chosen phrases will often get her the results she requires from others. This doesn’t necessarily make her a bad person – she’s still a great police detective and she does genuinely care about her friends’ well-being. If we were to put it in gaming terms, Rosa is like doing a Mass Effect play-through as a renegade Commander Shepherd – sure, diplomacy might get you what you need, but so does fear.
One of the great strengths of Nine-Nine is that the writers give the characters learning moments that stick – they don’t generally go back to repeating the same old bad habits, experiences are actually valuable to their development. The season one episode Old School is a brilliant example of character development for a few of the cast, but especially Rosa. In the B story line, Terry and Boyle are trying to prepare Rosa to give testimony in court. They have good reason to worry –
Rosa finally admits that she might need help. Boyle says that all she needs to do is get the jury to like her.
Unfortunately, All of their tips are confusing and Rosa’s time on the stand doesn’t work so well.
It’s not until Terry and Boyle cotton on that Rosa is just nervous that they’re able to give her proper advice – to go to her happy place. When she goes to finish giving testimony, it goes off without a hitch. Then they make the mistake of asking where her happy place is…
So far, the writers have managed to avoid a major pitfall that’s common with this sort of character – making excuses for her lack of ‘feminine softness’. Often, if we see a female character who is tough or assertive writers feel they have to explain why she’s not the soft motherly sort, and usually they get super lazy and put it down to something shady that happened in their past. Rosa is aggressive, but not because of any past trauma (that we know of). They don’t make excuses for her being who she is. In the season one Halloween episode, Rosa mentions having to leave Catholic school before graduating. Terry asks what she did to get kicked out, and spends the entire episode trying to crack it. We learn by the end that Rosa wasn’t expelled, but got into an elite dance school and had to transfer.
Terry is highly amused by this (as are we all) because it shows a soft side to Rosa…until she knocks an escaping perp to the ground and tells Terry that she was kicked out of dance school for “beating the crap out of ballerinas.”
There’s another aspect to Rosa’s character in season one that made me realise just how different this show is to the average sitcom – the way they handled the ‘unrequited infatuation’ shtick. In this case, it involved her fellow detective Charles Boyle having a huge and obvious crush on the completely disinterested Rosa. She tells Charles multiple times that she’s not interested and that he needs to look elsewhere, but he still follows her around like a lost puppy no matter how many times she kicks him. He likes her so much that he takes her side in a debate over who sells the best pie in New York, even though he knows she is very wrong because he is a crazy gourmand geek who takes “foodie” to a whole new level.
This concept is done so often and is so hackneyed that we can usually tell how it’s going to end – either she ‘comes to her senses’ and realises she’s in love with him, gets worn down by his constant haranguing that she agrees to go out with him on a disastrous date, or he moves on and she gets jealous and possessive. Nine-Nine does none of these things. Instead, when Charles meets someone new Rosa is genuinely happy for him. In the episode The Apartment, after spending the entire show planning an elaborate prank together, he actually apologises to Rosa for being such a creep all year. This is the moment where they really become friends, without any pretext or weirdness.
In the episode Tactical Village Charles gives out save-the-date cards for his wedding but neglects to give one to Rosa, who gets angry about being left out. So angry, in fact, that she points a directional ultrasonic weapon at him that causes him serious pain. She also fires a net-gun at him, causing him to spill boiling hot coffee all over himself, and shoots him several times with paint balls. When Terry confronts her about this, the conversation goes about as well as can be expected –
Rosa: Look, I get it if Vivian doesn’t want me to come, but Boyle should have said something. We’re finally getting along.
Terry: Well, talk to him! That’s what friends do.
Rosa: Nope. I’m gonna wait until I’m on my deathbed, get in the last word then die immediately.
Terry: That’s your plan for dealing with this?
Rosa: That’s my plan for dealing with everything. I have seventy-seven arguments I’m going to win that way.
Terry: Seems like a bad plan.
Rosa: Now I have seventy-eight.
Later on, she steels herself, confronts Boyle about the issue and the two are fine. Diaz realises that agonising over it was worse than actually confronting her problems head on. In the very next episode their friendship is cemented when Rosa agrees to go to Charles’ ex-wife’s engagement party. By the end of the second season, Charles even arranges a romantic birthday dinner between Rosa and her new boyfriend Marcus, because he values their friendship. They steer away from this entire issue in season two and tie it up neatly, and not once is the phrase “friend-zone” uttered (although this could be because Rosa isn’t nice about rejecting Charles at all, in fact she even calls him creepy once or twice).
Early on in season two, Rosa is put in charge of a drug task force with the goal to arrest the distributors of an amphetamine with the street name “Giggle Pig” (chosen, I’m sure, just to have Captain Holt say “Giggle Pig” with that amazing voice of his). This is the storyline that took Rosa from the relatively flat, angry character in season one and gave her a lot more depth. The Giggle Pig plot showed us that Rosa is not only good at her job, but is passionate about it.
She’s been given a leadership opportunity and isn’t going to squander it, and we can actually notice her improved diplomacy skills. She goes above and beyond to get the results that the taskforce needs, with hilarious results, including dressing up to go to a silent disco.
There’s a couple of times where she has to kick Jake’s butt, which is awkward because they’re friends and she needs him to take her seriously. In the episode USPIS, she gives Jake and Charles a lead that leads them to working with the United States Postal Service. Unfortunately their contact at USPS, Jack Danger (pronounced Dong-er), is a man with a hugely undeserved superiority complex who out-ranks them because the postal service is a federal agency. Jake keeps complaining to Rosa about Danger, and it’s a mark of their friendship that Rosa is able to get Jake to keep working with him. Unfortunately, Jake still manages to screw everything up.
Rosa: I told you to work with USPS.
Jake: Okay, I know I didn’t do it exactly the way you asked me to –
Rosa: The way I ordered you to. As leader of the taskforce. Do you think that just because we’re friends you can do whatever you want? Danger’s furious, he’s on his way over here now because they’re taking over the case.
Jake: What? He can’t do that.
Rosa: Yeah, he can, they’re a federal agency. From now on any bust that comes from this […] goes to USPS. My taskforce get’s nothing, so thanks “friend.”
Rosa has evolved to the point where she’s able to get people to do what’s required without threatening violence. She’s still direct and bluntly honest – which is key to her character – but she’s managed to make her style work within a leadership role.
In the next episode, The Road Trip, Rosa comes into work with the grand-mother of all colds. She’s become so determined to get a result for the taskforce that she refuses to go home until the criminal they have in holding gives up his supplier. She winds up getting high off cough syrup in one of the funniest scenes that I haven’t been able to find on YouTube. Terry asks Gina to “keep Diaz occupied,” which Gina does by locking her in the break room. Rosa falls asleep shortly after, for a good ten hours.
She wakes to find that Terry has gotten the guy to give up his dealer, and that Gina has put together a care package for her. Of course, this is after she smashes the window on the break-room door in order to escape. Still, she realises that asking for help when she needs it isn’t the end of the world, and that she needs to trust the people who care about her.
When they finally rid the streets of Giggle Pig, Rosa can’t stop smiling, wondering how people do it all the time.
Season two is also the first time we see Rosa with a boyfriend. We haven’t seen any of the other paramours she’s mentioned occasionally in the past because she has a very strict rule about keeping work and personal lives separate, but Marcus is different – he’s Captain Holt’s nephew, and he’s living with the captain until he finds a place of his own.
Holt and Rosa are both very closed-off characters, so this new interaction outside of work is uncomfortable for the both of them. Many of us have experienced the deer-in-the-headlights embarrassment of being caught by a significant other’s family while still in their house the next morning, but Brooklyn takes it to a whole new level by putting the two most uncomfortable characters imaginable in this situation. When Holt and his husband, Kevin are eating breakfast, Marcus comes downstairs with Rosa. The only person who can fully appreciate how amusing the situation is Kevin, who spends the entire interaction trying not to laugh.
Holt: Marcus, have breakfast with us.
Marcus: You’re up early…okay…
(Rosa walks down the stairs)
Holt: …and detective Diaz is here…as well
Rosa: Hey. Hello Kevin.
Kevin: Rosa. Marcus.
Marcus: Kevin. Uncle Ray.
Holt: Marcus. (looking around for the dog) oh and Cheddar, Cheddar is also here.
Kevin: Uh, would you care to join us?
Marcus: Sure. (to Rosa) Shall we sit?
Rosa: I don’t think sit…
Holt: Good, then, feel no obligation to stay, Rosa. (shakes his head) Detective Diaz. Detective Rosa Diaz is in my breakfast nook.
Kevin: So who would like French toast? I can put a bacon smile on it?
Rosa: My being here is weird. This is a bad idea. We shouldn’t see each other again. (walks out)
Holt: Well, Detective Rosa Diaz has left. Hmm.
The episode ends with Holt calling Rosa to his office. He takes off his badge as a symbolic gesture to speak to her as a friend, not a captain.
Holt: And as your friend, I have this brassiere you left behind in Marcus’ room.
(Holt places the neat paper bag containing Rosa’s bra carefully on the desk in front of her. Rosa looks at it, then quickly snatches up the bag and stuffs it under her jacket)
Holt: Also, I just wanted you to know, um… I think Marcus is great and, uh… And you’re great. And I hope the fact that you and I work together won’t prevent you from dating. If that’s what you want to do.
Rosa: I might. But I don’t want to talk to you about it.
Holt: Perfect. Because I’m not comfortable knowing about it.
Rosa: Great. Then let’s never talk about it.
Holt: Let’s never talk about anything.
So, for the next few episodes we’re treated to Rosa learning how to be in a relationship and open up to someone. In Beach House, Marcus buys her a new phone charger because her old one dies, and she says, “Thanks, what do I owe you?” When Marcus explains that they’re dating so she doesn’t owe him anything, it was just a nice gesture and that a ‘thank you will do,’ she gets mildly aggressive, saying “I said thank you! That was the first thing I said!” But then he smiles at her, and she realises it wasn’t an attack and apologises. Still, this doesn’t stop her from threatening Charles, who calls Marcus her “boo.”
Rosa: Say “boo” again I will shoot you in the stomach.
Charles: Fine. Lover boy it is.
Rosa: What did I just say, Charles? What did I just say?
Charles walks away in a hurry. I’m with Rosa on this one, “boo” is a terrible pet name and it needs to go the way of frosted tips.
Rosa and Marcus’ relationship progresses relatively well, mostly because Rosa gets help from her friends and Marcus has infinite patience. She get’s weird about inviting him to a wedding because she doesn’t want him getting too romantic, she gets help figuring out how to send relationship-y text messages, and slowly learns how to care about somebody (this isn’t to say that Rosa doesn’t enjoy sex- the show treats her mentions of casual encounters as no big deal because contrary to popular belief, repeat after me: women are allowed to enjoy casual sex).
Really though, apart from this basic ‘how to function’ stuff, this relationship serves another (and, in my opinion, better, purpose) – giving Rosa more of a connection to Ray Holt.
Captain Holt is a mentor to every character – he’s giving Amy Santiago the skills to become captain one day, he’s getting Jake to take the job more seriously, he’s helping Boyle to gain confidence from his strengths, he’s putting Gina in positions of responsibility to help her realise her potential, and he’s helping Terry return to the field by compartmentalising work and home. But Rosa has the job down – she is already a fantastic cop without any self-esteem problems, and we know from the Giggle Pig taskforce that she’s a strong leader. Where she falls down is letting people in, dealing with emotions and confiding in her friends.
In the episode AC/DC, Holt’s husband Kevin has asked, yet again, that Rosa and Marcus join them for a dinner party. Both Holt and Rosa aren’t overly thrilled at this idea – this is too much vulnerability for the two of them. In intimate setting means opening up and being emotionally intimate, which is why Holt invites Gina and Amy as ’emotional buffers.’
When Amy and Gina are running late, dinner has to begin without them. The conversation turns to family, and Rosa quickly leaves the table. When Holt follows her, she reveals to him that she might be pregnant. Fair to say that Holt hasn’t really had to deal with this sort of situation before, but considering that he’s one of the most emotionally closed off people on the planet he handles the situation relatively well. After asking a couple of awkward questions he states, very reasonably, that Rosa needs to get a pregnancy test before freaking out too badly. He then helps her make an excuse to leave the party (she’s not pregnant, just fyi. But even thinking that for a millisecond is fucking scary, so I don’t blame her for freaking out).
Holt teaching Rosa how to get in touch with her feelings would be a serious case of the blind leading the blind, and thankfully the writers don’t take us too far down that road, but it’s telling that the first person Rosa talks to is the Captain, because he’d understand how hard it is for her to talk about it at all and he is a surrogate father figure for the entire squad.
So, there you have it. Within two seasons Detective Rosa Diaz goes from being a moderately flat character to having a decent amount of nuance. As I haven’t watched the third season yet I can’t speak for how she progresses in the rest of the show, but I sincerely hope these trends continue.
Thanks for sticking with me this far! Next week I’m going to talk about another character from Brooklyn Nine Nine, but I haven’t decided who yet. Until then, take this piece of advice for next time you hit a slump –