In the 1950s, television ignored current events and political issues and instead produced primetime shows that appealed best to American families and sensibilities. Abortion, alcoholism, pedophilia, slumlords, suicide, civil rights, and criminal justice reform were avoided because people wanted to settle down, have children, and enjoy the peace and security that the family life appeared to offer. It was the post-WW2 era, a period of optimism and prosperity, wherein traditional nuclear families flourished. (Hawes, 1951)
Programs generally fell into the “domestic comedy” category. These shows are easily identified by their character-based humor that is usually set within the home to show idealized family life. However, these shows failed to realistically depict widespread poverty, political uncertainty, and physical separation of the war years.
Historian Stephanie Coontz pointed out that “the June Cleaver or Donna Stone homemaker roles were not available to the more than 40 percent of black women with small children who worked outside the home.” (Coontz,1992)
In the 1960s, however, news broadcasts on TV brought current realities into people’s living rooms, in vivid detail. With John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the televised Vietnam war which showed the graphic images of the war in progress that resulted to intense stress faced by many Americans during the ’60s, broadcasters and viewers turned to situational comedy or sitcoms that feature a recurring cast of characters who resolve hard situations based on their everyday lives. Shows such as Gilligan’s Island, who portrayed seven characters that are shipwrecked on an uncharted island, became an escape for its viewers and provided comedic relief during the hard times.
The 21st century is a century of progressivism, at least for North America. American progressivism is a “political movement that addresses ideas, impulses, and issues stemming from American society’s modernization. Emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, it established much of the tone of American politics throughout the first half of the century” (Hamby, 1999). Television became a medium for scriptwriters and directors to depict social issues through sitcoms. Shows such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, an American police procedural comedy television series created by Dan Goor and Michael Schur, is a primary example of how television progressed from being quiet about social issues into addressing everything in between.
A Heavy Dose of Reality
Brooklyn Nine-Nine revolves around the story of Jake Peralta, played by Andy Samberg, an immature but talented NYPD detective in Brooklyn’s fictional 99th Precinct who often comes into conflict with the stern and severe commander Captain Raymond Holt, played by Andre Braugher.
One of the most notable things about the show is that it somehow always exceeds what is expected of it. Episodes such as “The Tagger,” “The Ebony Falcon,” and “The Funeral” shows Sgt. Terry Jeffords (played by Terry Crews) as a man of culture who likes foreign films, impressionist art, and who cannot sleep without his whale songs and would not go a day without yogurt. Although observable how the actor, is built like a house, his emotions such as fear, pride, bravery, and anger are built upon the desire to stay safe for his family. He has an intense devotion to supporting the rest of the detectives, making it all the funnier as he portrays a character with intense anger.
Although observable how the actor, is built like a house, his emotions such as fear, pride, bravery, and anger are built upon the desire to stay safe for his family. He has an intense devotion to supporting the rest of the detectives…—Kayla Nicole Togonon
They also broke the social mores that relationships of men and women in TV shows should always be sexual. Jake Peralta’s character showed us that men and women could be friends minus an underlying sexual tension. Platonic relationships should be normalized and idealized because it can be fun when people disregard gender and sexual overtones when in the company of others. Furthermore, Jake, an immature person, breaks the norm that immaturity equals to being a douchebag. His character does not disrespect women, nor does he go out of his way to hurt anyone to be a classic masculine character. He likes to prank them, especially Capt. Holt.
There are also characters such as Rosa Diaz (played by Stephanie Beatriz), Amy Santiago (played by Melissa Fumero), and Gina Linetti (played by Chelsea Peretti) who do not give in to the catty women in the workplace stereotype. According to Glascock (2001), female characters can be more verbally aggressive than men. This caused the popular culture of the time to attribute things like nagging and cattiness to female characters., especially if the female character is independent and robust. Independent women are seen as females who can dominate a man’s world if they wanted to.
By breaking many stereotypes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine shows that they have little need to play with standard sitcom formulas.
Social Issues with A Side of Comedic Relief
The show does not just stop at breaking the stereotypes. It also does not shy away from discussing heavy and heartfelt topics such as sexual harassment, racism, coming out, and the fear of parenting.
In season 4, episode 16, “Moo Moo,” Sgt. Terry Jeffords became the victim of racial profiling as he was stopped in the street while he was trying to find a lost toy that belongs to one of his girls. It turns out that the policeman who had profiled him also worked in the same precinct, and he wanted to file a report, but Capt. Raymond Holt did not let him. This episode will shock you to the core. It magnifies a father who fears what would happen if others like him were arrested, or worse, killed because of the color of their skin.
Racial profiling is, unfortunately, a real problem in America. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union’s “Stop and Frisk” data, 88% of police stops in 2018 have involved black people, while only 10% involved white people. Of these stops, 70% were innocent, just like Sgt. Terry Jeffords was in the show. It highlights the fear that black people go through daily when the police stop them because they were thought to be on the police’s wanted list.
Racial profiling is, unfortunately, a real problem in America.—Kayla Nicole Togonon
Another episode which bore another heavy topic was season 6, episode 8, “He said, She Said,” which was directed by Stephanie Beatriz herself. This episode unpacked the micro-aggressions women experience daily, relating it to the #MeToo movement that was happening at the time.
The show carefully tackled the sensitive topic without overlooking the subtleties. The episode revolved around how Amy Santiago and Jake Peralta investigated sexual assault allegations. When the woman accusing her colleague wanted to take 2.5 million dollars to stay quiet, instead of filing a case, Amy convinces her to stand her ground while they investigate. What this episode was able to portray was the inappropriate behavior towards women every day. In a montage of Jake and Amy going about their usual week, we see Amy experiencing unwanted touching on the subway and catcalls from strangers.
…[W]hen there is no evidence of actual assault, perpetrators could get away with just words. [T]he episode was able to bear the title and highlighted the importance of knowing why women are standing up against men’s pervasive behaviors towards women.—Kayla Nicole Togonon
According to the US Dept. of Justice, despite the increase in self-reports of rape and sexual assault, there was a decrease in reporting to police from 2017-2018. Forty percent (40%) of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police in 2017, but only 25% were reported to police in 2018. It can probably mean that when there is no evidence of actual assault, perpetrators could get away with just words. Thus, the episode was able to bear the title and highlighted the importance of knowing why women are standing up against men’s pervasive behaviors towards women. That even though there is no evidence of the assault, these are prominent issues regarding consent, professionalism, and women’s autonomy of their bodies.
Sitcoms and Society
In general, sitcoms provide comedic relief for its viewers, and we now see the importance of the media in amplifying the prominent social issues of our time and how it directly affects us. What Brooklyn Nine-Nine has done is to incorporate social issues with comedy to entertain us and help us understand that we can escape the outside world through TV, but it does not erase the fact that social ills and injustices are still taking place around us.
When media such as TV shows take on a different level of entertainment, we see that more people become more interested in learning about specific issues that they would have batted an eye before if it was not because of their favorite shows tackling it.
Situational comedies have progressed from just being humorous to being put into good use and educating people with subtleties and humor. They have shown that aggressive undertones can be removed while continuing the educative effect on viewers. I remain hopeful as I continue to see progress in 21st-century shows.
Morgan, R., & Oudekerk, B. 2020. “Criminal victimization, 2018.” US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv18.pdf.
New York Civil Liberties Union. 2018. “Stop-and-Frisk Data.” NYCLU.org. https://www.nyclu.org/en/stop-and-frisk-data.
Coontz, Stephanie. 1992. “‘Leave It to Beaver’ and ‘Ozzie and Harriet’: American Families in the 1950s,” in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trip. Basic Books. New York. pg 2.
Hawes, William. 2001. “Live Television Drama, 1946–1951”. McFarland. New York. p. 2.
Hamby, Alonzo L. 1999. “Progressivism: A Century of Change and Rebirth,” in Progressivism and the New Democracy. University of Massachusetts Press.
Glascock, J. 2001. “Gender roles on primetime network television: Demographics and behaviors”. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 45(4), 656-669.