Thoughts on the (non) cancellation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which spiral into a broader discussion of prestige TV vs. sitcoms)

I really need to get these posts written faster. I started writing this yesterday apropos of Fox’s cancellation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Thursday; I left a bit to be written today, and I wake up to see that NBC has revived the show for an abbreviated sixth season. So, rumours of the show’s death were greatly exaggerated, but I’ll keep my original intro out of laziness and the fact that I like it …

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Thursday, Fox announced it was cancelling Brooklyn Nine-Nine after five seasons. After their indecorous shitcanning of Firefly so many years ago, I didn’t think there was any way for Fox to hurt me again … but then I let Andy Samberg’s cop sitcom worm its way into my heart, having been lulled in the intervening years to forget the first rule of avoiding heartbreak: don’t get attached to Fox properties, especially if they’re unusually intelligent and well made. That just never ends well.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m a television junky. Once upon a time this might have been considered a failing in an English professor, but since the rise of HBO and its various imitators, the tube now offers an embarrassment of riches. What has been perhaps most interesting in the past few years, however, is not so much the continued production of dramatic HBO and HBO-type juggernauts, with Game of Thrones and Westworld (among others) picking up the torch from the likes of Deadwood and Breaking Bad, but that some of the smartest and most progressive television has appeared in the form of network sitcoms. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is (or was) exemplary of this tendency, with a racially diverse cast than never reeked of tokenism, and nuanced, complex characters who transcended what were at first glance one-dimensional comedic tropes: Jake’s macho goofball obsessed with 70s cop shows, Rosa’s acerbic ass-kicking woman, Amy’s goody-two-shoes, Terry’s musclebound sergeant, and so forth. Each of these actors at once managed to have their cake and eat it too, playing the stereotypes for laughs while simultaneously getting laughs for playing against type and revealing depths of character that served as trenchant critiques of a host of things from toxic masculinity to racial profiling.

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To be sure, sitcoms have always tended to be the more subversive and insidiously political shows, from Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family to The Simpsons; but in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, when television broke out of its formulaic box and aspired to the level of art with such series as The Sopranos and Mad Men, it tended to replicate a certain masculinist narrative logic and more often than not placed damaged, complicated, difficult, and frequently violent men—white men, pretty much exclusively—at the center of the story: Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock in Deadwood, Don Draper in Mad Men, Walter White in Breaking Bad, Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy, Raylen Givens in Justified, and so on. Which isn’t to say that these shows don’t have anything to say or do with questions of gender, race, and identity, but that such considerations almost always serve to reflect back on the shows’ masculine center of gravity undercuts the substance of their critique.

By contrast, such sitcoms as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fresh off the Boat, Black-ish, Bob’s Burgers, and such non-network examples as Master of None, High Maintenance, Broad City, Archer, and Big Mouth—to say nothing of Parks and Recreation, quite possibly the greatest sitcom ever to air—have been doing yeoman’s work in introducing diversity in their casts, as well as articulating (generally) a politics of hope and understanding. It’s one of the reasons why Andy Samberg’s character Jake Peralta served to turn off a significant number of viewers at the outset, but rewarded those who stuck with the show: his heroes are the hard-bitten, cynical cops of 70s films, and most centrally, John McClane of Die Hard (I would be interested to know precisely how many episodes there are in which Die Hard or McClane aren’t name-checked). That is to say: his ostensible dream is to be the kind of take-no-prisoners, I-make-my-own-rules, go-ahead-make-my-day rogue cop that valorizes masculine violence and disdain for law and procedure. But as much as he might fantasize about being that kind of cop, Jake’s journey over the series’ five seasons has been a process of discovering the value of community and teamwork over gut instinct and radical individualism. That he would eventually get together with the Hermione-esque Amy Santiago was more or less inevitable according to the laws of sitcoms, but it was narratively hard-won—not least because it was in part Amy’s influence in eroding Jake’s John McClane delusions that he transcended his character’s initial defining tropes.

 

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About two weeks ago, a Facebook friend tagged me in the comments for a Slate article by Kathryn VanArendonk titled “Overly Long Episodes are the Manspreading of TV,” wondering what my thoughts on the argument were.

The article essentially argues that episodes of an hour or longer have become unnecessarily commonplace in prestige television, citing, for example, the 69-minute season two premiere of Westworld. For an HBO season premiere, VanArendonk allows, such a length episode is not unusual, but the second episode was even longer (71 minutes), “and I’d be astonished if it’s the last episode this season to run over an hour. The season-one finale episode, after all, was a full 90 minutes.” She continues,

It’s hard not to watch much of Westworld, especially those over-an-hour installments, and not feel at least a little frustrated with a show that has so little compunction about its own obtrusive length. In the (rare) instances where an episode fully uses and needs over 60 minutes, I’m perfectly happy to cede the time. But again and again, overly long TV episodes feel like self-important prestige signaling, more about muscle (and budget) flexing than they are about the best way to serve a story. They take up narrative space with all the blithe obliviousness of a story that assumes it’s the most important, most worthy thing you’re doing with your time. Long TV episodes imply they deserve that extra space—after all, they’re significant, quality TV. And bigger equals better.

“The time has come,” she asserts, “to call out this swaggering, unselfconscious expanse.” And per her title, she charges that “Interminable TV episodes are the manspreading of television storytelling.”

Before offering my two cents, I read further on in the comments thread, and was unsurprised to find the article’s premise largely mocked and ridiculed. “That has to be one of the most tortured analogies I’ve ever seen,” said one commenter; another, “This is to be filed under: ‘I have nothing of value to say, so choose an “unpopular” topic to complain about instead’.” “Ok, funny analogy, unbearably long text and nope for your theory.” And finally, “I agree that more may not necessarily be better, but what does gendering the pattern do aside from foment gender antagonism?”

The sentiment of this last comment recurred quite frequently, often expressed in, shall we say, much less polite terms. Why make your complaint about lengthy episodes a gendered one? said many people. To more than a few complainants, this was the main issue with the article. For my part, I also found the manspreading analogy somewhat tortured, but I knew precisely what the article’s title meant: that prestige TV is masculinist in its DNA, and that the key tropes of its early, groundbreaking shows have persisted even as television itself, more broadly, becomes more inventive and diverse across an unprecedented number of platforms and media.

The most insightful observation of the article to my mind was the attribution of episode bloat to “prestige signaling,” a means of communicating the weight and heft of a show’s thematic gravity:

The prestige signaling of HBO’s “we’re not TV” then drifted over to FX, where runtime bloat touched series like Nip/Tuck and The Shield, and then became especially noticeable on FX’s Sons of Anarchy. Midway through its run, Sons began to abjure its supposed hour timeslot and made a habit of moseying into a full 90-minute scheduling block. In talking about the unique scheduling for the series, a Variety piece pointed directly to the influence—and the prestige and “quality” implications—of longer runtimes on premium cable. Letting an episode of Sons relax into a 55-minute total length, bulked out to 90 minutes with commercials, “gives [FX] a chance to keep up with the creative scope of HBO and Showtime, which aren’t forced to cut into their series with commercial breaks.” Longer episodes mean more “creative scope.” Longer episodes are how you know something’s important.

This article would have been less glib had it directly addressed the tacit association of “importance” with the kind of violent and/or self-obsessed masculinity on display with all of the shows mentioned. In the early days of HBO, shows like Oz and The Sopranos were a revelation because they seemed to break all the established laws of episodic television in terms not just of their violence, profanity, and nudity, but also in terms of how they told their stories—and abjuring the rigid 42-minute run time of network dramas allowed for more flexibility for the writers and directors to take as much time to tell a story as the story demanded or needed. Sometimes that ran long, sometimes not so much. And often it was precisely the case that an episode might run over an hour because it needed that time to convey its substance and complexity.

I think a more useful way to consider the episode bloat against which VanArendonk rails is to think in terms of prestige television having come to comprise its own genre. The charge of “prestige signaling” points in this direction, as it suggests that these later-generation shows from HBO, AMC (we could spend an entire post just talking about The Walking Dead in this capacity), and FX, and now also Netflix and Amazon, are self-conscious about conveying their seriousness. Genre, as I tell my students repeatedly, is largely about expectations, of going in knowing the formulae. The more iterative a genre gets, the more formulaic, and in the end the satisfaction of expectations does not always serve the content in logical or coherent ways, which is, I would argue, one of the key reasons the victims in slasher films tend to behave stupidly—less because the characters are meant to be stupid than that is what satisfies the genre’s expectations. It’s a bit ironic that we can now start to discern generic conventions in prestige television, given that the early breakthroughs often tended to entail the utter disruption of genre: the mob movie with The Sopranos, the police procedural with The Wire, the western with Deadwood, the historical epic with Rome (stayed tuned for a future post in which I explain why The Walking Dead’s deficiencies proceed from the fact that it has not managed to subvert or divest itself of its own generic expectations).

Recently, a good friend of mine expressed horror and bafflement that I have not yet watched Westworld. Considering my long preoccupation with prestige television, both from an academic and a personal perspective, it seemed unthinkable to him that I would not yet have obsessively binge-watched it. And I will! Eventually. But as I told him, I think I hit critical mass with the self-conscious high seriousness of prestige television a while ago. I’m delighted that Brooklyn Nine-Nine has won a reprieve, not because such sitcoms offer an escape from the heavy fare of the Westworlds of the TV landscape, but because increasingly such shows exhibit the intelligence and complexity of critique of hour-long-and-longer dramas, while doing so with greater diversity and humanity.

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