Tonight’s episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine was a long time coming. In it, Terry (Terry Crews) is racially profiled by a fellow officer (guest star Desmond Harrington) while he’s walking in his neighborhood. He wants to file a complaint against the cop, but much to Terry’s surprise, Capt. Holt (Andre Braugher) suggests he shouldn’t — it’ll hurt Terry’s career, keeping him from reaching a position in which he could have even greater influence.
The episode’s writer, Phil Augusta Jackson (a two-time Emmy nominee for his place in the Key and Peele writers’ room), admits it was difficult for the Fox comedy to find a way into the issue. “The show itself begins with characters that have a good relationship with each other and are good cops. So I think the trick was generating a premise that deals with police brutality and racism, and still, at the core, making it about a dynamic between our characters,” he tells Yahoo TV. “I think what unlocked it was how to deal with the incident — that became the key, as opposed to making it solely about the incident itself.”
The writers had more than 20 versions of what the episode could be, he says. The one viewers will see ended up being largely fueled by Crews and Braugher. “The idea of being stopped by a police officer unjustly in your own neighborhood is an idea that Terry Crews talked to us about at the very beginning of the season. And it was actually Andre Braugher’s idea [for Holt’s response]. He said, ‘You know, in a situation like this, I don’t know that Holt would actually want Terry to report this, because he has greater visions for how Terry can impact the culture of the NYPD and it might get in the way of that,’” Jackson says. “So the main conflict that ended up fueling the entire episode was largely a breakthrough that came straight from Andre Braugher.”
Jackson credits showrunner Dan Goor for keeping the lines of communication open. “He was constantly talking to Terry, to Andre, to all the writers. He and I would talk one-on-one a lot. We talked to NYPD officers. Nothing was off-limits as far as inspiration and also just making sure that we got it right and actually told a story that felt genuine,” Jackson says. “We wanted to make sure that the conflict between our characters didn’t feel manufactured. The idea of not reporting the officer in the interest of protecting Terry’s career felt like a very Holt thing to do — and also a thing that even outside of the context of being a police officer, just being a minority in a place that’s predominately white, you have to pick your battles sometimes. It felt like we were speaking to a universal truth.”
He points to two scenes in particular that took a lot of time to get just right. The first is when Terry invites Harrington’s Officer Maldack to dinner to discuss the incident. “Terry realizes that Maldack’s sorry that he didn’t know Terry was a cop, as opposed to the general mistreatment of Terry as an African-American man. There’s a lot of discussion about that, and we felt like if we leaned too hard into Officer Maldack being villainous it would make it seem like Terry’s circumstance is kind of one of a kind and isn’t a thing that happens all the time,” Jackson says. “It was about representing Maldack in a way that felt like it could be a common occurrence and this is a thing that happens a lot to African-Americans in this country. We wanted it to really feel like this was a thing that Terry had to deal with before he was a cop, and now he’s dealing with it as a cop, and it’s frustrating that Terry and all the people that look just like Terry deal with this every day — without it seeming like Maldack was a supervillain.”
The second scene is when Terry visits Capt. Holt’s home to discuss their difference of opinion about filing a complaint. “I used to work in advertising, and my old boss used to say, ‘We’re all in kind of violent agreement.’ Terry and Holt were in violent agreement over the injustice that had happened, but they differed on how to handle it,” Jackson says. The writers wanted to give each character time to express his perspective and, while also working in a few jokes about one of Holt’s dinner guests, keep the conversation serious enough for Terry to take a strong stand in the end.
“I give a lot of credit to Andre and Terry in that scene,” Jackson says. “They’re both locked in on set and working off of one another, working with this script, making sure they got the lines right. If they had issues with particular parts, we made sure to adjust it on the fly.” (Andy Samberg and Melissa Fumero, Jackson adds, also worked hard on their storyline in the episode: Jake and Amy babysit Terry’s girls, Cagney and Lacey, who keep asking them about the incident.)
Does Jackson think we’ll see Brooklyn Nine-Nine revisit these issues again? It’s a question for Goor, of course, but given how happy everyone is with how this episode turned out, Jackson hopes so. “I think everyone’s interest was piqued insofar as just doing more things that could actually speak to injustices and issues that are a little bit deeper,” he says. “I think doing an episode like this, there’s always a risk that it comes off a little bit ‘afterschool special.’ So I was very excited that we went for it as a team, and I think we were able to achieve a balance where we speak to something that is important, while still representing the show in its form. I’m just excited that the episode got made, and I’m really happy that it did get made.”
Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox.
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