Andy Samberg Refuses To Be Jewish. Too Bad for His Television Show.
As ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ gets picked up for an entire season, the show must learn from ‘Barney Miller’ and find its Jewish soul
Andy Samberg is having the best week ever. His new sitcom, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, was picked up for an entire season last Friday, a vote of confidence Fox followed up with an even bigger Valentine: An episode of the show, the network announced, will air directly after the Super Bowl, introducing it to an enormous new audience.
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer show. Of the fall season’s new offerings, this silly and sweet confection, following the detectives of a struggling New York precinct, is particularly appealing. Andre Braugher uses his stony face and stentorian voice to great comedic effect; Chelsea Peretti is wonderfully sardonic; and Andy Samberg is charming as the brilliant, anarchic ace. The rest of the ensemble is just as strong, and the writing is intelligent and sharp. And yet, it’s difficult not to judge the show by what it’s not. And what it’s not is Barney Miller.
Such logic may seem sophomoric; each work of popular entertainment is guided by its own voices, and to view one strictly in terms of the other is rarely instructive. And yet, Brooklyn owes so much to Barney—one of the former show’s stars, Joe Lo Truglio, admitted as much in a recent interview—that it’s hard to look at Braugher and Samberg’s squad room antics without imagining that, any moment now, Hal Linden and Abe Vigoda could show up and join in on the festivities.
And in part this is because they’re sorely missed: In their efforts to revisit the old formula—upright captain wrangles a multiethnic crew of talented misfits in a small and struggling slice of the Big Apple—Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s creators neglect to transplant their show with Miller’s most valuable organ, its warm and beating heart. Every laugh in the old sitcom—and each episode is blessed with many—was tethered to something heartfelt and true. The vandal who protested that he was being arrested for no other reason than being an Arab, the elderly and joyous check-forger: the criminals Miller and company busted were all slightly exaggerated versions of real New Yorkers, and like real New Yorkers they were allowed to speak their minds and demand to be heard. They were never mere punch lines. Nor were the detectives, not even when they did outrageous things like date a prostitute or pick up gambling as a hobby or skip work to attend a philosophy convention. Sad, meaningful moments abounded, eventually inspiring Steven Bochco to tweak the laughs-per-drama ratio and create his own empathic police troop in Hill Street Blues. When Miller became a hit, NYPD officers crowned it the most realistic cop show to date; it understood that what’s so interesting about police work and television shows alike is that they contain multitudes.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s world is much narrower. Its detectives are likable, but they’re largely one-notes—the tough sergeant who lost his nerve, the overachieving and uptight detective eager to please her boss, the tough-talking cop in the leather jacket. And the perpetrators are rarely seen: Whereas you could expect some kook to march right in and make Barney Miller’s life more complicated, Samberg’s modern-day Brooklyn crew have only each other to worry about.
In and of itself, of course, this means nothing; different shows are funny in different ways. But consider both Samberg’s character and his career, and a less charitable interpretation suggests itself.
It begins with his name. While the actress Melissa Fumero, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, plays a Cuban-American detective named Amy Santiago, and while Stephanie Beatriz’s character is given the ethnically appropriate name Rosa Diaz, the obviously Jewish Samberg is rechristened as detective Jake Peralta, an Italian stallion in a nebbish’s body.
Such feats of radical assimilation are par for the course for Samberg. As I’ve written here earlier, Samberg, unlike his Saturday Night Live spiritual father, Adam Sandler, has done his best to detach himself from his heritage. Whereas Sandler gives his characters names like Maccabee and revels in composing more and more versions of his Hanukkah song, Samberg has told interviewers he tried not to let being Jewish inform his comedy, and expressed a distaste for the basic tropes of Jewish humor. In SNL, like on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, he played the nonconformist, immature, deadpan wiz kid, a postmodern take on Bill Murray’s stock character. It works fine on the late-night skit show, where his character demanded our attention for three minutes at a time; with his new sitcom, Samberg fills the screen for half-an-hour, and that’s a lot. He’s immensely fun to watch, but there’s only so much you can take from someone who consistently refuses to be real and vulnerable and emotional, if even for a flash. When delivered in nonstop bursts of manic energy, even the most brilliantly crafted punchlines grow exhausting very soon; just ask Robin Williams, who is currently making the same mistake on a different network.
Now that the show’s on firm ground, and now that it’s about to have its debutant ball and step onto a much larger stage, Brooklyn Nine-Nine should spend some more time with its aged source of inspiration. Barney Miller had an episode about a rabbi running a casino in his shul and another about a storekeeper reluctant to complain after his window was spray-painted with a swastika. It had characters who grappled with their religion and their prejudices. And it was well-loved and immensely funny precisely for these reasons. Brooklyn Nine-Nine can climb to the same heights; it has what it takes. What it needs to do now is open the precinct’s doors and let in the real New York, which is complicated and dirty and beautiful and flawed and filled with people who understand that the genius of this city is that you can be who you are, ethnically and religiously and emotionally, and still fit in perfectly. Maybe Peralta can discover his Jewish roots. Maybe he can go undercover in long beard and sidelocks to bust a ring of Hasidic diamond smugglers. Whatever he does, here’s hoping that he—and his show—find their soul.
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