Coming to the end of its eight-season run, the Brooklyn Nine-Nine series finale premiered earlier this month. (Spoilers ahead for the final seasons of both Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Lucifer.) The light-hearted sitcom found itself in a difficult situation after last summer’s real-life heavy events, which changed public opinions about Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s “copaganda,” or cop propaganda. The writers of the NBC cop comedy, created by Dan Goor and Michael Schur, scrapped their work on the final season in response to the worldwide protests of police brutality following the murder of George Floyd, in order to address systemic racism and police brutality.
Fans were surprised to learn such a beloved sitcom was ending. Despite the growing attention to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, there tends to be a guaranteed longevity for cop and police-adjacent television shows. Other examples include Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (going on its 23rd season), Criminal Minds (currently expecting a 17th season), and Lucifer, which also recently released its final season.
So why do audiences love cop shows so much, especially as the national conversation around police has only become more heated in recent years? Dr. Debanjan Banerjee, a consultant geriatric psychiatrist at Doctor Spring, tells Her Campus, “The people’s penchant for police and crime shows is explained by escapism, a mental diversion they resort to amid real life injustices. In television crime shows, the good guys always win and crimes are always solved, unlike in real life.”
Ultimately the happy endings in these shows serve to promote sympathy for police officers. The audience learns to sympathize with “cop problems” instead of humanizing the person whose life is about to change by being labeled as a “criminal.” This dehumanization doesn’t only exist on-screen; it has very real roots in American history. Michelle Alexander’s landmark book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, goes into great depth about how the criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of social and racial control. It targets Black, Brown, and poor communities by taking advantage of the colorblind “criminal” label.
We don’t learn this history in school, and we’re certainly not learning it from cop shows. The American public K-12 education curriculum covers slavery and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but not much about the contemporary Black experience in the U.S. Having cop propaganda be so heavily present in television has the potential to create a false idea of the policing world.
But while Gen Z was exposed to these sanitized narratives growing up, we were simultaneously living through the changing digital landscape with the explosion of #BLM, kickstarted by the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014. The topic of police brutality dominated media outlets, introducing more people to criticism of policing and the larger criminal justice system. Gen Z overwhelmingly support Black Lives Matter, according to data published by Business Insider, yet also makes up a substantial part of these law enforcement shows’ core audiences. So how do we reconcile these facts?
Malia*, 21, an aspiring exoneration lawyer, finds herself drawn to police television shows; her favorites are Lucifer and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. When asked about how both shows addressed criticism towards the police, she tells Her Campus, “I think they handled the situations well in their last seasons.” Malia cites the experiences of people of color facing police brutality in the instances when “Amenadial [Lucifer’s brother and Black angel] joins the LAPD because he wants to fight those prejudices after he witnesses an instance of racial profiling” in Lucifer and when “Rosa [the precinct’s resident “badass” and Latina] leaves the force because morally it didn’t sit right with her” in Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Amenadial wanting to join the LAPD still reeks of cop propaganda. It presents the police force as a saving grace with “a few bad apples” as opposed to being an organization that perpetuates racist values and practices. The belief that you can tear down the racist system from the inside encourages people to join the force rather than defund or depower it. While this could simply be a writing choice to keep the character engaged with his own plotline, writers of other shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine are not afraid to take bold courses of action in addressing the flaws of this mindset. Rosa, in making the decision to leave, expresses the sentiment that a solution won’t be found within the current criminal justice system.
Malia goes on to say, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine did it best for having the more diverse cast and showing their experiences. They showed not only how difficult it is for a Black man on the force, but for a gay, Black man to become Captain.” She elaborates, “The first two seasons didn’t focus much on crimes. It was very much ‘copanganda’ but then later they did touch a lot on police reform. They make fun of a guy who complains of cops being afraid to do their jobs if they get punished.”
Gen Z is also aware that whatever happens on screen, we can critically engage with media we enjoy, and differentiate between the actions of fictional cops and real ones. Shagoon Maurya, founder of ursafespace.com, tells Her Campus, “Recent study has discovered that when people view actual characters, two regions of the brain are more powerfully stimulated than when they perceive fictional ones. The anterior medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices (amPFC and PCC), respectively, are known to be important in autobiographical episodic memory and self-referential thinking. Because genuine things have a higher degree of personal significance than fictitious ones, scientists have suggested that our brains may be able to discriminate between reality and imagination as a result of this discovery.”
That doesn’t mean watching cop shows is totally free of consequences, though. In regards to police media, Maurya explains, “A slew of recent social science studies suggests that the quality of television episodes might have a significant impact on our thinking and political views, as well as our cognitive abilities. According to a study from Brigham Young University, children who were frequently exposed to violence on television might develop a desensitization to it compared to children who had watched little or no television.” Maurya elaborates, “This might indicate an individual’s psychological blunting in the face of violence.” Further research finds that exposure to television violence contributes to aggressive behavior and fear in children. In other words, the more we are exposed to police behaviors through television, the more we might normalize and be influenced by them.
However, by centering character responses to police violence in these shows, people at more advanced ages are exposed to valid criticism of policing and its subsequent brutality. Dr. Banerjee tells Her Campus, “Television impacts our political and social views. In a good way, it helps us get a good vantage point of social and political issues which is significant in decision making. However, it can also impact us negatively in terms of developing social anxiety and antisocial behaviors.”
This rings true for Malia who is fond of this genre while pursuing a career combating wrongful imprisonment. Malia shares with Her Campus, “Each [instance of police brutality] is not surprising but should still be treated as a horrific tragedy. Only consistent pursuit of systemic change will prevent complacency.” She has “1312” in her Instagram bio, which represent the alphabetical letters ACAB that stand for “All Cops Are Bastards.” When asked how she grapples with watching this type of media, she says, “I get sucked into the lives of the characters. I still engage with the media critically, though, and I’m worried for those who don’t, that these shows make people believe in the fiction of TV cops rather than the reality of [systemic anti-Blackness and] mass incarceration.”
Ultimately, Gen Z has a precarious but distanced relationship with police media. While we can laugh at the cold opens and the zingy one-liners, we also know that not every cop is going to be like Andy Samberg, and we won’t watch reruns of Brooklyn Nine-Nine without calling out its flaws as a show.
While I doubt we’ll see the end of law enforcement television shows soon, I can see the nature of these shows being influenced by public opinion just by looking at Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s end despite its admiring fans. Copaganda isn’t going away, but audiences can critically engage with the media to make it change for the better. So continue to advocate for media that reflects beliefs in abolitionist principles — defunding the police, rehabilitation centers, restorative justice, etc. Be loud with your opinions and what you want to see! Not limited to television, I hope the future explores the radical potential in our world.
*Name has been changed.
Dr. Debanjan Banerjee, Consultant Psychiatrist at Doctor Spring
Shagoon Maurya, Founder of ursafespace.com
Coyne, S. M. (2016). Effects of viewing relational aggression on television on aggressive behavior in adolescents: A three-year longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology.
Smith, Stacy L., Donnerstein, Edward, (1998). Ch. 7 – Harmful Effects of Exposure to Media Violence: Learning of Aggression, Emotional Desensitization, and Fear. Human Aggression: Theories, Research, and Implications for Social Policy.