Act Four | Opinion
May 3, 2017 at 7:00 AM
This post discusses the May 2 episode of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "Moo Moo," in detail.
When I was reporting a long series on policing and pop culture in 2016, I had several conversations with Dan Goor, the showrunner and co-creator of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," Fox's wildly funny, politically audacious comedy about the NYPD. Goor had long wanted the series to do an episode that would focus squarely on racism and policing, and on May 2, the show did precisely that in "Moo Moo," a half-hour about the consequences of stop-and-frisk policies and racial profiling.
In the episode, Sgt. Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) is stopped by a white officer while looking for his daughter's missing toy, and though he tries to talk to the man after the incident is over, the other cop is rude and unrepentant. Surprising everyone in the precinct, Capt. Ray Holt (Andre Braugher), who suffered years of racist and homophobic discrimination on the job before his promotion, is hesitant to file Terry's complaint against the officer who profiled him, worried it will derail Terry's application for a more senior position in the NYPD. As Terry and Holt talk through their competing theories about how to create change in the NYPD, Detectives Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and his girlfriend Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) find themselves in a situation they're wholly unprepared for: giving the Talk about racism and policing to Terry's twin daughters, who they've been babysitting.
It's a remarkable, and remarkably uproarious, episode of television, and one that only "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" could have pulled off, not least because it's the rare cop show to have two black (and two Latina) main characters, and because the writers have long experience mining comedic gold out of serious issues in policing without making light of those problems. I reached out to Goor to discuss "Moo Moo." Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
You and I have been talking for a while about your desire to do an episode like this. I'd love to know how it finally came together, because the idea of Terry or Holt getting stopped by another cop was something we'd discussed maybe a year ago, so it was very interesting to see it all have come to fruition.
This is an episode or an area that I wanted to explore, I think, as early as season 1 or season 2. But I just had so much trouble finding a way in and then figuring out exactly how to pull it off. The difficulty was that our guys are cops, and we portray the cops as good guys, and so it's very difficult. I didn't want to compromise our cops, and I also felt like something such as stop-and-frisking or racial profiling wasn't in the character of our cops. So then it became a question of who's it happening to, and how is it happening? This season, I was talking with one of our writers, Phil Jackson, who ended up actually writing the episode. And he very much believed in the idea, and the episode, and I think without him, maybe it wouldn't have happened. He really kept pushing us, pushing me, and saying "We can do this, we can figure this out."
This year alone, I'd say we had three or four different versions of this story. But we finally kind of cracked it when I talked to Andre Braugher. I pitched him the story, almost exactly as it is, up until the moment that Terry goes to Holt and says "I'd like to submit this complaint against another officer." When we were coming up with the story, I really thought, "Okay, there's no question Holt would support Terry in this endeavor." And then when I pitched it out to Andre, he said: "I think Captain Holt would tell him that's a bad idea.". . . It was really a jaw-dropping moment. I said, "But Holt has faced such adversity and prejudice." And he said "Yeah, but, in all of those flashbacks, Holt sort of takes it with the understanding that he's going to be the best cop possible, and rise through the ranks, and exact his revenge by changing the culture of the force."
And that really just blew the whole thing open. It felt like any time when you're writing, you can get a character to do something that is totally surprising but also completely consistent with their character, that feels like, you know it's a great moment.
[This story is] also something that only your show could do, because there are essentially no popular cop shows that have more than one black cop. That's a little bit of an overstatement.
Can I say one other thing, just in answer to the question before. we may have talked about this, but I think there was a cop, I want to say it was a Louisiana cop, who was a black cop, and he was later shot. And one of this last posts on Facebook was about how difficult it was to be a cop and a black man, and how that made him alien to two different cultures. And that also really resonated with me. That felt like the very first time that I saw a way into the episode, and it gets to your second point.
I wanted to ask about the balance between drama and comedy in this scene at Holt's house, because that's a scene where you have this really silly unrelated joke about a party guest that kind of breaks the tension throughout a conversation that's one of the most serious things the show has ever done. How did you figure out what that joke would be, and then how did you figure out how to space it so that it cut the tension of the scene without completely taking away from the dramatic gravity of it?
That was difficult, because when we broke the story, we definitely figured out the dramatic element of that scene, of those scenes, I should say. We knew that in the beginning, we'd break it down to two meaty scenes, and in the first scene, Holt would make his argument, and then in the second scene, Terry would make his argument. And I don't remember who pitched it in the room, but it seemed like having this kind of unrelated joke, but that was very much on Holt's character, was a way of doing comedy without undercutting the seriousness of what he was saying or what Terry was saying. And then in terms of the execution, I think Phil just really did a great job on his draft of the script. Those scenes were almost completely untouched, which is very rare for our show, from the writer's first draft.
From an acting perspective, one of the things has been fun for a lot of people about the show is that everyone knows Andre Braugher can do drama, and getting to see him doing comedy has been really interesting. Terry Crews has been more known for comedy and action stuff. And this, I thought, was one of the best dramatic performances of his career.
We talked to Terry a lot in the beginning of the season about his experiences, in general, because we wanted to mine him for stories about the show, and then we talked about his experiences being racially profiled. And so I think there was an element of this that was very personal to him, and I think he probably drew on that to a certain extent. But it really, it really wasn't, at the risk of making this a boring quote, it wasn't hard to get him to get there. I mean, he really inhabited this part and just nailed it . . . . Every take is great.
I will say there was an earlier version of the episode where it was less clear, I feel like there was a version where he got the job, and then there was a version where he didn't get the job but Holt refused to say or just didn't say it was because of what had happened, or even allude to it. Where it had sort of a more up ending. And after consultation with Andy, and Terry, and Andre, and the writers, we kind of felt like this ending was really the best, truest, meatiest ending. This ending of the two of them saying it's tough, there is no answer. And so I think maybe that evolution also was something that informed his performance . . . .
I will also tell you, that we did a, we had comedy in one scene that we pulled out in terms of finding that balance. There was more comedy in the scene where Terry confronts Officer Maldack. There was a proposal, a very funny proposal that we wrote, for the people at the table next to them that kept interrupting their serious conversation. And at the end of the day in terms of that balance, it just felt off. It just felt like it was drawing attention away from this moment, and so we cut it out.
One thing I wanted to ask about was two very, very funny moments in the episode that involved Hitchcock (Dirk Blocker) and Scully (Joel McKinnon Miller) and Gina (Chelsea Peretti), who are characters you would not think would be aware or attentive to any of these issues, and yet sort of immediately position themselves as experts. I was curious about the commentary there. Obviously there's been a lot of really important discussion about policing policy. There's also been, I think, a tendency for people who have come somewhat late to the issue to make grand pronouncements about it. Was that something you wanted to get at a little bit?
Yeah, I think it probably that might apply to the Hitchcock-Scully moment. Although I will say, truthfully, that a lot of that just came with figuring out the funniest possible way to get this information across and still have, the Hitchcock-Scully one especially, still have all our guys be on the right side of the issue instead of having them go 'No way!' We needed someone to do that, and then it became this funny idea that Hitchcock was so much more woke than Scully. I think, I wish I could say that we had put the thought that you're giving us credit for into either of those moments. I think also with Gina, it just seemed funny for her to sing a long song about racism. To be totally, truthfully, honest. But I'm happy to say that it has to do with the evolving views on racism and the conversation about it.
A couple of other shows have done episodes about what's come to be known as "the talk." So here, you're having the talk with Cagney and Lacey. But instead of having Terry or his wife doing it, you're having Amy and Jake do it. How did you arrive at that? It's really tricky, but it's really funny, seeing the two of them try to pull that off and also have that synergy with the question of where there relationship is right now. How did all of those pieces come together?
We wanted to involve Cagney and Lacey because we felt like that is an element of this story. It's an element of this story for Terry, and how he responds to the officer. And this is the first episode we've ever done where Terry has the A story, where Jake is not the A story. So we wanted Jake to have a meaty role, and there was a big debate, and we really went back and forth, on whether or not Jake and Amy babysitting the kids should be about their relationship, or if it should be about the A story. In other words, should it be about what is going on with Terry, or should it just be about Jake and Amy.
We wrote a full version of it where it really was just about 'Are we ready for kids?' And it felt, in reading it, like we were side-stepping an issue, or it was so irrelevant. And then it dawned on us that one of the difficult things about being a parent is having the talk, and answering a difficult question. By putting them in a situation where they have to have the talk, we were actually able to do the original version of the story, or the other version of the story, even better. We also did downplay that other version of the story. It became less and less about whether they're ready to have kids, and more and more about how do you have this conversation with a kid, with children? But it was a really tough, of all the needles we threaded, in a way that was one of the toughest ones. And we really did go back and forth on it.
Did you guys watch "black-ish's" episode on the talk, or were you trying to give yourself a little bit of space?
I had watched it when it came out. So I was really aware of it . . . . I think they really did such a great job. I felt like, I think, earlier versions of this story were made more difficult. . . . Once we latched onto the idea that it's about being a cop, and a black cop in particular, that felt like a different enough story from what "black-ish" was doing that I wasn't worried so much about overlap.
It overlapped with a broader comedic underpinning of the show, which is that we have these people who are in a hyper-masculine, gun culture, but we are constantly undercutting that. And so in a way I think it's consistent with that. It's like Jake always wants to be in a "Die Hard" situation, but then we always find a way to kind of undercut it.