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Different Network, Same Enjoyable ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’

A move from Fox to NBC has not changed the show’s DNA—but it is a useful case study in the economics of modern TV

NBC/Ringer illustration

Ray Holt still has a permanent poker face. Charles Boyle still has negative boundaries. Jake Peralta is still obsessed with Die Hard. There’s nothing different about the version of Brooklyn Nine-Nine premiering tonight, except the network it’s airing on. So much the better. A radical reinvention this is not, but hard-won stability can be just as satisfying and impressive to watch.

The Andy Samberg-starring cop sitcom from Michael Schur and Dan Goor is an uncomplicated pleasure with a somewhat complicated back story. In its initial incarnation, on Fox, Nine-Nine followed a creative trajectory somewhat analogous to Goor and Schur’s previous collaboration, Parks and Recreation. After some early creative stumbles—a supporting character who couldn’t take no for an answer had echoes of early Parks’ too-abrasive Leslie Knope—Nine-Nine recalibrated, then settled into a comfortable, five-season groove. Quietly, Nine-Nine’s dispatches from its fictional, namesake police precinct became television’s highest-functioning example of an endangered species: the feel-good network sitcom, powered by an expertly cultivated ensemble.

But the nature of endangered species is that they’re dangerously close to going extinct. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s numbers were respectable to start, though they trended downward over the years in a standard case of atrophy (and the general decline in network TV ratings overall). So it wasn’t entirely surprising when Fox pulled the plug last spring, sparking an impromptu wake of sorts on social media. And yet NBC’s hasty rescue a day later made its own kind of sense. Understanding both networks’ decisions requires a quick crash course in TV economics. Every TV show is distributed by a network, which collects ad money from midair commercials, but is also produced by a studio, which profits from every other one of a show’s potential revenue streams: international rights, streaming rights, syndication deals, et cetera. Brooklyn Nine-Nine may have first aired on Fox, yet it’s produced by NBC’s studio.

Once upon a time, it was standard practice for the studio branch of one entertainment conglomerate (Universal Television, 20th Century Fox Television, CBS Television Studios) to sell a show to the network branch of another (NBC, Fox, CBS). Friends, for instance, was a Warner Bros. Television production that aired on NBC in exchange for a licensing fee. But as live ratings have dwindled, streaming has exploded, and the pie chart of a series’ lifetime earning potential has skewed away from ads, more and more shows are vertically integrated. In the case of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fox had no vested interest in upping Nine-Nine’s episode total and syndication fee, as Nine-Nine performs well enough on services like Netflix or Hulu to command a higher rate. NBC, meanwhile, gets additional episodes and the added benefit of maintaining its relationship with longtime collaborator Schur, whose The Good Place is the product of one NBCUniversal subsidiary (Universal Television) that airs on another (NBC). Now, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is, too.

Not that you’d get any hint of behind-the-scenes drama or byzantine corporate relations from the show itself. The new episodes—I’ve seen two out of an eventual 18—never once break the fourth wall, not even to cheekily acknowledge the change of circumstances or longer-than-usual hiatus. (The Season 5 finale aired last May, after which Nine-Nine took the fall off.) Meta humor has never been Nine-Nine’s goofy, earnest style; 30 Rock this is not. Besides, the show is preoccupied enough with its own onscreen developments: the aftermath of last season’s race for commissioner, of which Andre Braugher’s stoic Captain Holt was a front-runner, as well as the wedding of this workplace sitcom’s practically mandatory will they/won’t they, between man-child Peralta and type A people-pleaser Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero).

Often, these kinds of late-stage rescue operations beg the question of necessity, from a storytelling perspective if not a financial one. Did Western drama Longmire really benefit from an extra three seasons on Netflix? Does Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing truly demand a second life at Fox after a perfectly respectable six seasons on ABC? With Brooklyn Nine-Nine, however, such queries are beside the point, and even run directly counter to it. The pleasure of this new season isn’t that the show has reinvented itself, but that it’s been afforded the opportunity to continue as it was: a steady, dependable source of character-based comedy and shrinkwrap-tight cold opens.

For more than half a decade, Nine-Nine has worked tirelessly to build up both its individual characters and the collective dynamics between them. Six seasons in, the writers can now throw virtually any pair of players together and trust the audience will know how they’ll interact: tough-talking Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) and sensitive strongman Terry (Terry Crews); or mentor Holt and his erstwhile protegé Jake, who are opposites who’ve formed an unlikely bond of mutual respect. The show also continues to expand its horizons, going so far as to add some nuance to incompetent desk jockeys Hitchcock (Dirk Blocker) and Scully (Joel McKinnon Miller). It’s the kind of work only a show this comfortable with itself can do. Why shouldn’t Brooklyn Nine-Nine continue to play in the sandbox it’s spent years filling in? Sometimes, thanks to a quirk of corporate structuring, we really can have nice things.