How Fox’s cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine gets diversity right

The payoff for Brooklyn Nine-Nine so far includes a 2014 Golden Globe trophy for Best TV Series, Musical or Comedy and solid ratings that earned it a second season.

The cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, from left Stephanie Beatriz, Joe Lo Truglio, Andre Braugher, Andy Samberg, Melissa Fumero and Terry Crews. Courtesy Fox
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Stephanie Beatriz was preparing for her second-round audition for Brooklyn Nine-Nine when she heard that another Latina actress, Melissa Fumero, had won a role in the Fox sitcom. Beatriz's heart sank.

“I thought: ‘That’s it. The network is not going to allow there to be two Latinas in one show’,” says Beatriz. “I was so used to: ‘There’s only room for one.’”

Beatriz was wrong. The Brooklyn Nine-Nine cast includes both actresses, along with two African-Americans and five whites.

Making sure Brooklyn Nine-Nine reflected the melting-pot world it's drawn from was key for Dan Goor and Michael Schur. The veteran writers and producers, whose credits include Parks and Recreation, were mulling a joint project when they quickly settled on a New York-based police comedy.

“Police deal with people of all types: races, genders, sexualities, which allows for an unbelievable number of stories,” says Goor. “And when you look at the NYPD itself, it’s an incredibly diverse police force.”

Schur adds: “It seemed like the more diverse, interesting-looking group of people you had, the more fun the show would be.”

The payoff for Brooklyn Nine-Nine so far includes a 2014 Golden Globe trophy for Best TV Series, Musical or Comedy and solid ratings that earned it a second season.

Diversity also provided a wealth of lively material for the show’s nine-member writing staff, which includes black, Indian-American and gay writers, along with Goor and Schur, both of whom are white.

“From a practical point, it meant we could open up the casting process really to anyone, which is a tremendous advantage,” says Goor. “We could say to the casting director [Allison Jones], we want to have two male cops and two female cops of this age and we can audition anyone.”

Word of Andy Samberg's decision to leave Saturday Night Live came after Goor and Schur had a deal in place with Fox, and they pursued him for the role of the freewheeling police detective Jake Peralta.

Terry Crews, the NFL player turned actor, was hired shortly after to play sergeant Terry Jeffords. Crews’s audition was so impressive that “we came up with a character named Terry, which was really a bad negotiating tactic”, jokes Goor.

Andre Braugher was brought on as the stern precinct captain Ray Holt, a move notable for the multiple Emmy Award-winning actor's shift from drama to comedy. Tough black bosses are a television staple, often limited to nothing more than barking orders, but Holt's personal life comes into play on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Braugher is far from marginalised.

Other top roles went to Joe Lo Truglio, Dirk Blocker and Joel McKinnon Miller as, respectively, the white detectives Boyle, Hitchcock and Scully. Chelsea Peretti plays an administrator and assistant to Holt.

Then came a rare move for a network series, with two of the three major female roles going to Fumero (detective Amy Santiago) and Beatriz (detective Rosa Diaz).

“Again, we were searching for the best,” says Goor.

To which Schur says: “When we told the network of our choices, the reaction was: ‘That’s good, let’s move on.’”

Painting the world of such a police department as “having all white faces would be ridiculous,” says Dana Walden, the chairman and chief executive of the Fox Television Group.

Beatriz considers the fact that she and Fumero were cast together to be “incredible”, adding that the two “still look at each other sometimes and go: ‘This is crazy.’ ”

The actors not only measure up to their real-life NYPD counterparts, part of a force that’s more than half minority officers, but also have been recognised by their peers with a 2015 Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for best television comedy ensemble. The SAG Awards are on January 25.

While none of the show’s characters is window dressing, they also are not treated as fodder for jokes or stereotypes about race or, in the case of the gay Holt, sexual orientation, say Goor and Schur.

When he considers his own colleagues, Goor says, the basis for their contributions to the workplace “isn’t their background. It’s an influence of it, but it’s not the starting point of every sentence they say or every thought they have. That’s what I like about how we write Captain Holt – he wants to have the best precinct there is. That’s his goal.”

And that’s where producers aim to start and end as well, making Holt – as with the other characters – a man who’s the sum of all his parts.

Schur says: “You don’t reduce people to one thing in the modern age. That’s our No 1 rule of writing.”