Cops and robbers” shows are rarely comedies, but try telling that to powerhouse sitcom creator Michael Schur. A man known for developing laugh-out-loud comedy from mundane experiences like office life and local government (The Office, Parks and Rec) and most recently — and boldly — from the afterlife (The Good Place), Schur also struck comedy gold when he co-created Brooklyn Nine-Nine in 2013. Recently returned for the second half of its fifth season, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a hilarious cop comedy focusing on a group of bumbling but effective detectives and the tension between the charismatic, carefree, and — most importantly — optimistic Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and the stoic precinct captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher).
A determination to be kind, friendly, and hopeful of the good intentions of others doesn’t mean giving up on principles. It doesn’t mean setting aside what we know to be right. It just means a willingness to engage, even with those who might be our natural enemies.Jake’s relationships with his coworkers and enemies alike drive the story, and his cheery attitude elevates every situation such that, even when he should perhaps have more gravitas, what could be cringe-worthy situations end up being endearing instead. And here is where the overall value of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is found: in the unrelenting optimism of Jake Peralta.
In Jake’s world, nothing is grimdark (unless he’s pretending to reenact a scene from his favorite movie, Die Hard) because he’s determined either to be friends with everyone or to see the best in them — even the criminals in the city he’s sworn to protect and serve. As a detective in the 99th Precinct of the NYPD, Jake should be hardened and disillusioned from the years of working his way up from beat cop to detective on the city’s rough streets. But from the opening scenes of the first season, it’s clear Jake refuses to be dragged down by pretty much anyone or anything; instead, his heart often rules over his head. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the number of times he gets duped by his nemesis, a criminal car thief known as the Pontiac Bandit — aka Doug Judy (Craig Robinson).
It’s not that Jake gets duped all the time because he’s stupid. On the contrary — he’s one of the most successful detectives in the precinct. Intelligent, sharp, and witty, he even manages to woo the smartest detective on the force, Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero). No, Jake Peralta is simply a happy, optimistic guy who has a tendency to see the best in people and situations, often grinning while delivering terrible news or recounting horrific details of his latchkey childhood. The truth is people like Jake sometimes get taken advantage of.
While Jake is often happy, his happiness should not be mistaken for his optimism, which is a different — and deeper — thing entirely. Happiness can be fleeting and superficial, but optimism is grounded in a character-defining hopefulness that often defies human reason or understanding because it insists on something more. Optimism is a belief and a confidence that there is something better worth hoping for. We find it in the best heroes in the best stories, and at our best, we find it in ourselves.
And so, even though Brooklyn Nine-Nine is “only” a sitcom, and Jake Peralta would not be characterized by many as a traditional hero, in his unrelenting optimism, I find in him not only an opportunity to laugh for a half hour a week, but a reminder to love as a Christian ought to love — in the manner of 1 Corinthians 13:7. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Here, I believe, we find true Christian optimism.
We live in a dark world, one in which it can be difficult to maintain a positive view of anyone (especially if they — gasp — voted differently than we did). Ad hominem attacks are an easy way to shield ourselves from having to engage with people we don’t like, and “us versus them” tribalism is as strong now as it ever was, especially when we are so certain we are right and they are wrong. A determination to be kind, friendly, and hopeful of the good intentions of others doesn’t mean giving up on principles. It doesn’t mean setting aside what we know to be right. It just means a willingness to engage, even with those who might be our natural enemies — as Jake Peralta engages time and again with his nemesis, Doug Judy, hoping for the best in him, even as he brings the righteousness of the law against him.
Jake reminds us that in our optimism we can (and should) remain “wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16) as we engage with others, especially with those who might wish us harm. Jake Peralta gets duped by Doug Judy all the time because Jake desperately wants to believe he has changed. Jake never loses sight of the fact that Doug is a criminal (or at least a reformed one), and never simply lets him go, but Doug takes constant advantage of Jake’s optimistic view of him by tricking him in elaborate set-up plots.
Jake’s efforts toward Doug Judy are reminiscent of James 3:18. “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” We are told by Jesus himself, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), but it is hard to be a peacemaker when our hearts are set always to a pessimistic view of those outside our “tribe,” and our fists are always turned against our neighbors.
To love as Christ loves, to “bless those who curse us” (Luke 6:28), to be peacemakers and unrelentingly optimistic as we figure out how to co-inhabit this planet with other image bearers — it does mean that sometimes we will get burned. But that’s okay. Better to live life as a heroic optimist, desiring and expecting good, flourishing, and well-being in and for others. Jake Peralta’s optimism absolutely acts as a reminder to us to view the proverbial glass as half full more often than half empty.