I initially decided to watch Brooklyn 99 because I really like Andy Samberg.
His sense of humor appeals to the part of me that is always drawn to the loudest, most obnoxious person in the room, and I expected that Brooklyn 99 would simply serve as a convenient vehicle for his lovably stupid antics. I didn’t expect to find that Brooklyn 99 is one of the most progressive network sitcoms I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Its diverse cast of characters doesn’t feel like a collection of tokens or ticked off boxes, but fully-realized human beings.
This is particularly true of the show’s three female leads. Save for a few episodes, Brooklyn 99’s five seasons pass the Bechdel test with flying colors — not to mention the fact that two of its female leads are Latina, a feat rarely accomplished on network TV. I came to this show expecting to fall in love with Samberg’s Jake Peralta, but I didn’t realize how hard I would fall for Rosa Diaz, Gina Linetti, and Amy Santiago.
At the outset, Detective Rosa Diaz might seem like a stereotypical “tough girl.” She is almost always wearing leather — sometimes double leather — owns a motorcycle, and uses as few words as possible whenever she speaks. Played by Stephanie Beatriz, Rosa is Brooklyn 99’s answer to Parks and Rec's April Ludgate, in that she speaks most of her lines in monotone and has a general distaste for all of humanity. But, like April Ludgate, Rosa Diaz contains multitudes, and as the episodes progress, her layers peel back to reveal a surprising amount of vulnerability.
Rosa is a very angry character. In the very first episode, we learn that she has a temper, and we see her smacking the living hell out of her computer when it isn’t cooperating (providing one of the many evergreen gifs this show has given us). Rosa’s anger could make her into a one-note Latina stereotype, but we come to learn that anger is the only way Rosa knows how to express herself. This is rare in a female character; as women, anger is often the last thing we learn to deal with, and we’re expected to bottle it up in the same way men are expected to bottle up sadness. Rosa, however, bottles up just about everything but anger, and that rage is her emotional conduit. She’s either cool as a cucumber or exploding into violence, because the expression of any emotion other than anger might expose her as weak — and weakness is Rosa’s worst fear.
Luckily, we get to see Rosa in moments of vulnerability, and what’s so lovely about these moments is the way she gives into them. More than once throughout the series, we see her overcome with tears. Over the course of the show, she learns to open up, establishes friendships with her peers, and eventually even invites her coworkers into her home, despite the running gag that nobody in the 99 has ever seen her apartment. We learn that Rosa’s favorite filmmaker is Nancy Meyers, that she trained to be a ballerina, and that she has an impeccable eye for interior design. She even adopts a puppy named Arlo. “I didn’t understand why people care so much about their dumb dogs until I got a dumb dog myself,” she states. “I’ve only had Arlo for a day and a half, but if anything happened to him, I would kill everyone in this room and then myself.”
Earlier this season, we learned that Rosa is bisexual, which makes her the second LGBTQ character in the show’s ensemble. In the episode, we see her come out to her family and her friends, another example of how the show’s hardest character is often at the center of its most tender moments.
What I love about Rosa is that all of these disparate pieces of information make perfect sense, because they make her whole. All of her moments of weakness only serve to make her stronger, never taking away an ounce of her bad-assery.
Gina Linetti is the 99’s civilian administrator and the Captain’s personal assistant. She is also fucking nuts. Played by the brilliant Chelsea Peretti, Gina is the character that women rarely get to be — the weirdo outsider who gets most of the show’s funniest lines. She serves as the comic relief in most situations, always ready with an insulting quip when called upon (or just, you know, when she feels like insulting someone). Compulsively dishonest, narcissistic, and all-around strange, she consistently puzzles mental health professionals and scholars alike. Even now, I’m having a hard time describing what she’s like. She’s just… Gina.
What I think is so impressive about Gina as a character is that even when she’s the worst, she’s also the best. Narcissism is one of the least attractive traits a character can have, but Gina owns it and rocks it. No matter how despicably she behaves, she’s always a welcome presence on screen — and though she’s laughable, the show rarely relies on humor at her expense. She lacks self awareness, but it still feels like she’s in on the joke. I think this might be because her self-obsession doesn’t seem to come from a place of insecurity, but one of absolute confidence. Gina loves herself, and as a result, we can’t help but love her too.
Of course, Gina also gets moments of redemption and tenderness, though probably less than often than any other main character. She proves herself to be surprisingly emotionally perceptive, and despite her seeming lack of regard for her peers, she can also be generous (like the time she bought Jake’s apartment, or the time she made Rosa a care package called “Rosa’s going to make this cold her bitch”). The fact that the show doesn’t veer into sentimental territory too often with Gina makes those rare moments feel more believable and important than they would otherwise.
Amy Santiago is arguably Brooklyn 99’s lead female lead, Jake Peralta being her male counterpart. If this were a more formulaic cop show, Amy would be little more than Jake’s love interest — and while the two do end up together (incredibly obvious spoiler alert!), she doesn’t exist just for him.
Played by Melissa Fumero, Amy is a talented, earnest, and dedicated detective. Her dream is to eventually become a captain, and thus she’s obsessed with earning the mentorship of Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher). Amy’s need to please Holt — and everyone else around her — is perhaps her greatest flaw. Her desire to seem laid-back and unbothered in certain situations generally causes her to seem even more uptight, like her instinct to use words such as “coolio” and “rad” when she’s trying to sound “normal.” Basically, Amy has no chill.
Being the “no chill” character can often go hand-in-hand with being the wet blanket, but luckily, Amy isn’t that. Early on, it’s established that Amy comes from a family of seven brothers, and growing up with them instilled her with a sense of one-upmanship that tends to overpower her desire to be obedient. She is an avid participant in the precinct’s ridiculous contests and pranks, immediately throws herself into any competition presented to her, and is always determined to prove others wrong about her — especially when they’re right.
Amy is also one of the most unabashedly kind characters on the show. Sure, her motivations are sometimes self-serving, but she is never reluctant to help out her friends or offer words of encouragement, even when her sincerity makes her the butt of one of Gina’s jokes.
To me, out of all the characters on Brooklyn 99, Amy feels the most like a real person. Even so, to the show’s credit, she never quite falls into the role of the boring “straight (wo)man.” She’s always fun to watch, whether she’s succeeding or failing, gleefully organizing one of her many binders or sneaking a stress cigarette in the women’s bathroom. Ultimately, the strength of her presence as a character, with or without Jake, is what makes their romance such a successful part of the show. In this season’s Halloween special, five years worth of petty competition and middle school-style teasing culminates in one of Brooklyn 99’s most emotionally impactful moments to date. It’s saccharine as hell, but it works, because the sentimentality is entirely earned.
I think what Brooklyn 99 gets so right about its female characters is that it celebrates them for exactly who they are. All three of the female leads are flawed, but their flaws are often the things we love most about them — and they’re things that women aren’t always encouraged to possess: Rosa’s anger, or Gina’s confidence, or in Amy’s case, the too-candid desire to please. These women are allowed the space to grow, but they aren’t expected to change, to be anyone other than exactly who they are.