CN: Brooklyn 99 spoilers
There’s a really common trope in TV shows and movies of the guy and the girl who hate each other to begin with but over time come to realize that they actually love each other and all the fighting that they did was just because they had so much CHEMISTRY and PASSION (or something). It’s a really common will they/won’t they scenario because you can see early on that they’ve got some kind of interest in each other, but it’s negative so there’s conflict. Easy way for writers to build plots.
Unfortunately it’s also kind of a shitty trope because it reinforces the idea that being mean is a way to express affection, and that as long as someone comes around and says “hey I love you” it doesn’t matter if they treated you like crap for a really long time. These are the kinds of tactics that abusers use to keep their victims around, and they’re also just really common ways for people to treat each other poorly. When we see them played out on our screens, we learn that it’s ok or normal, and we simply get used to the idea that that’s how you treat people.
On the flip side, a healthy, happy relationship does not good TV make. Plots require conflict. So how does one show an interesting progression in a relationship without making it shitty? How do you show people teaching each other and growing/changing because of each other without it being a crappy “let’s fix each other” plotline? How do you start with some conflict and grow into a beautiful, loving relationship?
Let me introduce you to Brooklyn 99.
There are many reasons that I love the way Brooklyn 99 takes classic TV tropes and subverts them, but perhaps my favorite one is the relationship between Jake Peralta, the main character, and Amy Santiago, my soulmate and true love. When we first meet Jake and Amy, we are introduced to them as rival cops who have a bet to see who can arrest the most people in a year. This is the classic set up for a “two people hate each other until they love each other”, especially when paired with the fact that Amy is the classic uptight woman and Jake is the classic break the rules playboy. Of course he’ll whittle away at her need to be in control until she finally HAS to go on a date with him (set up in episode one as part of their bet) and realizes she should just have fun and be more like him.
But that’s not really how it goes down, despite the fact that the show cues us to start running our scripts for those tropes.
Instead, Jake and Amy are just really good friends for multiple years. Sure, they banter, but it’s not actually mean, and consistently for the first two seasons of the show, they act as very good partners to each other. Yes, they are competitive, but instead of using that to actually get in each other’s way, they each use it as a reason to be better cops. When it comes down to it, they have a solid relationship from day one, as solid as Jake’s relationship with Terry or Rosa. And starting from a space where they clearly respect each other makes all the difference in the world for this trope.
For example, every slow burn, will they/won’t they has a time of denial, which is true of Jake and Amy. It crops up particularly when Amy starts dating Teddy and Jake begins to act jealous. But where many characters start to insult or badmouth their eventual love interest, that never happens. Another classic possibility would be interfering with Amy’s current relationship, but Jake also never shows interest in sabotaging Amy if she’s truly happy, and even works really hard to help her keep her relationship together when he inadvertently screws up by inviting Teddy to a bed and breakfast with her.
When Amy and Teddy do eventually break up and Amy decides that she doesn’t want to date cops anymore, Jake doesn’t feel that it’s his job to change her mind or convince her. He respects her decision.
These are two characters who respect each other, even if they do move from rivals to lovers, and it’s so refreshing to experience. Once they start dating, it would be all too easy for the show to fall into the “they need to change in order to be together” trap. Amy would have to relax and become less controlling, Jake would need to give up his goofy ways. Amazingly, that never happens. Instead, they sometimes have honest moments of irritation but most of the time express affection for their partner’s quirks, which is how love should be.
When Jake says that he spent all of his time in prison planning his Halloween heist (and also thinking about Amy) she just responds with “good save babe” because it doesn’t upset her, she thinks his intensity is fun. When Amy pulls out the most gigantic wedding binder, Jake just smiles and jumps in on the next set of tasks. They complement each other, as evidenced clearly in the wedding episode: Amy has planned everything and knows just how each moment is supposed to go, while Jake manages the last minute fiascos that happen in life. How have they learned to work so seamlessly together? Oh yeah, but accepting each other’s strengths and growing together as friends and partners for five years.
The final point I’d want to make about how this relationship breaks stereotypes is that Jake and Amy aren’t stagnant. They do change each other, and they do grow in their relationship. But not because the other person demands it or because they aren’t accepted as they are: they grow because they learn from each other and find the benefits in their significant other’s traits. Jake gives up his apartment because he knows it would stress Amy out to live there, and he loves her. Amy runs into the freezing ocean to get Holt and Rosa when Jake is in danger and needs backup. They face fears like commitment and family, and come out still themselves but better.
Other shows could definitely learn something about how to create tension without turning people into assholes and creating unhealthy relationship patterns.