Probably no viewer of Brooklyn Nine-Nine was happier than I was when Charles Boyle proposed to his girlfriend Vivian, but none of that happiness was for Boyle’s sake—it was all for Rosa Diaz.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine made an impressive showing this year, snagging a Golden Globe for Best Comedy while still in its first season. And while that might have been a mild case of freshman fever, the show’s well on its way to earning that vote of confidence. Its ensemble effortlessly reflects the positive representation pop culture keeps having conversations about: a talented, multicultural cast; an openly gay main character whose sexuality is neither a single defining trait nor a footnote; and character beats that routinely subvert the expected tropes. It’s a welcome workplace comedy that makes the most of its ensemble, and—more importantly—is often willing to course-correct in order to improve a problematic dynamic.
In the world of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Rosa can be a take-no-prisoners grump without a painful backstory, sergeant Terry Jeffords can be a yuppie softie between his impossible workouts, and Amy Santiago can be a tactical ringer and still have a collection of grandma spoons. But after some early episodes in which admin Gina Linetti seemed adrift amid April Ludgate-esque shit-stirring, the show cut down on her freeform hostility and highlighted her shamelessly abrasive truth-bombs, a funnier and more natural fit for the ensemble. It also smartly backed down on the bet set out in the pilot between Amy and smarmy partner Jake Peralta. Originally the terms included either Jake’s car or Amy agreeing to a date, in which sex was a secondary stake. It was an eyebrow-raiser that felt increasingly out of sync with Jake and Amy’s friendly, occasionally flirty partnership, and when the bet came up again, the flashback clarified the date had no sexual strings attached—and that it had been Amy’s idea, not Jake’s, to put the date on the table at all, another significant equalizer. (Interestingly, the season has been pointing these two toward romance, but their banter is mutual, and—in a crucial departure from the situation between Rosa and Boyle—Jake doesn’t hold Amy responsible for his feelings.)
It makes it all the more interesting, and worrying, that the show keeps indulging Charles in the “Full Boyle”—a romantic fixation that’s too much to be healthy. It falls flat every time it comes up, a sour note in an ever-better ensemble. Worse, it normalizes a real-world behavior that needs to get called out in pop culture as regularly as we point out more overt sexism; Brooklyn Nine-Nine is in a great position to do so—if they realize it.
In a show that’s usually so savvy, it stands to reason Boyle’s one-way crush would be quickly shot down by the show: a tweak to the unrequited-love trope and a reminder that when a woman says no, the conversation’s over. Instead, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has steadily and disappointingly played it for laughs that Boyle refuses to listen when Rosa says no, when it reads closer to straight-up harassment. This is no slow-burn demurral. Part of the joke, in fact, is her badass exterior, as if it means she should be up for the challenge. Her attempts to shut him down include: “That’s nice, and I like you as a person, but I’m just not that into you romantically,” and, “You’re starting to make this weird. I’m not into you that way and I have a boyfriend,” which would, to most people, read loud and clear. But Boyle’s been painted as one of those hopeless-romantic TV sad sacks who has a long pine ahead of him, fixated on Rosa long past the point where it was funny. (Boyle even quasi-blamed Rosa for his going “Full Boyle” overboard with Vivian, because Rosa’s refusals apparently caused a backlog of romantic gestures Boyle was helpless against.)
And the pressure takes a palpable toll on Rosa. In “The Bet,” after Boyle takes a bullet for Rosa, she feels too guilty to turn him down should he ask, and ends up hiding from him in the corner of a party—utterly atypical of her personality, and a prime example of someone pushed so hard by an unwanted suitor she changes her habits just to try to avoid another showdown. She tries again to shut him down when he corners her in a coat closet; he guilt-trips her that he’d take a bullet for any fellow cop, and assures her that “When you finally go out with me—and you will,” she'll like him for different reasons.
It’s worth noting that after meeting Vivian, Boyle does apologize to Rosa for being creepy. But even here, he mentions his current relationship as the reason his behavior seems inappropriate in hindsight—not the behavior itself. Rosa accepts, but the circumstances ring a bit hollow. And in the very next episode, Boyle excludes Rosa from his wedding, lying that Vivian is uncomfortable with Rosa there because of Boyle’s attachment to her. She discovers the lie, and Boyle finally extends an invitation. But throughout the episode, the rest of the precinct believes Rosa’s exclusion from the wedding makes sense given Boyle’s unrequited feelings for her—passing the social consequences of Boyle’s fixation onto Rosa, and leaving her out of the group.
It’s a familiar real-world consequence for women who are harassed, particularly in the workplace. That it’s been played for comedy so long on a show that usually knows better shows how invisible and insidious a dynamic it still is, and is the most important reason that Brooklyn Nine-Nine—and everybody else on TV—needs to drop the Full Boyle.
This dynamic has, unfortunately, long been a staple of sitcoms. Nothing draws out a romantic relationship longer than a guy pursuing an uninterested woman with increasing desperation. Ross’ through-line of being creepy about Rachel continued unabated right through their relationship; Niles pined for Daphne so long even the dog got tired of it. And you don’t have to look far to find this dynamic currently airing. On The Mindy Project, male nurse Morgan casually harasses fellow nurse Tamra, clearly unwanted and occasionally flat-out delusional. (In the winter finale, he asks a doctor, “Every time I ask Tamra out, she says no. Do you think she has a crush on me?”) It passes largely without comment, and while the show’s general consensus is that Morgan’s an off-putting cog in the Shulman & Associates machine, it’s also not as though anyone’s made him knock it off.
It’s also recently played out to a different, more complicated endgame in New Girl. After being rejected by Cece, Schmidt continues to pursue her until they begin a relationship—the standard sitcom outcome of “lovelorn guy wearing down initially uninterested girl.” But in interviews, Liz Meriwether acknowledged Schmidt was “this weird, needy douchebag guy,” and the dynamic she describes for the pair sounds more like larceny than romance: “Cece would never let that happen. Then, the more that we got to know Cece, we felt there was this vulnerability in her that Schmidt could seize on. Schmidt could grab her at like a low moment and get in there.” The characters are still in one another’s romantic orbit, but “grab her at a low moment” might be among the least romantic phrases anyone could use to describe a burgeoning romance.
Of course, plenty of good comedy features exaggeration of everyday ills—making light of the tragedy of life is the reason comedy exists. But dismissing the creeper dynamic when a guy won’t leave a woman alone downplays an often-dangerous real-life situation in a way that falling over a bunch of times in a yoga class doesn’t. And things played as textually creepy on Mad Men or Law & Order are being played for laughs in sitcoms with almost no change of context, except one: Sitcoms pretend there are no consequences for the woman being pursued. In most sitcoms, there’s an acknowledged comfort zone that allows us to enjoy what might be uncomfortable in something more realistic: We know these heroes are essentially harmless. The objects of their affection can turn them down a hundred times, and the gentleman will go right on as he has before, until sweeps week forces them into a locked closet together or makes them pretend to be married. She’s never punished at work for turning down the advances of a lovelorn superior. She’s never in danger of the behavior escalating into violence. Everything’s fine. It’s funny. (Also funny: Boyle’s behavior so far this season hits every single bullet point for the Romantic Stalker on this list of warning signs from the Network for Surviving Stalking.)
And that’s the problem: A generation of romantic comedies rewarding men for diligently pursuing a woman until she caves has normalized a behavior that has direct and unwelcome corollaries in real life. In an era when we’re having open conversations about representation and sensitivity in comedy, the shtick of a guy who won’t take no for an answer has lost any charm it once held. It’s become either a romantic signpost to set up a long-term romantic dynamic (which it shouldn’t), or it’s shorthand to denote a clueless creep while rarely taking him to task for it.
But that’s too easy. Boyle isn’t just a for-laughs lech in the early-seasons Big Bang Theory Howard Wolowitz mold. Boyle’s meant to be as rounded a character as any of the main cast, and is presented with a suitably sympathetic eye, despite having more than one Nice Guy tendency. He assembles a complicated toy for Terry’s twin girls; he offers unconditional friendship to Jake. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has, in Boyle, a fantastic example of an essentially well-meaning guy whose behavior is still unacceptable—not a two-dimensional creep on the fringes, but someone integrated into the group who still needs to be reminded not to make his feelings someone else’s problem. (After Rosa told him not to listen to a psychic’s portents of doom, Boyle tells Gina: “Rosa said it herself—I’m in charge of my own destiny. That means she wants me to make a move.”) That the show waited until he was in another relationship to acknowledge he’d been a creeper is a sidestep of a bigger issue, and evidence Boyle has a lot more amends to make. A more recent episode, “Fancy Brugdom,” has offered hints that Boyle’s increasingly aware of the shortcomings in his character. There’s still time in the season to course-correct on this; here’s hoping the show knows it still needs to.
For a sitcom otherwise so dedicated to tweaking tropes and portraying its characters positively, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has repeatedly let Boyle off the hook, taking advantage of a TV trope that’s all too familiar, and is on the surface an easy way to draw out a potential pairing. However, that doesn’t make it a trope that anyone needs to see more of. Boyle needs to wake up, make good, and back off. And he should be the first of many.