Jake Peralta and Jonah Simms and the Self-Aware White Male
I’m writing this at 5am, because holy hell have I just entirely lost control of my sleep cycle, and I definitely didn’t sleep last night at all, and I’m kind of hoping that if I take a shower around 6 or 7 and force myself to go outside, it will balance something out? But I’m very much not confident in this plan.
So I was watching the most recent episode of Superstore in lieu of sleep. And I’m not going to give any spoilers, but it addresses the legacy of racism, and how Americans, as a society, should best move forward in healing from it. It’s Season 6, Episode 5, “Hair Care Products,” for those of you who may be reading this in the distant future, and I think it’s one of the best episodes they’ve done, in that it manages to address a lot of subtleties that I don’t think I’ve seen too often on TV. Questions like “what’s the balance between letting Black voices lead, and putting the entire burden on them?” Or “what’s appropriate, and what’s fair?”
It doesn’t go so far as to answer those questions, but it’s a comedy show. That’s not necessarily its job.
And, in the middle of all this, you have Jonah. Who was basically the main character of the show until a recent cast shake-up, and now just doesn’t have quite as much material as he used to. His role in this episode is a little shoe-horned, but that seems almost to be the point: his storyline was trying to figure out his role in the conversation that the rest of the cast was addressing more directly.
One of the comedic tics that the writers gave Jonah is that he talks too much. He over-explains. Especially when he’s nervous. And what that allows the writers to do, in episodes like this, is to work through some of the mental conversations a lot of us are having, out-loud. It validates the audience’s confusion: Jonah is, and has consistently been, sort of a token for upper-middle-class white progressivism that’s well-meaning, but maybe not as rooted in the realities of those he wants to help as he thinks. So if this person who is definitely progressive, and definitely making an effort, is confused and needs to work through his own thought processes, it means that the audience is permitted to work through their own thought processes as well.
They can hear Jonas’s logic, and either agree with all of it, disagree with all of it, or find some place in the middle where they understand what’s going on, and move forward in their own direction from there. But that’s a lot more effective than just delivering a ham-handed lesson and hoping people hear it.
And it reminded me of this thing that Brooklyn 99 has been doing in more recent seasons with Jake Peralta. See, Jake’s character, like Jonah’s, is also well-meaning, but his defining feature is his immaturity. And in early seasons, that often manifested as ignorance. Unlike Jonah, Jake’s character isn’t necessarily a progressive archetype when we first meet him. He isn’t necessarily aware that there’s a need for him to be progressive.
But then, especially once his relationship with Amy gets off the — wait a sec. Jonah’s romantic interest is also name Amy. That’s a weird coincidence.
Anyway, especially once Jake’s relationship with Amy gets off the ground, his character evolves. He’s taking his female, Latina coworker (and girlfriend) more seriously, so it makes sense that he starts to take the things she finds important more seriously. But, again, Jake’s defining feature is his immaturity. He’s a good person, but he’s not going to read an article from NPR about how Latina policewomen experience the workplace. He’s just going to… listen to his Latina coworkers, and try to integrate new lessons as they come.
And, like with Jonah, the show makes no illusions that this is an easy process. Again, we’re “training” our audience in how to have their own internal conversations, validating insecurity and doubt, and demonstrating a path towards a more equitable society, without being confrontational.
And, while certainly it is more important to focus on the story of the Black Superstore employees who drive the A-plot of the episode that started me writing all of this, and certainly it’s more important to focus on the Latina who’s trying to work her way up the NYPD ranks, and I hope everyone reading this watches both shows and appreciates those primary storylines, I also want to appreciate this moment where we have white, hetero, cis-male characters who aren’t just telling their own stories. They’re taking a backseat and learning how to support other characters’ stories. And we’re watching that education happen on-screen, even as it happens in writer’s rooms.
This isn’t some sort of end-goal. But it is the next step forward. It prepares us for maybe five years down the line, maybe ten, when these kinds of characters won’t have to try to empathize, they’ll just actually empathize. Because today’s white society has learned Jonah Simm’s and Jake Peralta’s lessons.
One can certainly hope.