Thursday, June 11, 2015

Recommended: Brooklyn Nine-Nine

I think I pretty much stopped following sitcoms after Seinfeld ended. It’s not like there weren’t some great options, but I never tuned in to The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or Community. I will correct that someday, but I wasn't inclined to watch them live. Instead, my situation comedy diet was fed by animated series, like Archer, or BBC programs (sorry, programmes), like Coupling, Hyperdrive, and Spaced. I didn’t even see the superlative Arrested Development until just before the Netflix eps premiered. But my drought ended a year and a half ago, when I tried out Fox’s great series, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

BN-N is a sitcom centered on the crazy characters who work in Brooklyn’s 99th police precinct. You have Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), an arrogant man-child who’s a highly-successful detective despite often acting as dumb as a bag of rocks. Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) is a fellow detective, a kind and helpful brown-nosing, OCD-addled overachiever. Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) is the moody, rough cop on the edge who eschews feelings, gentleness, or anything that prevents her from catching punks. And Sgt. Terence Jeffords (Terry Crews) is the confident, energetic, competent health nut who’s on desk duty after a troubling incident. It’s an odd combination of fringe characters who, behavioral flaws aside, genuinely care about keeping the peace and stopping crime.

These four people are joined by a few others who you also wouldn’t imagine working in law enforcement. Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) is a soft-hearted geeky detective with a romantic longing for Rosa and a man-crush on Jake. The precinct’s secretary, Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti), is a walking distraction; she's a space cadet who only offers snide insults and pithy responses. Last, we have Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher), the uptight, nearly-emotionless figure who tries to wrangle these knuckleheads. When this cast comes together, you have nothing less than a brilliant, hysterical, nuclear-powered comedy machine.

The series is, at heart, a send-up of 70’s-era cop films and TV shows, and you can see that in nothing more than the opening credit sequence. It’s at least as funny as Police Squad!, but it’s a show that takes full advantage of all the changes television has experienced in the past few decades. The plotlines matter less than the comedy and the characters, there’s a decent amount of serialization - in spite of the self-contained nature of each episode - and the cast is gloriously-diverse. Seriously, one of my favorite aspects of BN-N is that it’s an NYC-based program with a true-to-life mix of genders and ethnicities.

I never write up sitcoms, aside from Hyperdrive. Much as with that Nick Frost series, I’m doing so now partly to write about something different, and partly because I want to promote this show as much as possible. As a class-clown-type, I have a lifelong love of comedy, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine has an amazing knack for making me laugh, hard and often. So why does this series work so well?

These actors offer up a good mix of distinct personalities in conflict, so different styles of humor are always at work. Gina is petty and sarcastic. Boyle makes an ass out of himself repeatedly without ever noticing, which Amy reflects in a far more manic and high-energy manner. Diaz is casually aggressive, harsh, and brutal, with no concern that there’s anything wrong with her attitude. Sgt. Terry Jeffords is a constant source of physical humor – like lifting Jake up with just one arm – as well as irony, in the form of the weaknesses that this big-ass man worries about or displays. Peralta expresses elements of all of these forms of humor, while Cpt. Holt is so dry that he rivals the Sahara Desert itself.

The program ably utilizes all this comedic talent, and bolsters them with excellent pacing and editing. In particular, Brooklyn Nine-Nine makes great use of smash-cuts – jumping into a flashback or leaping ahead to the next scene – to sell a punchline or to build into the next joke. Moreover, every episode has a tight focus on a particular story, bringing a fresh, comical take on what are often old cop show tropes.

Some eps have Jake competing with cops from other precincts, while Craig Robinson makes multiple appearances as "Doug Judy, the Pontiac Bandit." A highlight of its freshman season is one installment that focuses on the team trying to ace the tactical shooting range. And, in the first episode I ever watched - the one that hooked me - Jake foolishly arrests a suspect without evidence, giving him 48 hours to substantiate his claims. Everything we see is filtered through basic elements of police shows, which adds a meta element to what's on your screen.

As with many fine series, it’s not always smooth sailing. While there are practically no dud episodes, there are at least two consistent mistakes made by the writers: an over-reliance on Jake (which is more a compliment to Samberg's fellow players), and a requisite romance plot for the lead, which has Peralta pining for Amy. While some elements do make up for the former, the latter is more problematic. Jake gets his comeuppance often enough to balance out his childishness and arrogant selfishness, but his general attitude would play better - and, crucially, seem less condescending - if he didn't also want to make Sexy Times with one of his coworkers.

Boyle and Linetti are also sources of excess that border on the annoying too often. In Boyle's case, he often gets jokes that make you groan, not laugh. Charles truly strains credulity - as in, "how can he say those words out loud and not realize how that sounds?!" He also has a sycophantic relationship (and possible codependency) with Peralta that might work better if the writers incorporated some latent homosexuality vibe. In Gina's case, it's a long time before the show explains why the Captain would keep her around despite her bad work ethic and insulting manner. Further still, Linetti is blithe and dry in many line deliveries, enough to make her inflated sense of self hard to buy into.

What’s amazing here, however, is that this series can threaten to wear out a character, and yet it can turn all that around in a heartbeat. It’s not even that they have to switch to Jeffords, Holt, Diaz, and Santiago to become compelling or funny – the writers can close a run of bad Boyle humor with still another joke from Charles, one that sets you into a nearly-painful giggling fit. As much as some jokes can misfire, or you can feel annoyed by the overall tone of a particular role, the writing here is so smart and so sharp that its few weaknesses are always temporary.

Again, I state this as, in essence, an amateur comedian: Brooklyn Nine-Nine displays a masterful understanding and utilization of many different styles of humor, and can effectively employ them at any moment. A great comic may make you laugh with solid jokes for 5 minutes straight, or they might just murder you with the last two minutes of their set. If you know humor as well as I do, you can recognize the subtle distinctions between “funny, despite itself” and “funny, but willing to try out jokes that might fail.” And, from a comedian’s perspective, BN-N is nothing less than a reliable, well-exploited gold mine; even when production is down, you know the next rich vein is just moments away, and that exploring it will always be worth your patience.

In the end, though, when I think about Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I always feel so damn happy for Andre Braugher. He’s been on TV for a long time – his role as Pembleton on Homicide is 22 years old already – and I’ve followed his work in film and on TV as much as possible. But his last dramatic series, (the quite cool) Last Resort, was cancelled before its first season could even conclude, and his critically-praised comedy-drama, Men of a Certain Age, was axed after two. You can only imagine how happy I was for Braugher when he landed a role on a program which garnered both the ratings and the critical attention that I’ve always wanted to see him receive.

The heart of this show is the relationship between Jake and Captain Holt. Peralta is a cocky kid, a screw-up cop who doesn’t even realize when he’s screwed up. Raymond is his polar opposite – quietly-confident, mature, erudite, and so calm that you almost wonder if he’s a robot. And yet it’s always, tacitly, clear that the detective desperately wants Holt’s approval, and – more importantly – that the Captain tolerates Jake’s behavior partly because he closes cases, yet mostly because he looks upon Peralta as an adoptive son. This dynamic is not always too overt, but the actors are so good and the characters are so well-written that it all seems quite obvious.

Braugher’s role truly shines here. As it is, Andre has a voice with so much gravitas, it's unbelievable. With nothing more, this acting powerhouse can invest any one word with enough depth for a dozen scenes, and his intonations make his deadpan lines even more funny. Even the way that Raymond says the names of his officers is stuck in my head. As someone who never saw MoaCA, I was unprepared for his natural comedic talent. That was dumb of me.

Best of all, the flashes of Holt's humanity are just a joy. Flashbacks show Raymond's younger days as a stereotypical 70's-era cop - only adding in the wrinkles of him being both black and openly-gay. Even in the present time, Cpt. Holt displays just as much eccentricity and obliviousness as the people under his command, getting addicted to a game for his iPhone (the perfectly-named Kwazy Cupcakes), fighting with a highly-ranked rival, or taunting Jake with information that no one else in the precinct would ever believe.

Rather than marginalizing or isolating him - which would be both easy and unhealthy, since he's a successful double-minority in what is often a hostile real-life environment - Braugher's role blends into and fits in with the rest. It's gratifying to see Ray's struggles in the past, and to witness a serious man who's just out of touch enough to think that he's a normal guy, too. God, Raymond Holt is funnier than all the rest put together, and I would eagerly watch a show focused solely on him (actually, that's kind of bs, any of them would make a fine lead role).

If you haven't seen Brooklyn Nine-Nine, please watch it. Each 20-odd-minute episode is available on Hulu, and I would take the site's free two-week trial for the sake of BN-N alone. This is nothing less than a fun, fine, wildly-comical show, and your viewership will be repaid ten-fold with laughter and joy. Don't look before you leap, just join me in appreciating good television.


  1. This is one of those shows I meant to watch but never found the right time to tune for. Andre Braugher is beyond awesome(Homicide was never the same after he left) and hate to say it but I saw him in at least three movies that killed his character off(two of them were Stephen King adaptations) too soon!

    1. Well, then, lady t, you should absolutely try to see it asap! Hopefully the clips above, especially the penultimate one, will convince you of the hilarity that you've missed out on.

      Off the top of my head, I recall Braugher in Frequency, and one of Ed Norton's early films. I can't remember the King adaptations, tho - that's such a shame! And, yeah, Homicide pretty much reached its sell-by date once Andre left.

      Just try out any episode on Hulu now, save for maybe the last one or two. It will be so good!

  2. The SK adaptations were The Mist and the TNT remake of 'Salem's Lot and he was also in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer(he got taken out by Doctor Doom at least). I'll do my best to give B9-9 a chance as the clips are pretty damn funny,especially the one where Braugher keeps running down his nemesis:)

    1. I saw the depression-fest that was The Mist, and I guess I blocked the whole thing out. I skipped out on Salem's Lot because I read the book and found it so good that no film adaptation would bring anything extra to the table. I recall hearing about him in FF2 - it's... cool that they chose him as the hardass General, it would just be so much better to see him in parts that take advantage of his incredible range.

      I really hope you like the series. As I watched videos to use for the review, I realized that I actually still haven't seen the pilot episode, or any of the first six or so entries... and yet I feel confident in my recommendation.

      The video of Holt taking down Wuntch is so damn good that I was watching it on my lunch break at work this week. I needed a laugh, and that was the funniest video I could think of I'm short notice.


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