One of the largest issues that can plague sitcoms is that “the form, out of sheer necessity, is built around the idea of stasis.” That’s from an AV Club piece Libby Hill wrote in praise of the format-defying growth and change Parks and Recreation showed over its seven seasons, and that trend of unexpected growth has continued in Parks co-creator Michael Schur’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which he co-created with fellow Parks vet Dan Goor).
Brooklyn Nine-Nine finished a stellar, change-filled third season with an excellent finale (“Greg and Larry”) Tuesday night. The commitment to growth and change (but in reasonable, focused ways) is a big part of what makes this show work so well, and part of makes it one of the best comedies currently on TV.
Right from its start in 2013, Brooklyn Nine-Nine was hilarious, and it captured a Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy (plus another one for Andy Samberg for Best Actor) in the middle of its first season. Even at that time, the central cast of characters was reasonably well-defined, from Samberg as immature-but-brilliant detective Jake Peralta to Andre Braugher as super-serious gay captain Raymond Holt, to Melissa Fumero as by-the-book detective Amy Santiago to Stephanie Beatriz as tough-as-nails detective Rosa Diaz.
There could have been a funny show just involving these people remaining exactly as they were and investigating different one-off cases each week or engaging in office hijinks, but that wasn’t what the writers chose to do here. Instead, while still ensuring that each individual episode was always funny, Brooklyn Nine-Nine built out the characters with more and more nuance over time, allowed them to grow in logical and humorous ways, and also increased the ongoing plotlines and serialization of the show. That’s a trend which really paid off in this third season.
Plot has always mattered somewhat to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but early divergences from the show’s typical circumstances, such as Peralta going undercover at the end of the first season, didn’t have major ongoing impacts right away. (A time-lapse meant he was back in his normal role near the start of the second season’s premiere.) That changed significantly in season two, with threads such as the “GigglePig” drug task force illustrating that the show could effectively tell ongoing stories over several episodes, and Holt’s season-long battle with deputy commissioner Madeleine Wuntch (Kyra Sedgwick) ending with his promotion away from the Nine-Nine.
This third season indicated that even more change and plot was in the works right from its premiere, and the writers both followed through on that promise and executed it very well. A lot of the early plotting of this season was to shake things up at the precinct, first with efficiency-obsessed Captain Dozerman (Bill Hader) and then long-established adversary “The Vulture” (Dean Winters) in charge before Holt got his job back at the end of the fourth episode. Those early episodes helped substantially on the character-growth front, forcing Peralta to be more mature, Santiago to trust authority less blindly, and Holt to deal with not being on top of the world.
The show then went into a bunch of non-serialized episodes, but those still had important beats for character growth, such as Santiago topping both Holt and Peralta in “Halloween III,” the Santiago/Peralta relationship growing through fights in “The Mattress,” and Peralta, civilian administrator Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti) and foodie detective Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) having to combine their unique skills to deal with hostages in a department store in the “Yippie Kayak” Die Hard tribute.
We also saw the work relationships grow in interesting ways this season, including Gina’s increasing competence and importance (in a way that made sense for her character, notably in “Hostage Situation” and “The Bureau”), detective sergeant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) occasionally being imperfect and needing to rely on others (“Into the Woods,” “Ava,” “The Bureau”), the bond between Peralta and Boyle being tested (“Yippee Kayak,” “Hostage Situation,” “The 9-8”), the women of the unit working together to overcome their fears (“House Mouses”), and even generally useless detectives Norm Scully (Joel McKinnon Miller) and Michael Hitchcock (Dirk Blocker) getting their moments to shine (in “House Mouses” in particular).
Romantic relationships were important throughout the course of the season, too, with Peralta and Santiago addressing everything from vacations (“The Cruise”) to in-laws (“Karen Peralta”) and Boyle’s growing relationship with Genevieve (Mary Lynn Rajskub). But it was Rosa’s relationship with formerly undercover cop Adrian Pimento (Jason Mantzoukas) that made perhaps the biggest difference to the ongoing plot.
A word about Pimento: his appearances over the last seven episodes took some criticism, and there were some points where that was deserved. For instance, the subplot of him moving into Boyle’s apartment uninvited in “Terry Kitties” was generally unneeded and not well-written, even if it did show us Boyle’s effective form of problem-solving from the beta male perspective. But Pimento’s character overall felt like a good thing for the show. Mantzoukas largely played what he was given effectively, including some of the PTSD material and his relationship with Rosa in particular, and that relationship helped develop both her character and the plot.
Perhaps the smartest choice here was to reveal (in “Paranoia,” an otherwise carefree bachelor party episode that recalled Parks‘ spectacular “Two Parties“) that Pimento wasn’t just paranoid, and mob boss Jimmy “The Butcher” Figgis really was out to get him with the help of a mole in the FBI. That paved the way for three solid final episodes, with the last two (“The Bureau” and “Greg and Larry”) really shining after the introduction of Dennis Haysbert as FBI agent Bob Annderson.
Haysbert really was perfectly cast in that role as a Holtier-than-Holt FBI agent, and watching him and Braugher bounce off their cold, seemingly humorless characters off each other was just a pure joy. Throw in a spectacular caper (burglary of the FBI headquarters) that even featured Holt distracting a guard with a Sex and the City discussion, and there was plenty to like even before “The Bureau” ended with the reveal that Annderson was dirty too and holding a gun on Holt in a hospital room. That was a great twist, though, and while some may have predicted it, the distraction of the Holt-Annderson similarities was enough to keep many of us off the scent.
That paved the way for some “Greg and Larry” excellence, first with tracking down Holt and Annderson in the hospital and then with getting Annderson to talk. Both of those plotlines involved the entire squad and their unique talents, from Hitchcock’s taste buds to Rosa’s preparedness, to Peralta’s ability to think like Holt to Gina’s improvisation. Each narrative also very nicely balanced comedy with the seriousness of the situation. The Holt-Annderson back-and-forth of “When I die, please give my regards to Kevin.” “What would you tell him?” “Regards.” was one of the funniest things along those lines since Futurama‘s The Neutral Planet. Interestingly enough, it was also a callback to Dozerman’s dying words of “Tell my wife I love her… work ethic” in Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s season premiere).
Between Rosa’s vase of lemons, Terry’s love for Grey’s Anatomy, Holt’s disdain for sarcasm and Hitchcock and Scully’s advanced interrogation techniques (“Alright, mister, you’re going to tell us where it is!” “And also what it is! We’re a little behind!”), there were more than enough jokes in this one that it would have flown as a standalone episode. But the serialization and character growth helped make it even better, making the resolutions more logical and the jokes land more solidly.
Goor told Entertainment Weekly’s Dan Snierson they had to be careful with how serialized the storylines got, but it wound up making for some of the show’s best episodes:
It is something we discussed a lot and we talked about it with Fox beforehand, and Fox was very supportive. Our governing principle was: Every episode should be stand-alone enough that you don’t need a “Previously on,” so that might mean that there’s a little bit of exposition in the first few scenes, but you should be able to enjoy [it on its own]. We tried to break stories like breaking into the FBI, which we could have just done as a stand-alone episode, or like escaping from a hospital, a 16 Blocks kind of episode as a stand-alone episode, because we know that there are people who check in and out of the show, and then there are a lot of people who watch it online and binge. And for those people, I think it’s actually very rewarding when you do it in a serialized way.
Expect that mix of jokes, growth and plot to continue when Brooklyn Nine-Nine returns for a fourth season in the fall. “Greg and Larry” wrapped up with Holt and Peralta in witness protection in Florida, thanks to threats from Figgis, and Goor said they’ll likely explore that scenario for at least a few episodes:
With 23 episodes, it’s very hard to do all stand-alone, and it’s very hard to do all serialized, so in our ideal world, it would be a combination of a few serialized episodes to figure out what’s happening in Florida and then maybe some stand-alone episodes…. We like — and people like — watching all of the Nine-Nine together in the precinct and working together and all the combinations that affords, but also we don’t want to short shrift the work we did at the end of the year. So we’ll keep them in this situation for as long as we think it’s fun, and then we’ll figure out a way to make it the Nine-Nine we all know and love. The only thing I want to make sure of is: I really like the balance that the show strikes — doing police action episodes, romance episodes, office episodes — and I don’t want to do anything that too dramatically disrupts it. This arc was so stakes-y, it was very difficult to do too many silly [things]. A silly Jake-Gina story would have been hard to put in, and I always want to make sure we have room for those types of stories as well.
Through three seasons, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has managed to handle that balance superbly. It fires off jokes per minute at a level equal to or higher than many static sitcoms. But at the same time, it’s often defying the static model, challenging its characters with new dynamics, personal growth and/or serialized plot threads. If Goor, Schur and the rest of those involved can maintain that balancing act in season four and beyond, this will continue to be one of television’s best shows.