Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine heads into the woods, but finds more surprises back in the city

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In a lot of ways, Brooklyn Nine-Nine leads a charmed existence. That’s not to deny the strong work that goes into this series week to week, of course, but plenty of circumstances have given it a leg up. It debuted as its single-camera workplace ancestors The Office and Parks And Recreation were gone and winding down, respectively, and with the subsequent abandonment of NBC’s Make High-Quality Comedy Series and Keep Renewing Them strategy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is sort of the last network series standing following a certain playfully humane, not too-outlandish template. Of course, it follows it not on NBC but on Fox, where the good-comedy directive seems to remain in place. Fox seems even more willing to let well-reviewed shows with small but desirable audiences continue for at least a few years, which has allowed Brooklyn Nine-Nine to continue on its Parks And Recreation-ish path without much apparent interference. I’d also argue that, to a slight and generally non-bothersome degree, it allows the show to get just (as Gina might say) a “scootch” lazy in its utilization of familiar sitcom stories yoked to familiar (and sometimes too-easy) sitcom lessons.

I’m starting broad because: hello, I’m Jesse, and I’ll be your Brooklyn Nine-Nine reviewer this evening, subbing in for the fantastic LaToya Ferguson. The above table-setting isn’t a preamble to a pan: “Into the Woods” is another enjoyable episode of a show that usually provides enjoyable episodes. But its main story, wherein Jake and Charles take Terry on a guys’ camping weekend to alleviate his building stress, features a lot of shopworn bad-camping-trip material. It starts out sounding like fun (and with a refreshing absence of urine scent in the air!), and then things start to go wrong, and the trip turns into a disaster, but it ends well because Jake learns to be more responsible and clean up his messes (until, you know, he needs to learn that again in three or four weeks, give or take), while Terry learns that maybe he should let Fun Terry win out over Original Terry more often. The details of this wrecked camping trip are often funny, like the terrible Chinese scotch the three men force themselves to drink, but they peak early, when they arrive at Stinkpuddle Manor, where proprietor (a fellow cop played by Matt Walsh) outlines the cabin’s many problems, from plumbing to electricity to, seriously, really bad plumbing. The always-welcome Walsh, an Upright Citizens Brigade founder and reliable comic supporting actor, has a demeanor compatible with his beaten-down press secretary Mike McClintock on Veep (Stinkpuddle Manor appearing a quasi-luxurious burden on par with Mike’s fill-fated boat). Once he exits, the woods-based slapstick lacks the zing of the offscreen horrors that are only briefly described.

The rest isn’t remotely terrible, but it does wheeze a little, the way Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s A-stories sometimes do: failing to catch or find food, getting lost in the woods, spooning due to chilly temperatures (though it is refreshing that the conflict is over who gets to spoon with who, not a reluctance to do so). The whole thing is even set into motion with another reprise of Jake bending a law-enforcement around his ability to offer a snappy, TV-copy-style quip. Back at the office, though, the show finds more original dynamics from smaller-sounding ideas. Teaming Gina and Amy to market Amy’s shoulder-light invention focuses, surprisingly, on their actual teamwork, rather than the clash between Amy’s dorky, unshowy studiousness and Gina’s all-flash approach that requires Amy to change her name to Vanessa for some reason. But the show finds even more compatibility in its resolution of Rosa’s relationship with Captain Holt’s nephew Marcus. Holt uses Sherlockian deduction to intuit that Rosa wants to break up with Marcus, and reluctantly counsels her (“I regret the words we’ve already spoken”) on how best to handle that situation. They agree on a terse, no-frills approach that Holt’s husband later deems sociopathic.

Theoretically, this shouldn’t work all that well: in their eschewing of emotional displays, Holt and Rosa are similar, and there isn’t often much comedy in the spectacle of two people wholeheartedly agreeing with each other, especially when those two people aren’t sharing scenes with anyone else. But the show turns Holt and Rosa’s mutual disinterest in the squishy volume and variety of emotions Marcus possesses (moved to tears by a commercial… for a refrigerator) into an original comic dynamic: Holt and Rosa creating a positive feedback loop over their desire for the barest minimum of human interaction. That agreement also downplays the show’s tendency to spell out the lessons its characters need to learn around the eighteen-minute mark. Similarly, the spectacle of Rosa and Holt getting mutually choked up could easily turn into the cheap laugh of having characters behave, well, “out of character,” for lack of a better, less prescriptive term. But in part because Stephanie Beatriz and Andre Braugher are so skillful in these roles, and so credibly surprised by their emotions, that resolution (probably the least resolved of the three storylines) plays both funny and sweet.

These moments recall the best of Parks And Recreation: building on a foundation of characters who seem to generally and genuinely like each other, without dipping into the earlier show’s occasional late-period sappiness. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s plotting (especially its A-plotting) often makes me feel one step ahead of the show, rather than vice versa, while The Office and Parks successfully avoided feeling plotty enough to be so predictable. But like those two shows in their prime, the emotional lives of Brooklyn’s characters can still hold certain surprises.

Stray observations:

  • This week in webisodes Brooklyn Nine-Nine needs: I’m going to steal LaToya’s feature here because I’m a sucker for imagining mundane spin-off material. I’d like to see past instances where Fun Terry has emerged, especially given the caveat that he’s actually pretty crazy.
  • It must be fun to write for Captain Holt, knowing that Andre Braugher will kill it when asked to, say, recite the full URL of an article he read online.
  • Along with Holt, I consider Chelsea Perretti’s Gina one of the show’s most original characters (least original, since I’m just here for one week: the Even Poorer Man’s Jerry duo of Hitchcock and Scully) because of the weird backstory she’s able to imply via her certainty – this week, for example, her apparently long-held conviction that Amy should be named Vanessa instead.
  • Thanks for rolling with the reviewer change this week, nerds! LaToya will be back to her awesomeness next Sunday.