Brooklyn Nine-Nine was bound to have a clumsy re-entry upon its return to a post-2020 television landscape. The NBC years were already occasionally hamstrung by didactic political dialogue and wink-wink references to the zeitgeist that mostly reassured viewers of the show’s progressive worldview. This isn’t a bad move, per se, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Every character basically says the “right” things (and it’s obviously better than spewing reactionary rhetoric), but more often than not, these ideas were awkwardly integrated into the action, so it barely lands as drama let alone comedy. It mostly serves to demonstrate that the Nine-Nine are “the good guys” and nothing more.
Naturally, this is a dicey impulse for a sitcom about cops during a time of heightened awareness around systemic racism, police brutality, and the defund/abolition movements in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. There was no possible way for Brooklyn Nine-Nine to please everybody, and thankfully it doesn’t really try. But after the relatively exposition- and speech-heavy premiere that tried to do too much in the way of lip service and hedging, “Blue Flu” features a premise that integrates Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s political consciousness into a novel episodic premise that’s funny and compelling. It’s a good example of a show adjusting to The Times without getting bogged down in defensive anxiety.
After a uniformed officer plants a dead mouse in a burrito as a publicity stunt to shore up sympathy for law enforcement, the Nine-Nine struggles to maintain readiness when every officer in the precinct stages a mass walkout under false medical pretenses. Captain Holt splits the team into three groups (under a belabored “trident” analogy that Jake immediately tries to undermine by commenting that Aquaman wields a five-pronged trident): Jake and Boyle set out to prove that the officers’ doctors’ notes are fraudulent; Amy and Terry are assigned to keep crime down with no police on the street; and Rosa, being an outside investigator, is tasked to find evidence that the mouse was planted. Meanwhile, Holt must keep Frank O’Sullivan (John McGinley), the nasty patrolmen’s union president, at bay before he’s forced to cave to his humiliating demands.
Simply put, “Blue Flu” provides the entire ensemble with their own story that plays to their comedic strengths. Terry’s stomach-bug fiasco allows Terry Crews to flex his tough-guy act while also playing feeble. Boyle’s cancer scare gives Joe Lo Truglio the chance to wallow in terror and misery. Andy Samberg and Melissa Fumero successfully play straight against their characters’ chaotic situations—Boyle’s mortality and a sea of Hitchcock and Sully’s sent by other captains as a false token of good will, respectively—and Andre Braugher plays the hits. (Rosa barely factors into the episode, but Stephanie Beatriz plays up her restrained glee at potentially discovering the nature of Holt’s secret tattoo very well.) After eight years, a show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine knows its strong points fairly well, and watching the cast hit their marks within their wheelhouse has its own pleasures.
However, it’s elevated by a premise that does a little more than pay lip service to “bad cops are bad,” etc. Holt and co. are beset by institutional inertia buttressed by ideological rigidity. In his drunken, cheese-riddled state, Holt devises a fresh strategy: he shows O’Sullivan weekly stats that illustrate fewer police didn’t raise rates of major or violent crime, which means the Nine-Nine could serve as a case study for how a police force can work more effectively with fewer police. This scares O’Sullivan into calling off the blue flu and getting every uniformed cop back to work, but the subtext is damning: the threat of even the slightest positive change that hinges on police absence will force the return of an unproductive, dangerous status quo. That Brooklyn Nine-Nine would rather button “Blue Flu” with a tattoo gag than underline that idea is a point in its favor.
Unfortunately, the second episode this week features a tired premise around work/life balance and “having it all” that’s been done better many times before. Jake and Amy struggle to parent their son, Mac, while maintaining the pressures of their respective careers. For Jake, it’s an opportunity to catch a serial killer that has evaded capture for his entire career, while Amy is set to give a presentation to One Police Plaza for a reform proposal that’s suddenly become highly competitive. When Mac’s daycare shuts down for a couple days due to a lice outbreak, it stretches the new parents to the brink as they try to care for their son and their career.
It’s pretty easy to see where this is going. Jake and Amy learn that career sacrifices have to be made in order to be attentive parents and that doesn’t have to be a major tragedy. Though Jake doesn’t get to make the arrest, Jake helps Boyle uncover the killer’s identity and instead gets to watch his son pull himself for the first time. Meanwhile, Amy misses the milestone but successfully convinces her bosses to fund her reform proposal. This stock premise would be fine if the jokes were stronger, but aside from a quick scene of Jake and Amy realizing that their lice home remedy (maple syrup in the hair) has led to a swarm of ants in the bed and a montage of terrible babysitter applicants that includes a cheerfully abusive male Mary Poppins, it’s a bit of a dud.
The B-plot fares slightly better. Holt, still separated from his husband, moves into Rosa’s apartment, but he drives her crazy by constantly talking about Kevin. When Rosa suggests getting very drunk to take his mind off his marital problems, Holt sends a dick pic to Kevin’s email address in the wee hours of the morning, sending them both on a mission to break into his house and delete it. Again, another stock premise, but it’s improved by Braugher and Beatriz, who have proven time and time again to be an excellent duo, playing off each other’s restrained, yet easily flappable energy pretty well. Sometimes performances raise material and sometimes material confines performances.
- Hello! My name is Vikram and I’ll be taking over the Brooklyn Nine-Nine beat for its final few weeks. We’re all very happy to see LaToya move on to bigger and better things, and though my brief stint can’t replace her seven years of consistent coverage, I hope to be an adequate replacement.
- After eight years, Joe Lo Truglio really goes above and beyond to sell bog-standard jokes. In “Balancing,” his scene in the interrogation room parroting Jake’s lines about his son’s spoiled diaper to an utterly confused perp was really elevated by his committed befuddled performance.
- Of course, Jake is a fan of The Snyder Cut.
- “I track down Diane Wiest and you finally try and use your hall pass? You’re smiling, so I guess that one’s it. Oof. Going with Wiest, huh? I’ve gotta be honest, Boyle, I’m not so sure you can pull that off. I mean, her career is red hot. She just did a movie with Streep!” I’ll put money on that being the weirdest, slyest, and only reference to Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk on national television.
- “It’s the exact same color as my color blind awareness ribbon.” “No, it isn’t.”
- “No! Lice! Scratching it makes it worse!” “Is that true?” “I don’t know. We don’t have time to know what’s true!”
- “I spent twelve thou on ass cheese.”