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

Brooklyn Nine-Nine tackles the future with anagrams and a harm wrest

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When a series reaches a certain age, it gets a sense of narrative moving in both directions. There’s the history the show has made, and the pull of the future on the shape of the story. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is old enough to have built a world to draw on, but ambitious enough to recognize the need for change. In the past, most of the forward motion has been conveniently sidestepped in order to keep the team together. But whatever happens from here, with Amy on the cusp of becoming a sergeant and Captain Holt hoping to be the next Commissioner, “The Puzzle Master” feels like it’s very deliberately looking ahead.


This is most satisfying with Captain Holt. So much of the Commissioner subplot is the show at its best; pitting Holt against Brian McCann and two John Kellys (Staying The Course, Maintaining the Course, and Remaining on the Course) is great. Pitting him against a nice high-stakes ethical dilemma is even better. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is aware of the systemic issues with American policing, but only occasionally is it able to tackle it as directly as it does by having Holt publicly condemn the casual boys’-club corruption of the selection committee.

We’ve seen enough of Holt’s struggles as a younger cop to understand what it costs him to potentially torpedo his own campaign. But what makes this subplot the episode’s centerpiece is that Olivia Crawford (a bone-dry Allison Tolman) dislikes Holt. That makes this more than professional courtesy between career generations; this has all the hallmarks of Wuntch 2.0, with the striking difference being Holt’s strength of character in the crunch. Wuntch has been a fantastic foil for Holt, but by her very nature she’s dragged him back into the past every time they’ve gone head to head. Holt and Crawford don’t like each other, and might never (there’s nowhere to go but up after you suggest turning someone into “a fine powder that will choke you until you die”)—but they both want to change the police status quo. It’s a new generation of rivalry, and there’s a sense that this time, whatever the fallout, the next generation will be better than the last.

And though she might not quite approve of the ethics part, Gina and Holt make a perfect team for this Commissioner bid; she’s the devil/social media manager he needs on his shoulder. And that’s before she casually digs up dirt on all his rivals for Commissioner, including a complicated multi-slide Powerpoint presentation, without comment. (Not bad for someone who loudly pretends not to care about his calendar.) One of the strengths of this show is how hard it works to make sure any two characters have a unique dynamic, and this is one of the most consistently satisfying. She’s precisely the sort of person who should be in his life in this capacity—fond enough to care about his opinion, without any particular reverence for his habits. She remembers the aspersions he casts on finger food without actually caring; there’s a non-zero probability that, given the same note, Amy would have already invented the fork shoulder holster to make sure she never again touched food barehanded.

Luckily, Amy has plenty to do this episode already, since Jake lucks into the case of a lifetime for their last one together: someone’s leaving crosswords at the scenes of arsons, which means Amy gets to work with her hero, puzzle master Melvin Stermley, to solve the case. It’s a plot that relies immensely on a lot of their relationship in-jokes, Amy’s incandescent nerdiness, and Jake’s unshakable need to be the best. But in the wake of so much of that character work, occasionally the sitcom setups can scrape a little bit against the show’s actual progress. I gently call No Way on Amy not recognizing Jake’s jealousy from the very first pointed questions about Vin’s physique; he’s much more mature and emotionally open than the enfant terrible of the first few episodes, but he’s not exactly a subtle man. (Honestly, the fact that the issue was settled ten seconds after Amy actually brings home the point. Jake had to work through jealousy a few times before he and Amy were together, but these characters have developed enough that them meeting the arsonist by chance while in line for their undercover sting requires less suspension of disbelief than the jealousy does.)

Still, it’s a charming enough setup—with the additional wink to the audience that Vin is played by Fumero’s real-life husband David—and it makes Amy’s intensity an asset as much as it is a punchline. The show’s very careful about balancing that with its main characters; her intense, sometimes nervous drive can be a distraction, but it’s also essential to her career and part of the reason she made sergeant (after all, her instinct to go with Vin’s plan was the right one). Terry’s need to be liked can undermine his authority, but his kindness sets a better example than overconfidence ever could. Even Scully and Hitchcock, who think a washed car is the same as a new car, can investigate Terry’s celebratory butt-clenches with uncanny accuracy. That sense that everyone has the capability for usefulness and goodness has made this show one of television’s most reliable group hugs. It’s a show made up of people who want the best for each other—and if they don’t want the best for Olivia Crawford yet, well, there’s time.


Maybe; Brooklyn Nine-Nine has not yet officially been picked up for another season. It’s a strong enough show that any given episode is a perfectly good argument for its renewal. But “The Puzzle Master” feels like an earnest, clear-eyed thesis statement about what sort of world the show’s longevity has allowed it to build, and where it wants to go from here. I hope it gets the chance.

Stray observations

  • Tertiary proof of character development: Charles will never be less jealous of Jake’s friendship, but at least he’s learned to let it boil over immediately rather than letting it fester for 18 minutes first. Progress, not perfection.
  • This week in webisodes Brooklyn Nine-Nine needs: The normal, heartwarming choice—the one our country needs—is a weekly supercut of Terry doing kind things for other people in the precinct. The one my morbid heart desires is a tell-all documentary about Mrs. Jackson’s parrot.
  • “I just won’t ever open it. that way I’ll never get rejected.” Sometimes Amy is close to home. Other times, Amy is too close to home and needs to leave my living room immediately.
  • “Why would you ever intentionally spill beans? They’re one of nature’s most densely packed protein sources and they remain unsullied by flavor.” Every day that Andre Braugher goes without an Emmy for this show is a crime.
  • Eat a Jerk, Pal is the sort of anagram that one suspects an entire A-plot gets built around. (Reason enough for me.)
  • It’s a little chilling how accurate a description of Dangerous Liaisons “Sad Anus Loser, I Go In” actually is.
  • The sound editing of the crowd murmurs post-crab cakes was somehow perfectly pitched to seem equally upset about the crab cakes as about the systemic corruption.
  • This show is very good at trying not to fall into the most obvious traps of cop stories as cop propaganda, but we’re at a point culturally that watching cops whip out parabolic mics and enthuse over built-in license plate readers is probably just going to be inherently a little uncomfortable.
  • “That’s what both John Kellys said.”
  • I also call No Way that Amy hasn’t tried to get into one of those puzzle nights before. If she knew enough about computers to hack the anagram entrance list, she would’ve.
  • I didn’t come into this hoping for a burn on Parade magazine, but we got one.
  • Related: Clever Will Shortz cameo.
  • Love that Amy still manages to be even mildly upset that after the reveal that “one of our city’s finest...abandoned lard factories is now burned to the ground.”
  • “You’re going to ailj.”
  • “Marry me, or else I will kill you. Yours forever”—one of my favorite running throwaway gags on the show is when elements of background crimes are horrifyingly extreme if considered for even a moment. (I mean...the parrot.)
  • Thanks to LaToya for the chance to recap sepia cod doghouse!