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For Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s experimental “Ticking Clocks,” time goes by so slowly

Graphic: John P. Fleenor (NBC)
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Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s latest “special episode” has the squad work a case—and Hitchcock and Scully prepare a lasagna lunch, which makes for the second ticking clock in this title—in real-time, under the pressure of only so much time (and no standard time lapses) to do so. If you went into “Ticking Clocks” not knowing the gimmick beforehand, chances are, you found something slightly off about this episode and Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s newfound reliance on both time (how much time is left, how much time something will take, etc.) and elevators. But interestingly enough, it’s the latter that actually does a much better job of signifying the particular time crunch than the constant notes about time.

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As this episode’s writer and director, respectively, Carol Kolb and Payman Benz have an absolutely huge undertaking, from timing to pacing to actually making the episode work as a whole. The show’s pacing—and as a result, the way it approaches its comedy, to an extent—especially suffers because of this gimmick, as the episode is not playing with the same fast-paced joke format of the typical time-compressed sitcom episode. While that’s great for bits like Jake’s elevator aside about Killing Eve, there are progressively diminishing returns with every elevator trip, even as interesting as it is at first to see said trips work as the episode’s form of scene transitions. The episode is funny, but the humor ultimately takes a backseat to the reminders that they’re also doing something cool here. (This episode has been called Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s attempt at “doing” 24, which... is also a show presented in real-time.)

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At the same time, as on the nose as it is, the opening shot on the microwave as it’s set up with the amount of time left for Hitchcock and Boyle’s “shenanigans” (as well as the rest of the episode), is an excellent touch and start to the episode.

But the cold open is over two and a half (very long) minutes long, and the episode feels every bit the 20-plus minutes it is. Every bit of plot in this episode exists to be part of the moving pieces necessary for this gimmick, not to be the best plot Brooklyn Nine-Nine can be. That explains the uninspired dueling sorority sisters part, as they’re ultimately needed as relatively safe characters to be released from holding when the time comes. The closest thing this particular part of the plot gets to having a satisfying conclusion is when Knox (Sean Astin) is put into holding with them, because this is less of an episode plot (typically, this would be a Terry/Boyle plot and is initially written as such) than it is a piece of the gimmick. In fact, while Rosa’s plot with Jocelyn (the returning Cameron Esposito) actually affects the character in some way, Terry just learns young women can be mean, something he should already know as a father of daughters.

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But from scene to scene, it’s not just apparent how much time is passing, it’s apparent how much consideration had to go into making sure it maximizes that time and has its characters weave in and out at the right time. (Hitchcock and Scully’s calculations at the beginning of this episode pretty much serve as a behind-the-scenes peek of what went into timing this.) Certain characters’ actions in one scene lead into other characters actions’ later in that same scene. In terms of the timing and getting that all down, “Ticking Clocks” is similar to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Hush,” only without the added pressure of having to pull this off without any dialogue. This episode is like a well-choreographed routine, and one can only imagine how long it took to get everyone in sync for each scene.

Now, all of that is about the gimmick and not the actual plot, which as mentioned, is hurt because of the gimmick. (This isn’t to suggest the show shouldn’t try this again. It absolutely should, if it’s not too much of a hassle.) As also mentioned, taken as just a plot in an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Terry and Boyle get little out of this, as there’s some humor that comes out of their fear of the sorority girls, but that doesn’t change the one-note status of the sorority girl concept or the fact that any typical end of the plot resolution Terry/Boyle would usually get actually goes to Rosa and her relationship with Jocelyn (which, to be fair, is a good plot for Rosa, one where she’s allowed to be vulnerable).

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At least we get to hear Boyle say “dish, bish.”

As for the big plot that creates all of this chaos: I do not know if writer Carol Kolb is a fan of the 2000 feature film Charlie’s Angels, but as soon as Sean Astin arrived in this episode as a tech nerd “Sergeant” Knox, in my mind—as a fan of the 2000 feature film Charlie’s AngelsBrooklyn Nine-Nine immediately tipped its hand about the character being the bad guy. No, it wasn’t the casting. No, it wasn’t even the fact that pretty much every member of the NYPD not in the Nine-Nine (except for Allison Tolman’s Olivia Crawford) is corrupt. Yes, it was a little because every computer thing that came out of his mouth was bigger nonsense than what Jake—who knew nothing about computers—was saying, to the point Brooklyn Nine-Nine passed mocking pop culture hacker gimmicks to land squarely into adding to them. (This was thankfully saved somewhat by Jake’s eventual realization that Knox clearly knew no one in the Nine-Nine knew computers at all.) But it was specifically because, in the 2000 feature film Charlie’s Angels, Sam Rockwell played Eric Knox, a helpful tech nerd who was actually the true villain of the piece. So upon seeing Sean Astin in front of a couple of laptops and hearing his character’s name, I was inspired by Demi Moore’s character in the 2003 feature film Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Madison Lee, and mentally exclaimed: “YAHTZEE!”

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The rest of the episode, unfortunately, doesn’t inspire Charlie’s Angels comparisons. Amy being the key to the Knox puzzle works, even though the lengths it takes for her to return to work feel like they’re out of an episode of The Amanda Show. (Specifically the sketches where Amanda’s number one fan would try to sneak onto the set and meet Amanda. Only here, Amy succeeds.) And Melissa Fumero pulls that off, surprisingly. In fact, as much as the acronym “FOMOW” (not “FOMOOW”) doesn’t work (and hopefully doesn’t stick), Amy’s “fear of missing out on work” does. And while Knox ends up pulling a gun on all of them, prior to that, there’s nothing to suggest a physical threat at the Nine-Nine, so Amy rushing into “danger” isn’t an ill-advised choice like it would be in other situations; so as absurd as it is to witness, it’s worth rooting for Amy to make it there in time.

“Ticking Clocks” is a lofty episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but it isn’t a great episode. Under other circumstances, it would probably be a weaker episode. (Just to be clear, I still consider this episode better than two episodes I actually didn’t cover, “The Honeypot” and “Gintars.”) This is an episode that really shows how time lapses make things both more interesting—especially more interesting than elevator rides—and, more importantly, snappier. The episode certainly tries to keep up the pace, whether it’s Amy’s rush to get to work, Rosa’s rush to make up with Jocelyn, Hitchcock and Scully’s rush to properly time their food, or the rush of saving the server (which of course is stretched out for plot purposes, to “the last possible minute”), but it’s very difficult to do so with the real-time aspect covering every inch of it. But in terms of the gimmick and its execution—as bumpy and telegraphed as it can be at times—Brooklyn Nine-Nine succeeds. For a first-time attempt at this sort of approach (like a TV pilot), “Ticking Clocks” is an ambitious episode that maintains its humor in the face of its obstacles. Hopefully the kinks are worked out by next time.

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Stray observations

  • As nice as it is to have a recurring bit for the end of each act—especially in an episode that relies so heavily on structure—I can think of no runner worse than Jake’s “Mamma Maglione,” no matter how differently Andy Samberg says it each time. It only works when Hitchcock originally says it… and then it happens five more times.
  • Jake: “A countdown clock. Green text on a black background. We are in full action movie mode. Now all I need is my no-nonsense captain to tell me to focus because time is running out.”
    Holt: “Peralta.”
    Jake: “Yes?”
    Holt: “You have something in your teeth. It’s quite off-putting.”
    Jake: “What? No. ‘Time is running out.’ I fed you the line. No one ever has something in their teeth in a movie. Watch a movie, stupid Holt.” He does eventually play along with Jake, but not before he points out the embarrassing amount of food Jake seems to have in his mouth.
  • Jake: “We have 14 minutes to find a hacker. You’re not going to get back in time.”
    Amy: “But everyone else is there, right? I mean, it seems weird to have this big thing happen without me.” Amy’s not wrong about that, in terms of all the characters but her being part of this plot (until she ends up being the key). So it’s not 100% FOMOW until it is. Also, her dentist’s office must have been extremely close to the precinct, because that’s the only way I can believe she got anywhere in that godforsaken city that quickly. (I know it’s fake New York but still.)
  • Jake: “You okay?”
    Rosa: “Yeah, I’m great. I love being dumped. It’s super great.”
    Jake: “I think you’re being sarcastic, but it’s hard to tell with your voice, the way it always is.”
  • Rosa: “Jocelyn leaves in eight minutes and I don’t want things to end like this.”
    Jake: “Wow. Way to be vulnerable. I thought for sure you’d write her off the second she said she wanted to break up.”
    Rosa: “Yeah, I did. She’s dead to me.”
    Jake: “What? Then why are you so anxious to get back up and talk to her?”
    Rosa: “‘Cause I have a plan: I‘m gonna beg her to stay, change whatever I need to change, then once our relationship’s stronger than ever, I’m gonna dump her as so quick. It’s gonna be brutal.”
    Jake: “Okay, I’m gonna try and put this nicely: That is psychotic. Okay, maybe not psychotic. But it’s like something the lady from Killing Eve would do. Not Sandra Oh, Villanelle. You know, the cray one who stabs everyone with her hairpin. Have you still not watched Killing Eve? I’ve told you about it so many times.”
    Rosa: “Look, I’ve never lost a break-up, and I’m not starting now.” This is a long exchange, and it’s worth every Killing Eve-filled second of it. Also, if it’s like Villanelle, then it’s definitely psychotic.
  • Say what you will about Adrian Pimento, but of Rosa’s serious relationships (which include Marcus—played by Nick Cannon, who was on this show—and now Jocelyn), there was never any issue about Rosa being herself when she was with him. It’s hard to take Jocelyn’s side in the break-up when she notes the very Rosa-like texts she’d receive (“Double homicide. TTYL,” sometimes with heart emojis, despite Rosa’s aversion). It’s saved by Jocelyn acknowledging she realizes Rosa’s got a busy job where she saves people, but… she doesn’t seem to understand what a busy job where someone saves people entails. Even when it’s happening right in front of her, like in this episode. Holt is right to be upset when he learns Rosa blew off the case to try to fix her relationship.
  • On the other hand, how jealous must Jake be that he doesn’t have the action movie cop problem where his significant other just can’t wrap her head around his risky life that she knew about the whole time?
  • Jake doesn’t take notes for an absent Amy, but Rosa knows Amy will have definitely taken notes for her. This is why Amy doesn’t get Jake flowers.
  • As funny as it is to watch Amy speed past Andrew while shouting, “Andrew, it’s me,” imagine if there had been a major threat to the precinct. Andrew would be the absolute worst line of defense. Rosa’s “She’s with me.” should mean nothing to him during this lockdown too, because he should trust no one.
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine often names bit characters not because it actually matters onscreen but because it’s fun. (Jocelyn’s last name is “Pryce,” not “Price,” by the way.) Surely, there’s a reason behind the character names of all four credited sorority girls in this episode, but the one that sticks out is “Barbara Arbara.” None of the characters are named “Olivia Jade,” unfortunately.
  • I almost wanted to give this episode an F for ending with Hitchcock and Scully eating the lasagna, in silence. Good bit, but the last thing this (or any) episode needed was chewing sounds.
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About the author

LaToya Ferguson

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.