Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Three Big Issues (and How to Fix Them)

Photo: FOX

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is flying high right now. It won two Golden Globes a few weeks ago — best actor in a comedy for Andy Samberg, and best comedy — and is still basking in the glow of a post–New Girl post–Super Bowl slot that brought in almost 15 million viewers. That’s a pretty big freshman season! But Brooklyn, which moves to its new 9:30 p.m. time slot on Fox tonight, is not fully hatched. The show still needs to make a few key decisions to help nail down its comic voice.

What is the show’s relationship to the real world?
B99 was created by Dan Goor and Mike Schur, who cut their teeth on Parks and Recreation (both) and The Office (Schur). And the show’s very much in the vein of those series: It’s an ensemble comedy with a collection of weirdos. The Office is pretty clearly set in the actual world, and we’re meant to see many of the interactions through the “normal” characters’ eyes; at the beginning, at least, that was Jim, Pam, Oscar, and maybe Phyllis. Parks took a different tactic, setting itself in a more goofy world, though it’s taken that show a while to figure out what to do with its “normal” people, namely Ann Perkins. (The solution: Write her off the show.) B99 doesn’t really have straight-man or straight-woman characters, so it’s hard for the show to feel anchored in reality — except that the characters are police officers who sometimes solve murders, and Brooklyn is a real place. The Office typically thrived when it confronted real-life things, like sexual harassment seminars. Parks is its best self when it embraces the cartoonishness, like Ron Swanson’s audacious breakfast food orders. Right now, Brooklyn’s most normal character is Detective Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero), though she has plenty of quirks and tics. She’s nowhere near as ordinary as, say, Pam on The Office, but she’s also not as engagingly loopy as Leslie on Parks and Rec.

How is the audience supposed to connect to the characters?
On multi-camera comedies, the laugh track or studio audience laughter creates a link between the audience at home and the characters on the show, a sort of laugh-based syllogism — I’m laughing here at home, they’re laughing there right with the characters, therefore my laughter transports me into character proximity. Laughter creates a bond, and thus we feel connected to the characters, like we’re in on the inside joke. On single-camera shows, where there is no laughter nexus, we often get talking-head confessionals to help us feel bonded to the characters. That’s why the mockumentary format works so well for single-camera comedies! (It’s also why some single-camera comedies use voice-overs. She’s talking right to me!) B99 has neither of these. And that’s fine! That’s probably even good. But it does mean the show has to work harder to help the audience feel like we “get” and care about the characters.

Take 30 Rock, for example. No laugh track, no talking heads. But even very early on, we knew a tremendous amount about our characters’ strengths and weaknesses, in part because the Liz-Jack dynamic was based on Liz confessing some kind of problem and Jack doling out brutal critiques and eventual wisdom. Characters spoke constantly about themselves (Jenna), their philosophies (Jack), their hopes (Kenneth), their fears (Liz), their backgrounds (Tracy) — it’s easy to laugh at and with characters we know.

But B99 doesn’t quite know how to let us get to know its characters. Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) is the one we know the best, partially because he’s the star but also because he’s the one who’s been the most forthcoming about his background. Otherwise, the characters’ M.O.s is that they don’t really like each other, or tend to find each other very irritating, which is not an environment that fosters a huge amount of sharing. Which brings us to the last point:

Do these people like each other?
This was the big shift between seasons one and two of Parks: The characters went from antagonizing one another to being on the same team. (With, of course, occasional antagonism.) It’s what has made How I Met Your Mother feel so alien in the last two seasons, as it has moved from a show about a group of best friends to a show about a group of people who don’t seem to understand or love each other anymore. Brooklyn has plenty of funny characters. Stephanie Beatriz’s very tough Detective Rosa Diaz is mysterious and dark and great; Joe Lo Truglio’s Detective Charles Boyle is a lovable doof with a really unlovable sexual-harassment streak. Andre Braugher plays the by-the-book Captain Holt, a new mentor to Peralta. Terry Crews is the third-person-loving Terry, by far the most energetic character on the show. Chelsea Peretti is the sardonic, dismissive admin Gina. And there’s the weirdo other cops who flesh out the station, like the dopey Hitchcock and the nerve-damaged Scully. All these characters are funny and have funny, solid moments.

Diaz’s thing is that she’s a mystery to everyone around her. Holt’s is that no one ever knows what he’s thinking or how exactly to please him. Peralta and Santiago are constantly competing with each other. Gina is frequently putting people down and asking to be left alone. Everyone makes fun of Boyle all the time. These characters openly mock and occasionally loathe one another, and only in the most recent episodes has that been tempered by some budding affection. I’m not saying the show has to be a kumbaya love-fest (though I am fine with that), but it’s tough to get onboard with characters who don’t take each other seriously and don’t care about each other’s welfare. Characters tend to develop more depth when they work together, not when they work in opposition. Just like in life! The show is giving in more and more to the budding romance between Peralta and Santiago, and that’s a fine step, but even more promising is the growing friendship between Santiago and Diaz. By far the best moments of the show are when the characters seem like they’re on the same side, like when they’re united against “the Vulture” (Dean Winters) or their enemies at the fire department (namely, Patton Oswalt).

There are some other tweaks the show could stand to make, too. The editing is just a little bit too slow, and with a single-camera comedy, that kills the joke completely. Sometimes Terry Crews is giving it just a little too much. The show hasn’t quite decided whether supporting characters Hitchcock and Scully are pathetic or just odd. But there are all the makings of a good show in here! It just needs to start getting made already.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Three Big Issues