Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a consistently good sitcom that’s almost always just shy of greatness. Two seasons in, executive producers Michael Schur and Dan Goor haven’t quite re-created the magic of Parks and Recreation season 2, even with many of the same structural elements in place. But they’ve created a fun world that retains the potential to grow into something more profound. If it doesn’t, it’s still really funny, especially when Andre Braugher is onscreen.
Let’s talk about Braugher. I have before and I will again. I haven’t even seen some of Braugher’s most-lauded dramatic work, but I don’t need to. His performance as Captain Ray Holt is a finely crafted gem that deserves every award Hollywood can throw at it. (Braugher was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Emmy last year but lost…to the very funny but sufficiently celebrated Ty Burrell from Modern Family.) From his off-kilter delivery of spectacular one-liners like “Hot damn!” and “Velvet Thunder” to his rigid commitment to deadpan line readings and buttoned-down facial expressions, Holt is the show’s scene-stealing, gut-busting not-so-secret weapon.
Braugher’s Captain Holt is both a robot and a flesh-and-blood human being, both capable of having feelings and utterly loathe to reveal them.
He bounces well off everyone in the cast and elevates the appeal of Andy Samberg’s Jake Peralta. The show’s ostensible lead grated on the nerves at times in season one, when his obnoxious enthusiasm outshined his competence ten-to-one. As on Parks & Rec, the fix was simple: making Peralta seem like both a goofball and a plausible police officer made both sides of that equation more palatable. Samberg also navigated the show’s slightly forced deviations into overt drama this season with admirable dignity. And his chemistry with Melissa Fumero as Detective Amy Santiago was off the charts as the season approached its fast-paced conclusion.
Santiago was a comedic highlight throughout season two, as her brown-nosing and unrepentant squareness contrasted even more spectacularly from the personality a female lead in a cop comedy would normally have. Also on fire this season: Stephanie Beatriz as Rosa, who benefited from a romantic storyline that gave her character depth and dimension that would have been unimaginable in the first season. And there are never enough words to describe the sheer delight of Terry Crews’ superhuman strength and comedic magnetism as Sgt. Terry Jeffords.
Most episodes of this character-driven show start from what we know about the characters and build out from there. Jake’s action-hero aspirations lead to a mistake on the job, he has to make up for it by working with another detective or teaming up with Captain Holt, and so on along those lines. Sometimes there are wacky misunderstandings and undercurrents of sexual tension. What’s missing is a sense of deeper ambitions: the natural evolution of these characters as a result of their relationships, a sense of the world outside their police station.
The show also hasn’t gotten comfortable with being about a benign group of urban police officers in a time when “benign” and “police officers” rarely end up in the same sentence. The diverse cast at least grounds the show in demographic reality, but the plots are frequently hamstrung by the show’s farcical tone. I don’t expect The Wire Nine-Nine, and the show’s creators have talked about wanting to portray police work in a positive light as they did with local government on Parks & Rec. But it seems like a missed opportunity for a show about New York cops in 2015 to exist in a world divorced from the deeply entrenched social ills of our time. (The show nods toward social issues most overtly when Capt. Holt refers to the time when being a gay black cop in New York used to be a little more challenging. But it’s a fantasy to suggest that Holt wouldn’t face any pushback today.)
Perhaps my slight disappointment with the modest ambitions and plentiful charms of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is unfair. Indeed, every episode of the show is enjoyable, the performances are almost uniformly excellent and the show has a pleasant mix of character stories and procedural elements. It’s a solid, slightly workmanlike, very funny comedy series. I enjoy watching it and always look forward to new episodes. In an age of great experimentation on television, its old-fashioned consistency – always good, occasionally great – is a blessing and a curse.