At this time of year, it’s important to remind you that writing advance reviews of TV shows is often as much fortune-telling as science. We are usually asked to analyze the merits of a new series based on a single episode, maybe two if we’re lucky, for all the new network shows. (Cable channels work on schedules that often have entire seasons in the can before they air; I have access to six episodes of Showtime’s upcoming, very promising, “Masters of Sex,” for instance.) So we can look at the pilot episode and say what works and what doesn’t, but there’s also a lot of mysticism and guesswork involved: Will the writers sidestep the five obvious pitfalls laid out for them? Can this actor do more with their character than they show here? Is there any story to tell beyond this episode, or is it all downhill from here?
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that FOX’s police comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is one of my favorite new shows of the fall as much for what’s promised down the road as for what’s actually delivered in the episode you can see tomorrow night at 8:30. As comedy pilots go, it’s not an instant classic – though those are far more rare in comedy than drama(*) – but there are enough promising signs, both on-screen and off, to suggest it can get there in time.
(*) Among the handful of great American comedy pilot episodes from the last 30 years: “Cheers,” “Friends,” “NewsRadio,” “Arrested Development” and “Modern Family.” Comedy is hard, and launching comedies is especially hard.
Andy Samberg stars as Brooklyn precinct detective Jake Peralta, a cocky goofball who gets away with clowning around at crime scenes because he’s so good at closing cases. It’s a much more human role than the “SNL” alum usually plays, and he does very well with it, particularly when placed opposite Andre Braugher as Jake’s new boss, Captain Ray Holt, a meticulous sort who has designs on making his command the best in the NYPD, and has little patience for Jake’s silliness.
You might think playing the latest in a long and undistinguished line of Disapproving Black Police Captains is a waste of the great Braugher. But the part’s much more nuanced than that – Holt’s a good cop with a sense of humor (albeit a dry one), and is adept at giving back as good as he gets from Jake – and plays to his underrated comic strengths, which he got to display from time to time on “Homicide” and often on TNT’s brilliant-but-canceled “Men of a Certain Age.” When “Brooklyn” co-creators Mike Schur and Dan Goor first pitched Samberg the role of Jake, they say he listened to their description and said, “So I’m the comedy McNulty?” Given the David Simon connection between “Homicide” and “The Wire,” something feels absolutely right about the comedy McNulty vs. comedy Pembleton set-up.
Schur and Goor have assembled a strong cast around the two leads, including the always-hulking, always-likable Terry Crews as a sergeant who turned gunshy after having kids, Joe Lo Truglio as the squad’s clumsy but dogged grinder, Chelsea Peretti as a civilian aide, Melissa Fumero as Jake’s partner and rival (and, perhaps down the road, love interest) and Stephanie Beatriz as a temperamental detective the others are afraid of.
More importantly, though, it has Schur and Goor, who’ve worked together for five seasons on “Parks and Recreation,” and in that time turned it from an uneven clone of “The Office” (where Schur previously worked) into the very best comedy – and, at times, very best show – on television.(**)
(**) Goor is now full-time on “Brooklyn,” but Schur is splitting time between the two shows, and wrote September 26’s one-hour “Parks” season premiere, which is much better – funny and sweet and surprising – than any sitcom has any business being at the start of its sixth season.
Like “Brooklyn,” “Parks” was built around an “SNL” veteran best known for playing wildly broad characters, and it had an ensemble of talented actors, but Schur, Goor and company needed time to properly match each character to its performers’ strengths, and to figure out how to calibrate the tone of it. In the first few episodes of “Parks,” Amy Poehler’s Leslie is basically Michael Scott: energetic, annoying and completely oblivious to how the rest of the staff laugh at her behind her back. Starting late in that first season, she became less of a cartoon – and, more importantly, the other characters’ attitudes towards her did a 180. Suddenly, the things they mocked her for became things they admired about her (even if they couldn’t understand her insane work ethic and limitless enthusiasm). What had been a dark and slightly sad show became warm, sunny and optimistic – and, as a result, much, much funnier.
“Brooklyn” doesn’t seem in need of that level of course correction. There’s obvious chemistry between Samberg and Braugher, Braugher and Crews, and Samberg and Fumero, and a clear sense of the world and the tone of the show – basically a mix of “Barney Miller” and “M*A*S*H” DNA updated for 2013 – along with a bunch of jokes that land. That said, the pilot is more of a smile-and-nod experience than a consistent source of laughter; one of the few laugh-out-loud moments comes from a weird cameo by another “SNL”er.
But so much of what makes comedy in general and Schur’s style in particular funny involves familiarity and understanding of the characters. It took a half dozen or so episodes for Schur and Goor to know exactly how to write for Nick Offerman as uber-masculine “Parks” boss Ron Swanson, and for viewers in turn to understand all the strange things that made Ron tick, but once we all knew where we stood, it required very little for Ron’s antics (being seduced by one of his evil ex-wives, or enjoying a shoeshine much too much) to make “Parks” viewers double over with laughter.
Back in June, I interviewed Schur and Goor about what needs to be done to turn a promising comedy pilot into a good comedy series. They said at that early stage of the writing, they didn’t have a 100 percent grasp of any of their characters.
“But even if it’s 90 percent,” Schur said, “that last 10 percent is the difference between people feeling like that’s a nice character and, ‘Oh my God, I am in love with April Ludgate’ or Pam Beasley or whoever. The devil”s in the details, I think.”
In a vacuum, I might look at the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” pilot and think, That’s a nice little show, I suppose. But seeing which parts of the show already work, and knowing the track record of the people involved, I can picture the excellent comedy it can become. It’s a guess, but as educated a guess as I can make at the start of a new TV season, and this is one of the few new shows that filled me with optimism when I looked into my crystal ball.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org