Sterling K. Brown Visits ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ For A ‘Homicide’ Tribute

Fox

A review of tonight’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine coming up just as soon as it’s time for stories about my digital squash…

Once upon a time, there was a man named Frank Pembleton. Pembleton was a cop, but really he was an artist, and the interrogation room — or as he and his fellow detectives called it, The Box — was his canvas, in which he could create amazing things, like this time he deliberately talked an innocent man into confessing to the murder of his friend just to prove a point to his commanding officer:

Andre Braugher, of course, played Frank Pembleton on Homicide: Life on the Street, and now he plays Raymond Holt, and it’s a testament to how well Holt is written, and how enthusiastically Braugher performs the role, that I haven’t thought of the character as Comedy Pembleton in years.

When I heard that tonight’s episode — titled, fittingly, “The Box”(*) — would be an episode-long interrogation episode pitting Peralta and Holt against a clever murderer played by unabashed Homicide fan Sterling K. Brown (who namechecked Pembleton while accepting an Emmy last year for his great work on This Is Us), it was the first time in a long time that I began to conflate the two characters. Would “The Box” simply be an excuse for Braugher to channel his most famous character? And, given my love of Frank Pembleton, would I mind very much?

(*) I would have also accepted “Three Men and Peralta,” as an homage to Homicide‘s own episode-long interrogation, “Three Men and Adena.”

Instead, “The Box” smartly stays in the realm of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, even as it’s referencing and parodying Homicide, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, The Closer, Columbo, and other dramas about detectives outsmarting would-be criminal masterminds with their persistent questions. It’s an off-format episode — only one story, most of it only featuring the two leads and Brown (with brief appearances by Gina at the beginning and Charles at the end, plus Brown’s character getting a lawyer for his final scene) — and one that by nature is more plot-driven than anything Brooklyn does this side of the Halloween heists, but Jake is still Jake, and Raymond Holt is still Raymond Holt, down to him feeling the need to spell out his last name to his husband when telling him how to pick up their opera tickets.

The nostalgic Homicide fan part of me would have loved a chance to see Braugher give us the Full Pembleton, verbally tying the killer up in knots while Peralta and the rest of us watched, awestruck. As it is, we get the briefest of hints of that, first with Holt demonstrating how effective leaning can be as an interrogation technique, then later when he loses his temper when the perp mocks the value of a PhD. But anything much beyond that would have been both shameless pandering and a selling-out of the character we’ve been watching for five seasons now. The glimpses we’ve seen of the young Ray Holt evoke Pembleton much less than they evoke the kinds of rogue cops Peralta grew up idolizing, and other than the face and voice and occupation, there’s not a lot the two have in common.

Instead, “The Box” turns out to be a very effective story about Jake once again seeking his boss’s approval, and nearly blowing the case in the process. Because the interrogation have to feel real on some level, it’s a bit lighter on jokes than your average episode, but still has plenty of humor both silly (Peralta’s obnoxious song) and dry (Holt explaining that Jake pretending to be angry is “like being yelled at by a children’s cereal mascot”) building up to the moment where Jake solves the puzzle by figuring out how to turn the bad guy’s arrogance against him, until Holt drops his usual reserve to let out three consecutive “Oh, damn!”s.

Would I have loved it if the episode had just been 21 minutes of Braugher verbal gymnastics? Sure. But “The Box” wisely managed to nod frequently to its inspiration even as it avoided selling out this show to make an episode of another one.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.

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