“Ooooo, dark!”

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is an unabashedly character-driven vehicle; while episodic plots can be charming, the show puts a lot more weight on people than events. And honestly, that’s probably a smart move. That familiarity with the characters allows for the show to be the comfort food it wants to be, while delivering the slow-burn character development that gives viewers long-term payoff. We know Gina trying to make a movie with Rosa and Holt is going to be a disaster because their personalities guarantee they have different ideas of success; we know that all will turn out well because we’ve seen each of those characters building begrudging respect for each other, and we know Gina takes her job more seriously now than she did three years ago.

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But this is also a show that digs the occasional homage, which tend to land exactly as well as the original can be mapped over the characters in the Nine-Nine. “Adrian Pimento” is tricky because it’s a high-concept episode committed to taking the Dark Brooding Cop Show down a peg, one crying, blood-soaked flashback at a time. On paper and out of context as staunchly optimistic as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Adrian Pimento could have walked off an FX pilot: he’s haunted by what he saw in twelve years of deep cover; he falls back into character as Paul Sneed at a moment’s notice; he has trouble trusting anyone at the precinct and suspects spies everywhere.

Because it’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a lot of this is played for laughs, which is a tricky area; self-serious cop dramas are one thing, making trauma a punchline is another. The show has occasionally dipped a toe into sticky law-enforcement issues; Holt’s attempts at honest community engagement felt bolder than they were just because they broke the sitcom bubble and came so close to touching on current events. But it’s a show full of best-case-scenario cops that usually skews to the lighter side, so this particular homage has to be handled carefully. We never saw Jake’s time undercover, which was understandable from an ensemble-cast perspective but means we missed most of the effect it might have had on him; as far as undercover angst goes, this episode is basically starting from scratch.

It helps to have some sly genre digs elsewhere, with Marge behind her desk lit like a sketchy union rep and faux-Holt’s backstory (“My Raymond Holt is addicted to pills…but no one knows”). But the episode relies heavily on Jake for its central arc—Jake, who’s still susceptible to the romance of the gritty-cop narrative, but who’s learned enough since we met him to avoid burning the entire situation to the ground. And a lot of the success of this episode is due to us knowing Jake as well as we do.

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It’s odd to say that Jake is the less manic half of any partnership, but I suppose that’s what a Jason Mantzoukas guest spot will do for you, and with a character who can go so broad, it’s nice to see a slightly more subdued side of Jake. Last time I dropped in, I talked about how much Andy Samberg has grown as an actor over the course of the show, and I don’t know if this episode would have been as effective a year ago. Small beats make a big difference here, and Samberg is note-perfect: when Pimento demands a secret from Jake as a show of loyalty, Jake looks around—both to make sure no one’s listening, and because he’s such an open guy that he has to think about something he’s never told anyone.

That emotional openness loops back to one of my favorite dynamics on the show—and another example of paying off some relationship growth—when Rosa ends up offering emotional support to Jake. Sure, it starts as a warning through the filter of her lust for awful people/evil gremlins, but a real friend can handle it. (Jake’s ongoing struggle to be emotionally accepting of Rosa’s determination to bone down with Pimento is another of the episode’s best grace notes.) And though Jake might have realized there was no way Pimento was actually dirty if he existed outside the show, because we just had a dirty-cop episode, there’s just enough basis for suspicion that we don’t blame Jake for being worried that Pimento’s having so much identity trouble he might fall back into his undercover habits.And when he’s wrong, he apologizes.

It’s a significant moment for Jake “I spent 63 days undercover with the mob” Peralta, and a quiet hat-tip for us about a character arc we never really got to see: Jake’s time undercover. Turns out those ghostly days were mostly spent upgrading everybody’s internet service. Sure, it’s a bit of a handwave, but after an episode that spends so much time with undercover trauma, Jake’s experience had to be significantly less intense for everything to scan. It feels a little rushed—this is a three-plot episode that could have used more time and more focus on its A-plot character vs. joke ratio. But it’s invested in its characters, and the occasional awkwardness or moment of imbalance might have been worth it just to have Jake be the kind of guy who can admit he doesn’t know what someone else’s experience was like, knowing that’s its own kind of support.

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You watch a show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine partially because it’s comforting to return to characters who are static in ways that feel realistic enough to be interesting but mean we have the pleasure of anticipating jokes—and gives the show a chance to build its own meta, whether with its Halloween challenge or its homages. (It was bold of Marge to tell Santiago she has dirt on her. Boyle will sputter and Terry will be chagrined, but Marge has to know Amy will not stop until she has that typo’ed memo back. Return of the Dark Brooding Cop Show?) But Brooklyn Nine-Nine also knows that investing in characters that way means wanting them to grow a little. We root for Jake because over the last three years we’ve seen that underneath the sweet tooth and the chronic lateness is a guy who’s trying to be better. That heartfelt undercurrent eventually wins over Pimento; it pretty much wins us over, too.

Stray observations

  • This week in webisodes Brooklyn Nine-Nine needs: The eight-hour B-roll of Gina trying to wring a decent performance from the amateurs she’s been saddled with. Art is hell.
  • It’s interesting to note how hard they hit the beat that there might be spies in the precinct. Just setup for Pimento’s distrust, or will we see this again? Only a blood-soaked flashback will tell.
  • Sure, there were some odd threads in this episode, but Luke Del Tredici crammed in so many good lines I had to narrow them down.
  • For me, the gem of the episode: “Diaz and I have the kind of easy chemistry where we finish each other’s – “ ” - sentences.” “Please don’t interrupt me.”
  • “You’re a janitor. You should know that’s not true.”
  • “We leave it in his body, where blood lives, because we’re cops.”
  • I hope Pimento’s healing process involves an apology to Maggie. (That said: Maggie, butt out.)
  • Like the Vulture, I keep showing up when you least expect it, wearing uncomfortable shoes. Thanks to LaToya for letting me fill in!

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