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In the early days of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Jake Peralta was arguably the show’s weakest character; in the familiar mold of the sitcom man-child, he came off as a marginally affable, snarky lead, the best and brightest despite eating a diet composed largely of fruit gummies. It’s a testament to this show’s climb from good to great that Jake has grown into something quietly unexpected. He’s become the over-invested best man, the friend who wants to be more emotionally open, the anxious godhusband. His issues with his father are the slightly more sober counterpart to the rest of Jake’s goofy growing-up; not omnipresent, but vaguely doomed to bubble up now and then. It’s been a really interesting playground for Jake, both to casually deepen his character and to give Andy Samberg some of his more nuanced work. (If you’re worried it’s too nuanced, they give him a hoverboard so he can crash into shit in the cold open, so it balances out.)

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“Karen Peralta” is a relatively quiet episode (confetti cannon and police chases notwithstanding), and firmly spotlights Jake and Amy as they try to celebrate Jake’s birthday at his mom’s house and get dragged into The Return of Jake’s Dad. Amy, who’s been visualizing this evening in detail for weeks, is thrown by the amount of improvisation required. And Jake, who’s had more chance than most characters on this show for some slow-burn characterization, gets to peel back another layer as he tries to protect his mom from Roger with all the finesse a suddenly-regressed Peralta can muster: shouting, threats, and angry air-humping.

It’s a predictably awkward setup, beautifully executed so that it neatly skirts humiliation comedy on the way to a happy ending. Katey Sagal generates low-key ease with Samberg; we have no trouble believing their mutual affection, and her optimism feels like a slightly less manic precursor to Jake’s belief that he can solve anything. Bradley Whitford is, as always, deliciously, pitiably awful as Roger, a pilot so unsure of himself he’s only slept with about 400 women. And though we know everything will resolve in time for cake and presents, it’s nice to see an undercurrent of anger in Jake’s attempts at forgiveness; Samberg keeps it just on the right side of goofy, so we can see how much it costs Jake to be giving his dad a thirty-fifth chance despite knowing what will probably come of it. It’s birthday Jake, growing up.

It’s interesting that we’re getting this example of Jake’s formative relationship. The show smartly established Jake’s relationship with Amy this season, positioning them as a solid couple who have skirted the usual sitcom pitfalls of an established relationship. They’ve maintained that nerdy friendship that’s always made them fun to watch; they just flirt more. (Jake’s thrill at Amy’s thrill at being quizzed? Perfect.) But “Cruise Ship” was also a fairly heavy Jake-and-Amy episode, including hints that Jake hasn’t stepped up, which made me nervous that meeting the parents would mean tension from an angle the show doesn’t need. But while it did mean tension for Amy—everything means more tension for Amy—it was nicely threaded into the totality of the disaster: she and Jake are still a great team, and she’s better company than Roger no matter how many times she regurgitates “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Plus, as soon as she’s not ticking off a Karen Peralta bingo square, she’s documenting Jake’s nose-ring photo. (Amy’s perverse streak has cleverly kept her away from goody-two-shoes territory—there’s an edge to her curiosity that means she gathers secrets with all the dark glee of a dragon.)

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In another show, this episode might be a signal for trouble in their relationship: Jake accidentally falling into his father’s old habits, or questioning Amy, or being unable to enjoy his relationship in the moment because it might turn out badly. (Amy could make out with someone else in a car in a garage someday! Life is brutal!) But “Karen Peralta” brought everyone into the fold largely to show us that while Jake is still a giant 11-year-old in a lot of sitcom-ready ways, he has always taken his loved ones seriously. It is groundbreaking? Nope. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t exist to be groundbreaking; one of its strengths is that it’s always prioritized heart over sharpness. It exists to be a group hug, half an hour a week.

If Brooklyn Nine-Nine has an ongoing problem, it’s that unless it’s a full-ensemble episode, any episode with every character in it is going to have some flimsy subplots. It’s no surprise that in an episode titled “Karen Peralta,” we get cookie-cutter backup plots; luckily, this show has been in a groove for most of the season, and the show has earned the right to play out a couple of goofy setups. Which is good news, given that one of them is Puzzle Bunker and the other one is Soup Nudity.

Andre Braugher earns every award it’s possible to give an actor every time he’s in a frame of this show. You’d know this even if the first time you’d ever seen him is here, when he takes lugubrious stock of being locked in the puzzle bunker: “Well, this is a sobering reality.” The rest of the plot tells itself—we’ve seen Scully and Hitchcock pull through in the clutch enough times to know they’ll eventually become one-fourth of this begrudging morale boost. What saves it from being filler is the .gif-ready-delivery-off. “The TV’s being a dick!” so close on the heels of “How does one man chew so loud with just one mouth?” is a bold move. (Also, Scully’s bottomless dark past is becoming one of my favorite running gags.)

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It’s still more substantial than the C-plot, a thirty-second joke extended as if there’s any doubt of the outcome. (Part of what makes Brooklyn Nine-Nine so comforting is knowing that the 13-inch TV will always be replaced by a 60-inch plasma in time to embarrass someone; trying to stretch the rewind jokes feels like diminishing returns.) It doesn’t help that this is one of those topics that forces Brooklyn Nine-Nine to admit it’s a show about cops, and while its heart is in the right place, “malfunctioning body cams” is something of a tangled topic to use as a throwaway joke setup just to get Joe Lo Truglio naked.

Still, despite the pitfalls and the slightness of this week’s obligatory police plot, it contains a dynamic that’s crucial to the show’s success. Even in a side plot, Stephanie Beatriz makes every moment Rosa’s onscreen feel necessary. It’s the benefit of a cast that can sell even throwaway moments that each of them is contributing to the overall rhythm in a way we know and expect. The uncertainty of “Karen Peralta” is Jake’s willingness to treat his parents like they’re adults; there is no doubt whatsoever that Rosa is going to give it to you straight about how much of your nudity showed up on the body cam, and it’s the necessary salt in the recipe for this blue birthday cake. Every group hug needs that one conscientious objector who will, through sheer derision, make it okay for everyone else to break it up and go home until next time.

Stray observations

  • Thanks to LaToya for letting me sub in! Sure, it’s awkward to be reminded that you’re the Amy Santiago of your own life, but it’s for a good cause.
  • Speaking of which, there is absolutely no way Amy Santiago shows up to a potentially disastrous social situation without a B-route escape plan for the train station. That’s just amateur hour.
  • This week in webisodes Brooklyn Nine-Nine needs: I mean, vignettes from Gina’s birthday horse, right? Right.
  • Melissa Fumero’s recitation of Karen’s favorite topics was sublime, but “how beautiful some front doors are” made me laugh so hard I missed the rest of the line the first time and had to go back.
  • A tie for Samberg’s best line delivery: “I wish that you would leave,” and, “Oh, Roger, you mean?”
  • There are very few actors on TV who could make viciously humping thin air seem so weirdly, chastely pained. Jake is hurting inside.
  • That said: On behalf of the world, we can just go ahead and retire all Crying Game jokes forever. Thank you.
  • A lowercase “l” is just a line. Step it up, tiny babies.
  • Graham Cracker, feminist turtle.
  • There really is something about Scully that cuts to the heart of this show’s begrudging fondness for disaster: “Do you have experience with puzzles?” “Yes. I’ve never solved one.”
  • You know Jake broke that skateboard in his room in half because he dropped it under the wheel of a school bus, and he spent the rest of high school making up increasingly elaborate stories about the amazing trick and/or citizen’s arrest he broke it on.
  • Andre Braugher’s second Deserves an Emmy moment: Him making a meal of, “Oh, dear God.”
  • His third: “No, I would hate that.”

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