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With "The Box," Brooklyn Nine-Nine strips down to its peak form

Illustration for article titled With "The Box," Brooklyn Nine-Nine strips down to its peak form
Graphic: FOX
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I was initially torn between calling “The Box” the definitive episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and a definitive episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.


On the one hand, “The Box” is now an integral component of the series’ Jake/Holt dynamic, a father/son relationship that makes for a large part of the series’ heart. On the other hand, of course, this is an episode where the rest of the series’ ensemble is completely absent—save for the Linetti-Boyle bookends that also help highlight the Jake/Holt relationship. Is it really possible to be the definitive episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine—or at least an episode that convincingly makes that argument—without fully using every strength at the series’ disposal? After watching “The Box,” I’m inclined to think so. Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-creator Dan Goor would probably also agree, as he tweeted: “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever been associated with in my life.”

The reason I bring up the lack of the rest of the ensemble (besides the fact it’s impossible to ignore) is because there’s a completely different version of “The Box” if it includes them. Were this episode to play like the standard Brooklyn NIne-Nine episode—with a B and C-story—or even with pop-ins for interrogation suggestions from the rest of the Nine-Nine, while that episode could be good, it would be much harder for it to be this great. “If only the episode provided more of the interrogation plot by itself,” I’d write. It would also be even more apparent that “The Box” is, in a way, a sequel to season one’s “48 Hours.”* In an even bigger way, “The Box” is a proper do-over of that episode—both written by Luke Del Tredici—now from a point of fully understanding the show’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as a point where it can be bold and confident enough to center an entire episode around the work of just Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher (and a couple of talented guest stars in Sterling K. Brown and Romy Rosemont).

* This was before my time as Brooklyn Nine-Nine reviewer, as Molly Eichel considered Jake Peralta a “shitty detective” at that point. Also, if you want a stroll down memory lane, you should read how many of the comments were so aggressively anti-Andy Samberg as the series lead.

Holt: “Stupid questions, grammatical errors, lose your train of thought, just ask him to confess… Ooh, relate everything back to those movies you’ve seen.”
Jake: “Kinda seems like a shot at me about Die Hard, but okay.”
Holt: “This is not a comment on you, Peralta. I just wanna bring this guy down.”
Jake: “Yeah, that’s all I want too. And to possibly say, ‘You can’t handle the tooth!’ You know, if it comes up naturally.”
Holt: “It won’t.”
Jake: “It might.”
Holt: “I actually think… it can’t.”

Braugher’s delivery of that last line is perfect, but I’d also like to point out that Holt’s strategy is kind of a comment on Jake. This episode is clear in saying Holt truly doesn’t think less of Jake’s ability as a detective, but all those suggestions are things Jake does on a regular basis. The only difference in this particular context is that it has to be played 100% less organically in order for it to work as “dumb cop.” Plus, the very concept of the “smart cop, dumb cop” plan ends with Jake revealing his smarts; it just doesn’t work on Philip. And when Philip plays Jake and Holt against each other later because of the “smart cop, dumb cop” thing, it doesn’t become a major issue because Holt immediately squashes the ludicrous idea of Jake being anything other than one of his best detectives.

Holt: “Is this about your ego? Are you that desperate for everyone to know how great you are?”
Jake: “It’s not about ‘everyone’, okay? It’s just—I wanted you to know.”


While you’re not going to get a Brooklyn Nine-Nine ensemble masterclass in “The Box,” the episode is still one of those television episodes that makes a perfect entry point into a series and explains what it’s all about—without making familiar audiences feel like it’s spoon-feeding things. As I’ve written before, one of the best things about the series is how the crew of the Nine-Nine are so competent at what they do that it’s a rush to see them use their skills. So watching Jake and Holt spend their time together attempting to crack a suspect checks that box of exhilarating competency. This episode has callbacks to earlier episodes and character moments, but at the same time, it’s the perfect individual episode anyone can watch and understand.

“The Box” has such a simple but captivating premise, and its execution makes for an instantly rewatchable episode. Plus, Andy Samberg and especially Andre Braugher and Sterling K. Brown put on some damn good performances here. In fact, is it too soon to give Brown the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Emmy just for his scene saying the victim’s name in different ways?


Last time Holt got his hands dirty with interrogation (back in “Two Turkeys”), I compared him to The Closer, because—simply put—it felt even dirtier to truly compare his pie-fueled work in that episode to Andre Braugher’s work in Homicide: Life On The Street. But this episode is more than worthy of such comparison, as it very blatantly asks for it with the title “The Box” and its presentation as the comedic version of Homicide’s “Three Men And Adena.”

Holt: “Peralta, do you know what I miss most about being a detective? A good interrogation. Breaking suspects down. Talking quietly and then talking real loud. Looking away and then looking right in their eyes. Leaning.”
Jake: “That was amazing.”


The audience automatically assumes that Sterling K. Brown’s Philip is guilty because they believe the Nine-Nine is always right (or at least, on the right side of things). Jake Peralta says Philip is guilty, so Philip is guilty. Even though everything is circumstantial evidence. Even though Philip is played by Sterling K. Brown. Back in “48 Hours,” Brooklyn Nine-Nine certainly didn’t have the same trust from the audience; and it didn’t help that Jake detained the black man in that episode for no other reason than the fact that he called him “Joke Peralta.” But there’s a level playing field here that adds stakes, stakes that make the audience wonder how Jake and Holt will close this case. Because it would be one thing if the episode was still as good as it is—with the gradual rise that occurs here—only to have a weak conclusion to it all (which “48 Hours” did).

But “The Box” makes sure not to squander the good will of the episode with the conclusion to the case/the confession, as it completely builds up Philip’s need to be the smartest, calmest guy in the room from the very moment the interrogation begins. That’s because, as a workplace comedy, “The Box” makes sure to be equally competent (and superior) when it comes to both parts of that term.


And when it comes to that comedy part, “The Box” is really strong, understanding the importance of a strong narrative (both within the episode itself and the world of the show as a whole) built off that comedy. The actual beats of the interrogation are so good it’s easy to forget moments—especially as the episode goes on—that aren’t necessarily integral to that. Like the fact that Holt lets Kevin—his husband—know what name the opera tickets are under… by spelling it out for him. (“H-O-L-” transitions into to the credits, causing the audience to double take the fact that the man just spelled out his last name for his husband.) Or like Holt revealing that Jake hasn’t quite let go of the best part of this season’s “Return To Skyfire”: his commitment to singing about The Addams Family.

I’m Gomez, you’re Morticia / I feel so happy when I’m witcha

Of all the callbacks for Brooklyn Nine-Nine to go with in this particular episode, that one is unexpected... but now it’s going to be kind of disappointing if Jake doesn’t find a way to do an “Addams Family-themed wedding vow rap.” Just saying.


While “The Box” captures the vibe of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and what it’s all about, it’s still very different from the typical episode. And I’m not just talking the lack of ensemble shenanigans or even the fact that the episode (like the comparable Homicide episode) is more like a play than “just” an episode of TV. It’s relatively early in the interrogation when Jake and Holt make a stop in the general area of the precinct—the first time Jake suggests lying—where I suddenly felt relieved to finally get out of the box, just as a viewer. This episode only gets away from the dark, isolated setting in the cold open (technically, as it’s when Philip arrives), this moment, and when Jake and Holt finally get out into the fresh air to end their night/start their day. This is a bottle episode, and it’s one that specifically highlights the darkness and discomfort of being in the bottle known as “the box.” It’s what “Homicide: Life On The Street, but funny” looks and feels like.

Jake: “God, I love this job.”

That final line—along with the “Good morning.” he and Holt share just before it—could easily come across as a cheesy end, but it works as proper conclusion to this episode. Remember the way this episode begins, with how into setting up the interrogation room for max discomfort Jake is. 12 hours in a row of interrogation (again, a direct reference to Homicide) is stressful, but the high of cracking that case more than make up for it. That’s the most Brooklyn Nine-Nine appropriate ending such a different episode can have: one of optimism.


And now, I’ll leave you all with an image of what appears to be a deleted scene from this episode:

Illustration for article titled With "The Box," Brooklyn Nine-Nine strips down to its peak form
Graphic: FOX

Stray observations

  • This week in webisodes Brooklyn Nine-Nine needs: I mean, what was the rest of the Nine-Nine up to this time around?
  • I’m currently in the very early stages of viewing Homicide for the first time. I started at the beginning of this Brooklyn Nine-Nine season, so I should get back to that.
  • Jake: “Why are you wearing a tuxedo?”
    Holt: “Kevin and I are attending the opera.”
    Jake: “Ooh, the opera. Is it the one Bugs Bunny sings?”
    Holt (shrugs, doesn’t bother): “Yes.” The classical music at the end of the episode is Mozart’s “Symphony No. 41” (aka “Jupiter Symphony”). So no, not the one Bugs Bunny sings.
  • Jake: “You know—good cop, bad cop. Crazy cop, sane cop. Fast-talking, streetwise cop and Hong Kong cop, aka ‘the Rush Hour’.”
  • Jake: “I believe you were the last person to see him alive, correct?”
    Philip: “Nah. I’d imagine whoever killed him saw him after I did.”
    Jake: “Ooh, nice dodge. You’re quick, like a cat.”
    Holt: “Like a dancer.”
    Jake: “Like Great Tiger. From Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! He could teleport around the ring. Most people thought it was impossible to get past him.”
    Philip: “I beat him every time. You just punch him when he gets dizzy.”
    Jake: “Really? I mean—duh. Everyone knows that.”
  • Holt (when Philip goes for a fist bump): “No.”
  • Holt: “There will be no ‘oh damn’s.”
    Jake: “But it’ll be so satisfying in your deep, powerful voice.” Oh how true this ends up being.
  • Holt: “You have a boyish face and a big, goofy grin. It’s like being yelled at by a children’s cereal mascot.”
    Jake: “Hey, some of those are scary. Count Chocula much?” Also true.
  • Of all the failed tactics, Holt does get a reaction out of Philip when he goes the “undermining dentists as real doctors” route. It’s just: “Apparently that’s a trigger for me.”
  • Jake (post-acoustic screaming): “Yeah, I really gotta stop trying that. It never works.
  • Obviously, it’s Jake’s idea that solves the case at the end, but it’s also worth noting that his final interrogation tactic does involve bending the truth (in a way that riles Philip up to confess) like he suggests throughout the episode—it’s just in a more subtle way than the blatant, risky lying that screws them over.
  • Jake: “He needed us to know how smart he was.”
    Holt: “Like someone else I know.”
    Jake: “Yep. Kevin.” Then they share a knowing laugh.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.