Pilots are hard. Writers have to quickly build a world and introduce believable and memorable characters, with enough of a story hook to make viewers come back for another round. Comedy pilots are even harder — they also have to tell some jokes, and do it all in just 22 minutes.
I will tell you on six conditions. Number one: let me use your office to practice my dance moves…
On the level of “did a I laugh a few times?” and “do I like the characters?”, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a success. The new series from Parks & Recreation gurus Mike Schur and Dan Goor, Brooklyn has appeared to learn immediately from the weaknesses of Parks’ truncated first season. Both shows were very well-cast, but Parks was at first trying too hard to replicate the success of The Office. Its characters were ill-defined, borderline unlikable, and originally ill-suited to the actors. Fortunately, the show was retooled before its second season and is today the best comedy on television.
Brooklyn has a much better pilot, at least at the outset. Our main character, Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), is an immature joker — but critically, he’s good at his job. Samberg has described his role as “the comedy McNulty,” referring to the clever but screwed-up detective from HBO’s The Wire. The rest of his office is filled with diverse character actors that remarkably appear cliche-free: Terry Crews, Joe Lo Truglio, Melissa Fumero (Jake’s level-headed partner and potential love interest Amy), the terrific Chelsea Peretti playing Parks’ “April Ludgate role” but with more humor, and others.
The key element, however, is the “new boss,” destined to inspire Jake to greatness and hopefully have a winking sense of humor of his own. Parks’ Ron Swanson is impossible to replicate, so Schur & Goor go a much different direction, landing actor’s actor Andre Braugher to play CO Ray Holt. I’d watch Braugher read the phone book, but he’s never really been known as a comedian, so I’m looking forward to seeing him get some new colors to play with. Holt’s sexuality is an understated reveal, and refreshingly not meant to be his defining characteristic. He’s just a no-nonsense commanding officer who happens to be gay.
Honestly, I couldn’t recall at gunpoint the actual plot of the episode. There was a bad guy to be caught, a search, a chase scene, and then a capture. With so much legwork to do setting up all these personalities, the “case of the week” was only the third- or fourth-most important thing to cram into these 22 minutes. But what the show manages to do is establish the rough structure going forward, and as the relationships get fleshed out over time, the bad guys will hopefully go from MacGuffins to characters with agency of their own.
One memorable story beat that will recur is the “door search,” where in this episode Jake & Amy sweep an apartment building looking for their suspect. Every door they open leads to a different comedic moment, and Schur has said that they’ll treat these sequences going forward as something akin to Laugh-In, where any celebrity could randomly appear behind a door. In the pilot, it’s fellow SNL alum Fred Armisen, getting one of biggest laughs of the night.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a healthy mix of slapstick, wit, and character-based humor, and as the writers and actors get more comfortable I truly believe it could turn into appointment viewing, and — if we’re lucky — the second coming of Parks & Recreation. Pilots are hard, but this one was pretty great.
- This introduces SO MANY characters so quickly, a couple are bound to get lost in the shuffle. One thing the best ensemble shows do well is juggle multiple plot strands so everyone’s involved, but there was obviously no time for that in the pilot. All of these actors should be fun to watch in different combinations.
- The show is often silly, but not absurdist. It’s light-hearted, but not a spoof or parody. Helpfully, it’s grounded in a reality where the police are actually competent, so these detectives aren’t “Mr. Magoo”-ing their way into success but actually earning it. This means there will be real consequences if they fail.
- “The Klay is silent.”