Monday, September 23, 2013

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

The one-liner everyone wants to apply to this new TV show is, "It's the modern Barney Miller". Even the producers get into the act.

The Barney Miller comparisons are predictable but wrongheaded. Barney Miller was the quintessential ensemble show: although Hal Linden was the first-billed star, he served mostly as the eye of the storm for each episode, with other regular cast members and guest stars providing most of the comedic sparks. The show's trademark shooting style, emphasizing long, uninterrupted takes, gave it the atmosphere of a play: performers had room to interact and to react organically rather than through separate reaction shots. The pace and rhythm of the show, along with its severely constrained formula of wacky-victims-and-criminals-of-the-week, make it unique even today among American sitcoms.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a completely different structure at its heart. It revolves, at least for now, around Samberg's Det. Jake Peralta, whom some reviewers have dubbed a Hawkeye Pierce type of character for his irreverence coupled with great ability in his chosen profession. Authority, in the form of Andre Braugher's Capt. Ray Holt, inevitably clashes with Peralta. A crew of idiosyncratic fellow detectives and the need to solve crimes now and again keep the show percolating.

That percolating, that need to keep things moving, makes Brooklyn Nine-Nine very much a standard sitcom, albeit a good one, and not a real heir to Barney Miller. The denizens of the ol' 1-2 operated at a uniquely relaxed pace and the humor arose largely from the spectacle of quirky New Yorkers clashing with one another while simply trying to go about their business. The detectives functioned as referees as often as not, and the treat was to see what fresh bits of unexpected weirdness would be brought into the squad room each week for sorting out.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine hews more closely not just to standard sitcoms but to standard cop shows: detectives are supposed to be confronted by criminal mysteries and to solve them. Procedural work gives the detectives the chance to have their own encounters with Brooklyn's civilian population. It's doubtful, though, that these encounters will become the heart of the show as they did on Barney Miller. That's just as well: it takes formidable writing talent to keep that fresh week after week and the writing on the pilot was good, but not outstanding.

So enough with the comparisons. Brooklyn Nine-Nine isn't Barney Miller — but that's okay.

(And now, a word about Andre Braugher. At least one review I've seen expressed a bit of surprise that he works so well in a comedy. However, while it's true that Homicide: Life on the Street was often a grim crime drama, those who know it only by reputation don't realize that black humor was an integral part of the show. Braugher's Pembleton, like all the detectives, was capable of sardonic observations and deadpan putdowns. Braugher's Holt, in the pilot at least, comes off as Pembleton minus the brooding. Holt, in other words, isn't a stretch for Braugher — not yet, anyway.)

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