That’s more like it.
I spent much of last week’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine review bemoaning the show’s focus on Peralta at the expense of other characters’ development. This week’s “M.E. Time,” however, is (almost) exactly the kind of follow-up I was hoping for, an episode that highlighted the series’ outstanding ensemble cast and allowed Andy Samburg to hang back for a change. Ironically, Peralta himself has trouble hanging back this week, working a DOA as Boyle’s second in command but itching to take the reins the whole time. Boyle, not Peralta, is really the main player in this story, as he and Diaz solve the murder while Peralta’s off having weird dead-guy sex with a medical examiner. Furthermore, the B-story was a nice showcase for Andre Braugher, Melissa Fumero, and Terry Crews—not to mention Joel McKinnon Miller’s inept Detective Scully—wherein Santiago recruits Jeffords to sketch a purse-snatching suspect while also trying to discern the many mysteries and grimaces of Captain Holt. The whole cast (minus the inexplicably absent Chelsea Peretti) is well served, for once, as the episode offers a welcome glimpse of what this show looks like as an ensemble comedy rather than just a Samburg vehicle.
Well, that was weird.
New Girl took a sharp left of its usual goofy lighthearted fare with this week’s “Double Date.” It’s by no means the first time the series has taken a break from the laughs to feature an emotional dramatic beat—past moments that come to mind include Schmidt and Cece’s breakup at the end of Season 1 and the death of Nick’s father last year—but has New Girl ever gone as dark as it did Tuesday night?
Every good show needs a clunker early in its run. This is especially true for sitcoms. Its rare that any comedy comes out of the gate doing everything exactly right (I would argue that only Arrested Development has ever come close to doing that). Series like The Office, Parks and Recreation, or The New Girl, which began their first seasons laden with possibility but had a dud or two at the start. Putting out an episode with big flaws—or even a few of them—early on can give a series a better sense of what is and isn’t working so that it can throw off dead weight and write to its strengths.
To my thinking, the biggest thing Brooklyn Nine-Nine could learn from “The Slump”’s failings is that it desperately needs to transition into an ensemble comedy, because it’s never a good sign when your show’s star is also its least interesting presence. There’s no denying the fact that Andy Samburg’s fratboy persona is popular with a broad swathe of the population or that Fox needs a comedy hit, given the low ratings for its other Wednesday night programs, but over these first three episodes, anything nuanced or interesting about the character of Jake Peralta has given way to the Samburg schtick; if that continues, it means that whether or not you enjoy Brooklyn Nine-Nine is going to depend on how you feel about Samburg.
This past week, I got way more worked up than should ever be necessary over a blog post. Over at Jezebel, Kate Dries proclaimed that we’re all probably taking sitcoms too seriously. This declaration came in response to an excellent Indiewire piece by Alyssa Rosenberg, wherein Rosenberg addressed the progression of New Girl‘s Jess Day and The Mindy Project‘s Mindy Lahiri over the course of those series’ short runs. What Dries appeared to take issue with in particular was Rosenberg’s suggestion that New Girl‘s supporting characters hadn’t yet been as fleshed out as Jess. Here’s what Rosenberg wrote:
The third-season [New Girl] premiere has some weird notes reminiscent of its rocky first year, like giving Winston and obsession with puzzles and newly-diagnosed color-blindness, the kinds of traits that acted as placeholders for Jess’s actual personality before New Girl figured out who she is as a person. Three years in, you’d think they’ve have done the same work for all of her supporting characters. And Schmidt seems to have lost some of his specific anxiousness and returned to his bro-y origins as he tries to delay choosing between Elizabeth, his not-thin college girlfriend, with whom he’d recently reunited, and Cece, his newly-single model ex-girlfriend.
And here is what Dries took away from this totally reasonable suggestion that character development might be important on a TV comedy:
The multi-platform nature of television watching has demanded a much higher base quality level for the product being pushed out, which is great for television watchers and reviewers. But I wonder if that means that we’re trying to demand too much from our sitcoms, to the point where the stuff that’s good about them is being criticized because it’s not serious enough.
This is the same nonsense people have been lobbing at all critics in all media for years. It’s just a show/film/album/painting—don’t take it so seriously. But that nonsense feels especially weird coming from Jezebel, of all places, a blog that’s constantly under attack for taking representations of gender, race, and sexuality in popular culture too seriously. Holding a text in any medium accountable is vital for the health of that medium, but Dries seems to be taking the stance that creating a well-crafted story with developed characters is somehow antithetical to a sitcom being funny, as if those things are mutually exclusive (never mind that sitcoms have been telling great stories about fully-developed characters for over sixty years while still managing to be funny).
Long story short, Dries probably wouldn’t think much of my New Girl review this week, because while I found “Nerd” a laugh-out-loud hilarious episode of television, I have some bones to pick with the writers’ treatment of the Winston and Schmidt storylines this season.
“Be a yardstick of quality,” Steve Jobs apparently said or wrote or communicated via brainwaves at some point in time (words of wisdom I found on BrainyQuote.com after searching the word “leadership” when I wasn’t sure how else to start this review). “Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” Despite my pathetic means of acquiring the quote, it truly does speak to the theme of tonight’s A-story, which finds Peralta adapting to Holt’s own expectations of excellence. See, with Captain Ray Holt running things in the 99—and determined not to screw anything up in his new hard-won position of leadership—there’s no place for tazing cantaloupes or tossing your ringing phone into the toilet just because you don’t feel like waking up on a workday. In short, there’s no place for the kind of employee that Peralta, up to this point, has been. There is simply the job and doing it well.