Has Brooklyn Nine-Nine ever felt more like a cop show than in its first season finale, “Charges and Specs”? There’s almost a palpable sense that the episode consciously trades guffaws for compelling drama, raising the stakes and minimizing the sort of exquisite, mastered zaniness that has become one of the series’ hallmarks. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has always existed as a workplace comedy set within the boundaries of a police narrative, but “Charges and Specs” flips that formula around, prioritizing conflict over punchlines while guiding each cast member toward concise resolutions and big payoffs.
Not that “Charges and Specs” isn’t funny. The show’s humor remains ever-present even in its most somber moments. How do you add levity to the tension of the A-plot, which sees Peralta doggedly following a lead on a potentially corrupt civic leader against direct orders from the police commissioner? Mostly by having the characters tagging along for the ride (Holt and Santiago) act like themselves. Holt initially tries to put Peralta off the case, but ultimately chooses to trust him—and when Holt has your back, he really has your back. Any episode could have Braugher coolly flirting with a judge for chuckles’ sake; “Charges and Specs” has him do it for an additional, higher purpose.
“Purpose” feels like an important word for this episode, as does “economy.” Brooklyn Nine-Nine has, from the beginning, been all about telling jokes for a reason, to advance the story rather than divert from it. The latter tactic is favored by the myriad run-of-the-mill sitcoms sprawled across all television networks, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine has used a smarter tact since its premiere. If “Charges and Specs” doesn’t incite riotous laughter (there’s nothing here on the level of, say, Peralta jamming pigeons into Holt’s air conditioning vent), it nonetheless manages to score with cleverly placed beats that play to character and serve the overarching plot.
That’s important, because there’s a lot on the line in “Charges and Specs,” mostly Peralta’s career and reputation, but relationships among the squad, too. The bonds between these characters run deep, and they’re essential to Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s success as a series. We’ve seen these people grow and become so much closer to one another over the course of its maiden season. “Charges and Specs” gives every character a sense of closure, often in unexpected but surprisingly logical ways, eschewing anticipated genre tropes for far more organic developments.
In another show, for example, Boyle and Vivian would break up because of Diaz. Brooklyn Nine-Nine shoves a wedge between the two would-be newlyweds that has nothing to do with Boyle’s prior crush on his co-worker. Nobody thought for a second that Vivian would stick around for more than a handful of episodes, but it’s refreshing that her departure from Brooklyn Nine-Nine has nothing to do with some phony-baloney love triangle. She and Boyle just don’t work out, and while it’s sad (and hilarious) to see post-break-up Boyle renounce his passion for food, the fact that the show had the chutzpah to dodge the obvious convention (which in turn gives Diaz necessary personal agency) deserves a serious hat tip.
Similarly, Brooklyn Nine-Nine could have played Jake’s climactic confession to Amy with saccharine schmaltz, but that moment—which we’ve been building up to for quite a while—is handled far more bluntly. It’s a great sequence between Samberg, who instills Peralta with honest, uncertain vulnerability, and Fumero, who reacts with the quiet façade of someone who’s just had an emotional pile of bricks dumped on them. Peralta’s not trying to pledge his love for her as much as he’s confronting his precarious near-future; as the audience, we can be relatively sure he’ll emerge from his undercover assignment unscathed, but what if he left things unsaid and his work in the field took a turn for the worse?
There’s an impressive maturity to how season one of Brooklyn Nine-Nine bids its major and minor players adieu, and maybe more than anything else, that’s what will make the wait for season two tough. We know that this series can make us laugh, we know it’s capable of producing fully drawn characters; what “Charges and Specs” demonstrates is just how much the series is objective-driven in addition to being comedy-driven and character-driven. If the next go-round with the people of the Nine-Nine precinct maintains these qualities, then we’re going to be in for a stellar ride.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and TV on the web since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter.