Talking about “New Captain,” the first episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s third season, without disclosing the particulars of its more delightful surprises isn’t easy. If you’ve seen TV promos for the premiere, then Fox has already done the grim task of spoiling [actor]’s appearance as [character] for you, and, rightly, you’re probably a little bummed. But would discussing what happens with [actor]’s role on Brooklyn Nine-Nine constitute even more of a spoiler? Should all mention of [character]’s purpose and fate be left out of a review entirely?
Probably, but “New Captain” makes such brilliant use of Bill Hader’s short tenure as Captain Holt’s replacement, Captain Dozerman, that it bears mentioning, so if you don’t want Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s secrets ruined for you, well, a) look away, and b) too late! C’mon, though: Any fan who found out about Hader’s stint in the season opener probably knew, deep in the cockles of their heart, that he wouldn’t stick around for long, partly because Hader is an in-demand commodity on screens both big and small, and partly because Brooklyn Nine-Nine can only sustain so much recurring participation by so many recurring guest spots (Kyra Sedgwick notwithstanding, and thank goodness for that) for so long. The path has to stay clear for the primary and secondary casts to shine.
And shine they do, except for Joe Lo Truglio, who is accorded no valuable function in the plot “New Captain,” though we totally believe Boyle as a devoted Jamy shipper. Yes, we’re picking up immediately where the Season Two closer, “Johnny and Dora,” left off, with the 99 gang standing rooted to the floor as the elevator doors open to reveal Hader in full police captain regalia; Peralta and Santiago don’t know where their romance is going yet, and they haven’t even discussed it, though they use the excitement of Dozerman’s arrival (topped off by his collapse, courtesy of a gene-level heart defect) as an excuse to lay out the ground rules. “Light and breezy” are two words that can never be used to describe either he or she, so the moment they both agree to the idea of just takin’ it easy, we can see the trainwreck coming before the choo-choo leaves the station.
Meanwhile, Holt’s feeling the depths of despair off in the private hell Madeline Wuntch has delivered him to. At least he has Gina, whose best line, sadly, is given away for free in those aforementioned promos (though her proposed reality show, Linetti, Set, Go sounds like such a tremendous idea that Fox should consider spinning it off, as of five minutes ago). But Wuntch knows better than any of Lucifer’s punishers how to torment Holt to the fullest, and so she saddles him with the saddest assignment possible: Naming the NYPD’s new pigeon mascot. Oh, the ignominy.
“New Captain” contrasts the dizzy fluster of Peralta’s and Santiago’s fledgling steps as a couple with Holt’s utter defeat at Wuntch’s hands. (Holt would probably describe them as claws. He might also stick to his favorite mode of insult and just toss out another Wizard of Oz reference.) It’s natural that Jamy gets off to a rocky start, but as Dozerman hangs over the 99 like a stern, shrill specter—the intense constancy of his micromanagement, evinced chiefly through his distribution of “Dozerpads,” makes Holt’s style of leadership look relaxed—we wonder if maybe a Holt-deprived environment is the best environment for their relationship to emerge into. At least Terry’s still around to scold them and make them feel like they’ve disappointed papa. All the same, Dozerman’s regime doesn’t help make Peralta and Santiago any more assured in their decision to date each other (though that doesn’t stop them from knocking boots on their first date, which leads to the culmination of the “Amy’s sex tape” joke Samberg has been telling since the show debuted back in 2013).
But what they, and Holt, are each feeling is the anxiety of newness. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is about as archetypal a sitcom as you can get, from its structure to its character tropes, but the show’s best distinguishing feature among its kin is its willingness to buck formula. Dan Goor and Michael Schur love to shake it up, which in turn constantly revitalizes the series’ staple sitcom elements from one week to the next. We’ve seen the will-they-won’t-they angle play out in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s contemporaries, from The New Girl to The Mindy Project, and we’ve seen what happens when shows decide to answer that question either too soon or too late. For Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the timing of Jamy feels just right, as does the setting. Brooklyn Nine-Nine thrives by evolving itself. “New Captain” drives that point home about as gently as Diaz takes a hammer to her Dozerpad.
There is sadly very little Diaz to go around, much less Terry; their C-plot is remarkably underserved, mostly because the A-and-B-plots are of too high a concern to allow space at the table for any tertiary story threads. So too does “New Captain” lack somewhat in punchlines, and instead aims to stack its emotional building blocks, though that is not to say that the episode isn’t funny. (It is, and as per usual, Andre Braugher wins a gold medal for just enhancing a comic beat with his enunciation. He and Sedgwick make an outstanding pair of nemeses.) The decision to favor substance over chuckles might seem stupid on paper, but it’s smart in practice, and, as Terry reminds us, “stupid” is a no-no word. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has redefined itself several times over throughout its brief lifespan. With “New Captain,” the show has taken big steps toward doing so yet again.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft brews.