Amazing how Brooklyn Nine-Nine can go from being a sitcom to an earnest cop drama with a single line of dialogue. “Payback” isn’t about the NYPD’s longstanding record of institutional discrimination, but when Captain Holt regales Santiago about his first partner in the force (such as Holt can regale anyone about anything), we hear the proverbial record scratch in our heads; it’s a stark reminder that the show occurs in a world where, once upon a time, it was considered a “win” if the person you worked next to was either homophobic or racist, rather than both.
“Payback” doesn’t care to linger on this moment—indeed, not long after, Andre Braugher reveals his untapped potential as the squad’s poet laureate—but it provides a sufficient jolt in the midst of an episode that’s otherwise workmanlike. Who knew that an A-plot focused on Peralta’s relationship with Terry could wind up feeling so formulaic? The most interesting things that happen in “Payback” are focused on Holt and Santiago, teaming up to rectify the mistake uncovered by the latter in “The Pontiac Bandit Returns.”Their partnership is, expectedly, less about the case (mostly because Holt has figured out his blunder by the time Santiago sits down to talk to him about it post-opening credits), but Brooklyn Nine-Nine is always at its best when fostering character interaction.
Maybe “Payback” would work better in reverse, then, with Peralta’s desperate bid to keep Terry’s secret—he and his wife, Sharon (Merrin Dungey), are expecting their third child—taking a backseat to Santiago getting to live the dream and roll with Holt. As it is, the A-plot leaves a little to be desired; this is assembly line comedy, designed to hit its beats and get from start to finish without any surprises. Jake’s money problems have been well documented throughout the series, and here, they circle back around to bite him in the keister as his fellow officers each decide to call in their debts on him. Terry gets the ball rolling, but he has a reason to come collecting while the rest of the crew just adopts a holding pattern like a flock of vultures.
So Jake is saddled with a juicy secret, which he struggles mightily to keep before spilling the beans in the most half-assed manner possible. It’s fun stuff, but it feels an awful lot like wheel-spinning. If Brooklyn Nine-Nine wanted to up the bond between Terry and Jake, leaning on tropes feels like a cheap way to do it. After “Chocolate Milk,” Terry should trust Jake enough to be honest about why he needs cash, though perhaps not enough to keep that “why” mum from Boyle, Scully, and Diaz. A different approach might have made their tête-a-tête pop. Such as it is, it’s left limp.
But hey, we get to hear Andre Braugher say “diarrhea” in his trademark brand of impressively dry line-reading, Andy Samberg gets humped by a dog, and Joe Lo Truglio demonstrates his unnerving skill at fading into the background. There’s a lot of low humor here, which is less a complaint and more of a veiled compliment, because it takes talent to milk a joke about tainted meat for as long as “Payback” does, while keeping it hilarious. (Not to mention a running gag that riffs on the title, as Peralta wastes action hero one-liner after action hero one-liner on his friends.) The episode fits nicely into Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s canon —it’s a big old reference guide to any number of Season Two plot threads—which lends it an air of belonging. “Payback” is a solid bit of connective tissue. It’s the easy story writing that ends up taking it down a couple of pegs.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.