Brooklyn Nine-Nine references police procedurals so often that it’s a bizarre miracle the series took four seasons to confront its most direct ancestor head-on, or that it paid off its Die Hard references before its cop show references. (See: Season Three’s phenomenal “Yippie Kayak,” assuming you haven’t already, though if you’re reading this you probably already have.) So it goes. Better late than never. “Serve and Protect” stares right into the face of cheesy, over-tenured law enforcement dramas everywhere and laughs, which is sort of a cheesy move as well as a high-risk one. It’s like pulling back the curtain to remind the audience that they’ve been watching a goofier version of an institutional cliché this entire time.
Which, in fairness: We have. But if Brooklyn Nine-Nine has done one thing well for its entire lifespan, it’s to emphasize just how utterly dopey your workaday network cop show really is. (It does more than one thing well, of course, but just stay with me here.) In “Serve and Protect,” it gets to stress that point right in front of a replicate of your workaday cop show, assigning Jake and Rosa to a case involving a laptop snatched from the trailer of Cassie Sinclair (Kelly Sullivan), the star of the in-universe TV series Serve and Protect. (And yes, there’s a Brooklyn Nine-Nine universe, or did you miss that New Girl crossover?) Rosa thinks the perp is Cassie’s producer, Gary (Greg Germann). Jake thinks Rosa’s way wrong, because his instincts tell him that if he buddies up with Greg, he’ll get to work in show biz.
Classic Jake. If his starry-eyed naivety seems out of character, just remember that Jake is a guy who will go to incredible lengths and perform all manner of mental and emotional gymnastics to make friends with people, or to spare his friends anything in the realm of bad feelings. He means oh so well, but he’s also the greatest proof that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a work of fiction, because there’s no way that he’d make it more than a week on the force before exhausting all his energies just trying to make everyone around him happy. He’s a pleaser. In “Serve and Protect,” he wants to put a smile on Gary’s face and indulge in his own latent dreams of celebrity, which, really, is it that much of a surprise that Jake wants to be in the biz? His immortal love of Die Hard is a pretty big clue, and sure, he can love the movie for the movie, but apart from his hero cop fantasies, maybe his obsession with flicks like it has hinted at his greater aspirations all along. He wants to be on TV, even if it means degrading himself (or being degraded by others).
While Jake and Rosa sniff around the set of Serve and Protect, everyone else—Terry, Gina, Amy, Boyle and Holt—is busy at the precinct, bustling about to find a way to keep Terry’s ex-paramour, Veronica (Kimberly Hébert Gregory), from exacting her vengeance on Terry in the form of a negative audit report. Terry splits off with Gina and Amy, who mercilessly grill him to uncover the truth behind Veronica’s grudge against their man-mountain of a sergeant. Holt and Boyle move on down to the Poconos, a place whose name Holy can only mention with disdain, for a chat with Grayson (Steven M. Gagnon), the Deputy Commissioner, in an attempt to court his leniency in the bureaucratic battle to decide which precinct will wind up going under.
Look: Jake is Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s “main” main character, so it’s only natural that he’s in the A-plot while everyone else who isn’t Rosa hangs out in the B-plot. But as much as it’s a big deal for Jake and Rosa to figure out who stole Sinclair’s laptop (closing a high-profile case could, after all, influence Veronica’s decision vis à vis the department’s longevity), it adds up to peanuts compared to the rest of “Serve and Protect.” If the A-plot treated the Sinclair case like an authentic case, and not as an excuse to diverge and deal with Jake’s foibles, maybe this wouldn’t be an issue. It’s hardly an issue as is. But putting the bulk of the episode’s heavy lifting on another arc of Jake-centric narcissism feels like a misstep. It’s a mild misstep, nothing so spectacularly off-key as to throw the narrative out of tune, but maybe this would have been a good chance for the supporting cast to step into Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s forefront.
The best gags here do, after all, occur in the side-threads, particularly in Boyle and Holt’s, where Jake’s best friend and his father figure have an eyebrow waggle-off, and where Boyle drops what may be the best worst one-liner in the show’s history. (“From now on, the only blackmail I want anything to do with is you!” This line should not work. It works, in part, by the grace of Andre Braugher, but it also works thanks to Joe Lo Truglio’s perfectly over-enthusiastic delivery. It’s possible that you could swap Andy Samberg into this sub-plot and the line would work just about as well, but Lo Truglio totally nails it with his unabashed obliviousness.) Hell, even Amy grousing about the yogurt in the interrogation room is a major winner, a small moment with big impact for how beautifully it suits the character. Everything in the A-plot works (though as much as it’s a crime to criticize Nathan Fillion in some online circles, his guest casting as the dimwitted male lead on Serve and Protect is a tad on the nose), but it lacks the urgency of the B-plots.
Worse things have happened. The result is still a solid half-hour of sitcom fare with an emotional coda about the other thing that Brooklyn Nine-Nine does really well: Character relationships. Coming from Rosa, an admission of fear that the end of the 9-9 would mean the end of her friendship with Jake is a huge deal, and this, most likely, is why their story enjoys prime real estate in “Serve and Protect.” It’d just be nice if a little more of that real estate could have been ceded to the other characters, too. (At least the credit sequence is worth all the build-up.)
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.