Sitcoms live and die by their baked-in reset buttons: Whatever fiasco sweeps the protagonists up in the first 20 minutes of an episode always resolves in the last two, their version of reality returning to normal just in time for the next episode’s quippy cold open. Gina (Chelsea Peretti) kills off a century-old Boyle family sourdough starter, risking banishment for not only her, but also for Charles (Joe Lo Truglio)? Resolved in minute nineteen, and now the only hot Boyle cousin (Ryan Phillippe) is her baby daddy! Amy (Melissa Fumero) turns so feral stressing over her sergeant’s exam that Jake (Andy Samberg) has to track down her only non-work friend (Sarah Baker) for help? Resolved in minute twenty-two, and now Amy is once again a regular, awkward detective, and it’s like Kylie never existed at all! Terry (Terry Crews) is stopped on his own street for Walking While Black, and spends an entire, very good episode working through the psychological and professional consequences of that very real injustice? Resolved off-screen in minute twenty-three, apparently, just in time for he and Holt (Andre Braugher) to spend the next episode arguing about model train Best Practices!
I’m being flip, but that last example illustrates a point of tension in modern sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which generally adhere to the form’s reset button requirements, but also strive to inject some real dramatic import and lasting character development whenever possible. We cheer when their efforts to be meaningful succeed—in “Moo Moo,” the Terry-centric episode mentioned above, or in The Mindy Project’s “When Mindy Met Danny,” or black-ish’s “Hope” and “Lemons”—but then are inevitably disappointed when the narrative momentum those stories might have had on a drama are lost in the between-episode reset. I mean, we aren’t disappointed for long—these shows, they got jokes!—but those brief glimpses of the heights these sitcoms in their ideal states can reach, they’re a real bummer.
When it comes to lasting character development, though, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has, like Jake and his -$73 bank balance, found its sweet spot—a fact proved in this week’s doubleheader Season Four finale, which finds Jake and Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) framed for a bank heist by the dirty hero cop (Gina Gershon) they were themselves trying to set up.
Jake and Rosa have always been one of my favorite pairings, their specific character energies so diametrically opposed, but their emotional connection is so very solid. Jake and Holt have a similar dynamic—the chatterbox enthusiast and the laconic stoic—but where Holt is serious, Rosa is intense, and where Holt is a father figure Jake needs to impress, Rosa is a peer whose cipher Jake just wants to crack, because friendship. The fact that theirs were the two fates paired for this season’s cliffhanger finale (Jake’s fate having been paired with his own, Amy’s and Holt’s in the last three season finales, respectively) was also useful in that it highlighted just how much each character actually has grown over the course of 90 episodes—Jake in maturity, and Rosa in her comfort forging (and recognizing) bonds with her 9-9 family, a development brought to bear by, of all people, Holt. Plus, it gave Rosa’s fiancé, the exhilarating Adrian Pimento (Jason Mantzoukas), a reason to pop back into play.
The drama of the frame job itself—despite being tempered by the knowledge that the Season Five premiere will bring its own reset button, just like Gina’s being hit by a bus in the winter finale, and Jake and Holt going into witness protection in Florida at the end of Season Three—was also solid. Gina Gershon plays a believably badass hero-cop-gone-dark, and her delivery of “They’re super duper guilty” in the mock press conference leading “Crime & Punishment” will be making me snort for a long time. The twists within the twists that lead to Jake and Rosa being found (spoiler) guilty are also surprising, a bit of bait-and-switch that might have been obvious had I been in a procedural headspace looking for twists, but caught me by surprise for being tucked into Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Am I worried that Jake and Rosa will actually rot away in jail for the proposed 15 years? Nah, the sitcom reset will get them out. But even if it doesn’t, and Season Five picks up after a 15-year time jump, I know I can trust the character growth—and jokes!—to stick.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.