Talking about “The Cruise” without talking about Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s fondness for referential and self-contained franchisement is impossible. First, we had “Halloween III,” where Santiago brought the series-long All Hallow’s Eve prank war fought by Holt and Jake to a decisive end; then we had “Yippie Kayak,” where Boyle became subsumed into Jake’s Die Hard fantasy, and took on the role of John McClane just shy of a year after “Windbreaker City.” Now “The Cruise” brings back the Pontiac Bandit himself in a plot that riffs so hard on Speed 2 that the script can’t help but name-drop that ill-fated film into its dialogue. So it goes. All trilogies must come to a conclusion, after all.
Except that if you think this is the last we’ll hear of Doug Judy, you’re nuts. Craig Robinson is great on his own merits, but he’s the kind of actor who forces everyone around him to up their charm and timing just to keep pace with him; he’s effortlessly funny, and that’s as true in “The Cruise” as it is in Robinson’s other work. The best part about his return to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, of course, is the chemistry he enjoys first with Andy Samberg, and also with Melissa Fumero, who replaces Stephanie Beatriz in this installment of the Pontiac Bandit saga (though Amy will never replace Rosa in Doug’s heart). Rather than convene at the precinct, they get together on a cruise ship. Jake and Amy have a free pair of tickets for a Carnival-style vessel, so they set out on a much-deserved vacation. But it turns out that Doug has paid for their passage, in hopes that they’ll protect him from a would-be assassin aboard the boat.
The A-plot sounds like a great time at first blush, and unsurprisingly, it is. It hardly matters that Doug’s presence gives away the episode’s ending, and if that’s too much of a spoiler for some, well, they’ve forgotten how The Pontiac Bandit and The Pontiac Bandit Returns both played out. Doug Judy is a conman. He’s a scammer. It’s what he does. So the moment Jake and Amy spot him on stage in the ship’s lounge, crooning about “smooshing,” we know exactly how things are going to play out: Jake will struggle to avoid falling for Doug’s cool charisma, Jake will fail to avoid falling for Doug’s cool charisma, and Doug will eventually get the better of Jake and leave him sputtering promises of revenge. But so what? “The Cruise” and episodes like it tend to come down to how much amusement they mine out of well-tread territory. Originality is a secondary cause. (Hey, they can’t all be Halloween III.)
But the best part of “The Cruise,” as so often happens in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is Holt. Having Kevin sail off to Paris and leave Holt behind in New York City didn’t make a ton of sense to begin with; that development looked more or less like an excuse to force rare Boyle/Holt shenanigans, among other things, rather than develop Holt as a character. But last week’s “9 Days,” and now “The Cruise,” are treating Kevin’s sabbatical as a bummer for poor, lonesome Holt. Holt, in point of fact, is the last sort of person who should be left alone. He is a rock, and thus incapable of processing his ennui without being nudged. “The Cruise” provides a hell of a nudge in the form of Niecy Nash, showing up as Holt’s sister, Debbie (though sadly, her appearance here seems only to be a one-off guest spot).
Debbie is everything Holt isn’t: she’s talkative and fun, for one thing, and she is unbridled in her self-expression. Holt has no idea how to deal with her. To paraphrase him, he cannot [dramatic pause] even. It’s an odd couple pairing, for certain, but Debbie’s arrival at the office gives us a chance to see a little bit more of Raymond Holt as a human being, and gives him the chance to open up about Kevin’s departure. In between the two, there is pure hilarity; “The Cruise” might contain the highest total volume of GIF-able reaction shots from Holt, Jake, Doug, Terry, and Rosa, who is off on the sidelines competing with Boyle for dibs on the apartment of a dead old woman. But all of that humor is layered upon a foundation of sweetness: Holt and Debbie having a heart-to-heart in Holt’s desk-fort (it makes sense once you watch the episode for yourself), plus the credits tag where Jake finally tells Amy he loves her.
Maybe this is why the sameness of the plot threads is irrelevant. Brooklyn Nine-Nine knows how to take tired material and liven it up with authenticity, whether emotional or comical. If you don’t chuckle at Holt’s shadowy seltzer habits, or feel your heart melt in his climactic moment with Debbie, you’re more of a robot than he is.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.