If you’ve been following the sequel pattern in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s second season, then you probably walked into “The Pontiac Bandit Returns” with the lowest of low expectations. Neither “Halloween II” nor “Lockdown” even came close to touching the excellence of their progenitors; in point of fact, they’re two of the worst episodes in the show’s sophomore run (which is to say that they’re still funny, just totally incohesive in terms of their contributions to both character and narrative). So odds favor “The Pontiac Bandit Returns” falling far short of “Pontiac Bandit,” even in the face of Craig Robinson’s return to the precinct.
But here’s the funny thing: “The Pontiac Bandit Returns” is good, even if the opening verges on tastelessness, in light of recent highly publicized cases of race-fueled police brutality. (All discomfort aside, “This is what happens when you’re naughty!” is one of Season Two’s best sight gags.) More than that, it’s at least as good as “Pontiac Bandit,” and if we’re going full-hyperbolic, it might even be better. Robinson reprising his role as Doug Judy, the smooth-talking car thief who so thoroughly pulled the wool over Jake Peralta’s eyes when last they met, is only part of the package; “The Pontiac Bandit Returns” seriously ups the ante on last year’s ill-advised cops n’robber team-up, sticking to the formula that made that episode great, while applying little tweaks and upgrades along the way. Fool Peralta once, shame on you. Fool him twice, well, don’t give yourself too much credit, because it’s just not that hard.
Spoilers are as spoilers do, but “The Pontiac Bandit Returns” ends pretty much as anyone might guess, based on Jake’s and Doug’s last contretemps. All the better to bring Robinson back for next year’s “The Pontiac Bandit Rides Again,” of course—and c’mon, you didn’t really think Peralta would successfully put Judy in the slammer after just two encounters, did you? At least this time Jake has a smiling, gleeful Diaz to reassure him that they’ll get him next time; they’ve been more of a pair this season throughout the Giggle Pig plot, and her moment of triumph lets us savor the victory while snickering at what a genuinely cheery, happy Rosa looks like. (It’s kind of scary, but don’t worry, she’ll be back to scowling in a week’s time.)
Watching Robinson and Samberg get buddy buddy together is the highlight of “The Pontiac Bandit Returns”—they’re both terrific funnymen, and Robinson’s huggy bear persona harmonizes nicely with Samberg’s alpha slacker neuroses. But Stephanie Beatriz proves in scene after scene that she’s one of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s MVPs, cutting through the guy love with little more than a disgusted eyeroll; she’s the ingredient that gives balance to “The Pontiac Bandit Returns” A-plot, and she’s perfect. Meanwhile, off in the B-plots, Andre Braugher comes down with more dramatic authority in his anti-gifting policy enforcement, and Chelsea Peretti colludes with Joe Lo Truglio to upset Sandra Bernhard’s love affair with Stephen Root. (Another spoiler: it backfires, hilariously.)
Neither of these buttress the Giggle Pig stuff, but that’s just fine. Both of them expand on recurring storylines, while allowing their participating cast members be themselves. In Braugher’s case, though, “The Pontiac Bandit Returns” isn’t business as usual; we often laugh at Holt’s stuffy robotic act, but what happens when his deadpan is employed in the interest of actual authority? Observing Peretti’s above-it-all exasperation, and Boyle’s un-ironic, wholly earnest weirdness feels a lot closer to what we expect of them than what we expect of Braugher. But there’s kind of a method to Holt’s disciplinarian tact, which ends in Santiago receiving the greatest gift she could as an aspiring leader. Here’s hoping that Fumero and Braugher get to follow up on this new partnership, if not because they’re great together, than because it could take both of their characters interesting places.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine has built up a head of steam as it heads into its winter break, and continues to balance a number of different threads and relationships along the way. In light of the second season’s uneven start, that newfound inertia is as noticeable as it is welcome. Between drug busts and wacky fun, the show has found its stride once more, and not a moment too soon.
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.