One minute, “Moo Moo” is about Sergeant Terry’s adorable elder children, Cagney and Lacey, placed temporarily in the custody of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s adorable adult power couple, Jake and Amy, setting up a classic comedy scenario in which kids go wild while supervised by a pair of increasingly out-of-their-depth grown-ups. The next minute, it’s about the “deep-rooted institutionalized racism that remains pervasive in this country to this day.” (Source: Gina Linetti, of course.) Well played, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Well played.
“Moo Moo” is the type of television that’s bound to piss off a not-insignificant percentage of its viewership, not because it’s bad, but because it’s real. Granted, I often stress in these recaps that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not, and never quite has been, “that kind of show,” meaning that Dan Goor and Michael Schur didn’t conceive it for the purpose of addressing the social and political ills that plague American society even in 2017. It’s a workplace sitcom styled after series like The Office, in which an infantilized hotshot detective is forced to mature fast by the arrival of a new boss in his police precinct; very little actual police work is done from episode to episode, and what police work we see is often glossed over in favor of fleshing out relationships between characters. That’s the kind of show Brooklyn Nine-Nine is. That’s the kind of show we expect it to be.
That doesn’t change in “Moo Moo,” really, but “Moo Moo” is, perhaps, the fourth season’s best beneficiary to date of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s longstanding character developments: Here, the amount of time we’ve spent investing in its cast pays off with astronomic results, even if there aren’t many belly laughs included in those results. Maybe the idea of reduced funny stuff in Brooklyn Nine-Nine is anathema to you. If so, “Moo Moo” won’t rate, but if so, well: How closely have you been watching the show, really? I can’t think of many times offhand where Brooklyn Nine-Nine has directly addressed systemic concerns of prejudice in law enforcement — “Old School” comes to mind, and flashbacks involving Madeleine Wuntch — but to depict anything is to comment on it, so one could argue that commentary has always been a part of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Stealth commentary, perhaps, but commentary nonetheless.
Here’s the breakdown: Terry, seeking greater responsibility from Holt, tries out for a role as city council liaison, and calls on Jake and Amy to babysit Cagney and Lacey so he can put together the (outlandishly daunting) application for the position. Jake and Amy, being good sports, agree to help him out, but their endearingly lax babysitting style results in a possession lost: Moo Moo, Cagney’s blanky, which gets tossed out of the car window during a game of “Up/Down.” You can scarcely blame Jake and Amy for the oversight. Letting kids do whatever the hell they like when “whatever the hell they like” happens to be both cute and entertaining is a rookie mistake. We’ve all been there. The same can’t necessarily be said of the ugly situation Terry finds himself in later on, when he heads out to recover Moo Moo and ends up being targeted and harassed by a white cop on account of his blackness.
It’s quite a moment, played in the most hushed key possible. You can hear a pin drop once Terry figures out what’s happening, or at least you might if the sound of his silent terror wasn’t so fucking deafening. Rare are the times when bad things befall members of the 9-9 and we feel the full force of their weight. “Moo Moo” is one of those times. It’s also the best of those times, and one of the overall best episodes in Brooklyn Nine-Nine canon. The greatest examples of what Brooklyn Nine-Nine can achieve as a narrative tend to be those instances where the A-plot introduces a Problem™, and that Problem™ ends up shaping the B-plot and C-plot by forcing each of their participants to react to it in their own way.
In “Moo Moo,” the participants essentially boil down to Terry, who seeks out Holt’s advice as his superior, as his mentor, and as a fellow black American; and to Jake and Amy, who, on a second babysitting stint with Terry’s girls, are confronted with their questions about race. If the concept of parenthood wasn’t already intimidating enough, try wrapping your brain around explaining, in terms that make sense to children, America’s ugly past (and present) of discriminatory practices across just about every single facet of life. Now try imagining that when the children aren’t yours but someone else’s, and that’s all without broaching the topic of Jake’s whiteness. His pasty skin color isn’t referenced aloud, really, but again: Depiction is commentary. Even Amy is freaked out at the enormity of Cagney and Lacey’s request, and Amy, at least, can claim minority status.
Good as the Jamy stuff is, the Terry and Holt material is even better. This, perhaps, is because it leaves nothing unspoken; the conversation they have in Holt’s home, smack dab in the midst of a posh dinner party, is frank in ways that Brooklyn Nine-Nine usually isn’t, and not just by dint of its scathing and naked disdain for Scarsdale. (Margot, by the by, sounds like the most nightmarish dinner guest ever. Like Holt, and eventually like Terry, we come to regard her with a mixture of disgust and utmost loathing.) Maybe unsurprisingly, their conversation is opened up in the first place by Terry’s prior discussion with the cop who hassled him, Officer Maldack (Desmond Harrington). Maldack is only apologetic for cuffing a fellow lawman. This doesn’t sit well with either Terry or Holt, but Holt is from the old school. Terry wants to file a complaint against Maldack. Holt wants Terry to let it go, to rise up in the system and campaign for change from within. A complaint might reflect poorly on Terry. Cops, after all, don’t like cops ratting on other cops.
There’s a whole lot going on here, including, but not limited to, critiques of police insularity and what Nikki Johnson-Huston, writing in The Huffington Post, has called the myth of the “good black person.” Terry has every right to raise hell, but if he does, he’ll pay for it. This would probably be true if Terry was a white man—the blue wall of silence is real—but if Terry was a white man, he wouldn’t get stopped and frisked in his own neighborhood, just feet from his own home, by a fellow cop. But consider, as well, that black Americans are criticized in the media, whether mainstream or social, for protesting against police violence. Your choices are limited: Either you put up and shut up, and nothing gets better, or you speak your piece and take your licks for it. The sheer injustice of Terry’s position is infuriating. When he and Holt decide to do what they know to be right, you’ll want to stand up and applaud.
There’s plenty about “Moo Moo” that works on a comic level. It comes as no surprise that Gina is the most woke dudette in the 9-9, but Hitchcock’s firm awareness of racial disparity is a hilarious delight. (“He got stopped for being black,” he scolds his trusty, boneheaded partner. “Get woke, Scully!”) And Boyle’s creepy eagerness for Jake and Amy to have a kid themselves is, as ever, an uncomfortable treat. But “Moo Moo” isn’t great for its economy of laughs. It’s great for its sobering earnestness.
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.