And so ends Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s third season, not with a bang, but a whole bunch of bangs, a bunch of laughs, and a major downbeat ending that re-calibrates rather than changes the show’s game. The good news is that Operation 225641441636324 is a success! The bad news is that it sort of isn’t at all! The best news, though, is that Brooklyn Nine-Nine refuses to let itself stagnate. While the finale, “Greg and Larry,” sticks to expectation both in suspense (this series always ends seasons with a cliffhanger of one stripe or another) and in its naming convention (see: “Charges and Specs,” “Johnny and Dora”), it cleaves its own path by upending the very formula the story runs on from one installment to the next.
This is reassuring and shocking in equal measure. The demands that a program like Brooklyn Nine-Nine must meet are decidedly on the “low” side, in that each episode really only has to hit a certain laugh quota to succeed as entertainment. Michael Schur and Dan Goor have long made it their goal to do more than just that, of course, and if you require any evidence to bolster that claim, you really only need look as far as “Bureau” and “Greg and Larry” (though you can certainly find more than ample support of the show’s better aspirations throughout each of its seasons). When did Schur and Goor figure that turning Brooklyn Nine-Nine into a streamlined take on corrupt cop flicks like The Departed would be a good idea? That kind of adjustment is significant enough to be deemed risky, though by happy chance the risk turned out to be worth taking.
Not that “Greg and Larry” is perfect. In point of fact it is compressed, particularly in comparison to the excellent “Bureau,” which builds momentum from the pre-credits bit to its final shot of Dennis Haysbert training a pistol on an aghast Andre Braugher. If you thought that the dream team-up of Haysbert and Braugher sounded too good on paper, pat yourself on the back for being appropriately suspicious. We’ll start at the beginning, with Holt calling on his old partner, Bob Annnderson (Haysbert), now currently a Federal agent, to aid the 9-9’s covert op to bring down Jimmy Figgis; as Annnderson (and that isn’t a typo, either), Holt, Peralta, and Diaz work to advance their scheme, Amy tries gamely to get information out of Figgis’ sister, Maura, down in the Texas slammer we last saw her in.
Fast forward to the end of “Bureau” and the start of “Greg and Larry,” where we learn that Figgis has not one, but two moles in the FBI, and that one of them happens to be Bob, who summarily kills the other mole, lying prone in his hospital bed, before drawing a bead on Holt. (Amy just couldn’t get Maura to crack fast enough.) From there, “Greg and Larry” is by turns a race against time, an interrogation plot, a siege movie, and—well, let’s just skip the last one so as to avoid giving away who Greg and Larry are, why they are meaningful enough to Brooklyn Nine-Nine to merit title mention, and what they signal for viewers as the show goes into its annual dormant state until the series returns to air in the fall.
Instead, let’s deconstruct “Bureau” and “Greg and Larry” to look at their nuts and bolts, acknowledging immediately that they are built very, very differently. “Bureau” is all about tight plotting, as Annnderson and the 9-9 devise a plan to break into the FBI building and steal a file containing evidence on Figgis, Amy slowly persuades Maura into unwittingly giving up intel on her brother, Boyle drives Maura nuts with his exquisitely crafted butt and Terry and Gina try to figure out the source of an information leak in the precinct. That reads like a lot of “stuff” for one episode to handle, but everything that happens in “Bureau” happens under the umbrella of Operation 2256414 oh whatever, you get the idea. There’s incredible harmony present in the intersection between each story thread, maybe more than we’ve seen elsewhere in Season Three.
And the jokes come rapidfire from the moment Haysbert shows up and starts laboring to match Braugher’s every move and mannerism: When they aren’t hitting punchlines with impassive brio (just listen to them repeating “Let’s break into the FBI” and try not to laugh), Andy Samberg sits in sheer awe of their sameness, Terry Crews and Chelsea Peretti continue to demonstrate their comic compatibility as the series’ best odd couple pairing, Dirk Blocker and Joel McKinnon Miller commit to their staple clown shoes routine with gusto, Stephanie Beatriz finds ways to make yoga poses funny, and Melissa Fumero and Joe Lo Truglio further their bond as the better halves of Jake Peralta. “Bureau” blends sweetness with deadpan, slapstick with wordplay, and proves itself as pound for pound one of the strongest episodes of the season, and then gives way to the set-up for “Greg and Larry,” which does all of the same things as “Bureau” but not quite.
You get the feeling that “Greg and Larry” really wanted to be two episodes instead of one, that Schur, Goor, and their writers (in this case, Andrew Guest and Phil Augusta Jackson) knew that they needed more space to let the story develop but couldn’t find the real estate necessary to make that happen. It’s to the joint credit of all—the cast, the writers, the showrunners—that “Greg and Larry” is still well above average in terms of action and humor; you have not yet lived if you have not heard Braugher and Samberg recite the lyrics to “Funky Cold Medina” together in absolute synch, or watched Blocker eat things that may or may not be food. But this is the generic Good Stuff™ that Brooklyn Nine-Nine promises and delivers week in and week out. What “Bureau” achieves in 22 minutes is special and unique. “Greg and Larry,” by contrast, simply does what the show does at a heightened level and in a squashed package. It’s good, but hurried, and maybe there’s not much that could have been done about that. Maybe you can’t really split “Greg and Larry” into a forty minute thing without creating new problems.
Whatever. It’s over. It’s done. It’s in the can. And it’s solid all around, even if it’s flawed. The biggest deal of all the big deals in “Greg and Larry”—like Jake and Amy telling each other how much they love each other (answer: so much), or the reveal that “Rosa Diaz” may not actually be Rosa Diaz’s real name—is the one that must not be spoken of, which is too bad; it’s great, for one thing, and for another it presents a seismic shift in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s identity as a sitcom. Operation 225641441636324 isn’t done yet. Nothing is wrapped up. Instead our heroes are in a more precarious position than they’ve ever been in before, and our beloved show is heading in a new direction with immense potential. But that’s one of Season Three’s saving graces—its recurring willingness to try something fresh.
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, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.