Here are some of the things that I’ve confirmed and/or discovered about the excellently consistent Brooklyn Nine-Nine as I’ve mainlined a re-watch in preparation for December 5th’s epically toit 99-episode milestone:
- It has never met a holiday episode it didn’t barrel into with gusto.
- It is high-key and unfalteringly socially progressive.
- Its low-key fave is inter-law-enforcement rivalries.
- The Vulture is never not the absolute very worst.
- It is staunchly pro-dog.
- It already solved the mystery of who drew the dicks, in an episode featuring a psychic, no less.
Back when Craig Robinson’s teddy bear conman Doug Judy charmed Jake (Andy Samberg) into professional failure for a third time, in the back half of Season Three, Andy Crump began his recap with an observation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s endless “fondness for referential and self-contained franchisement.” “The Cruise” was, he proposed at the time, a likely cap to a Pontiac Bandit trilogy, as “Halloween III” had been to the 9-9’s Halloween heist trilogy a few months before that, and as “Yippie Kayak” had been, to a less concrete extent, to Jake’s Die Hard obsession just a month earlier. “So it goes,” Andy wrote. “All trilogies must come to an end.”
As anyone who has been tuning in to Brooklyn Nine-Nine in the years since “The Cruise” is well aware, though, Michael Schur and Daniel Goor have no interest in trilogies. Jake has Die Hard-ed at least once more since “Yippie Kayak,” Doug Judy resurfaced to chase down his fugitive foster brother in last year’s winter finale, and with “Halloween IV” and “HalloVeen” in the bank, it is clear that the 9-9 will be pulling Halloween heists until the day Jake’s ego stops needing validation. So, forever.
In many sitcoms’ hands, so much retreading of comedic ground could tip the show towards doom: There is little more tragic on scripted television than a sitcom really leaning into its ruts. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine is no ordinary show, and it works to ensure that its signature gags are not repetitive, but iterative—familiar enough to invoke excitement and/or fondness, but with a fresh enough twist that the gag, and the Brooklyn Nine-Nine gang participating in it, gains a new layer each time it’s called back into service.
All of this is to say: This list of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s best 9 episodes cheats. Too much of the show’s comedic success lies in its tendency towards “referential and self-contained franchisement” to only single out specific episodes as best. Some single episodes stand out, but often it is the iterations of inside jokes observed over time and again that best reflect the show’s genius.
Cheat code thus unlocked, here’s my list of the 9-9 at its best:
As is so often the case, it’s not a sitcom’s pilot that marks the true tone of the series to come, but an episode some weeks into its freshman run. For Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it was the second episode out—“The Tagger,” written by Norm Hiscock and directed by Craig Zisk, AKA “the one where Jake and Holt uncover the dirtbag teen vandalizing NYPD squad cars with wieners”—that solidified not just the characters populating the 9-9, but also their central interpersonal dynamics. Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) is the goofball man-boy with latent dad issues who chafes under too much authority but is nevertheless a dedicated, ethical detective; Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) is the serious authority/dad figure whose own ethical dedication will drive the precinct forward and whose stoic lessons will turn Jake’s slacker attitude in a gentler direction; Sgt. Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) is the snuggly boss who will always take care of his detectives, and who really, really loves yogurt. “You know why I’m still standing here?” Captain Holt asks Jake at the end of the episode when Jake is kicking his own moral core for forcing him to arrest the boss’s boss’s boss’s son for the graffiti, even after he was directed to sweep it under the rug. “Because I do my job, and I do it right.” AKA: Brooklyn Nine-Nine in a nutshell.
Aside from his seriousness and ethical dedication, Captain Holt is known as a man who is obsessive in his efforts to keep his professional and private lives separate—and yet, over the course of four and a half seasons, the 9-9 has spent a not insignificant amount of time all up in his house and/or clothes and/or marriage. First was at Holt’s birthday party, where Jake solved the mystery of why Holt’s husband, Kevin (Marc Evan Jackson), was so cold towards Holt’s colleagues (answer: a long history of systemic homophobia and racism throughout Holt’s career). Then there was not one but two slumber parties with Jake staying over to push through particularly thorny cases—the latter while he and Holt both recovered from mumps. Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) matched Holt discomfort for discomfort when their mutual inability to be emotionally open met in his living room to face her possible pregnancy scare with his nephew, Marcus (Nick Cannon). But in Season Three, one episode after Adrian Pimento (Jason Mantzoukas) joined the squad after returning from twelve years undercover in the mob, there was “Cheddar,” written by Jessica Polonsky and directed by Alex Reid, which saw Captain Holt warmed up enough to his squad to trust the now-coupled Jake and Amy (Melissa Fumero) and a blind Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) to sit for his beloved corgi, Cheddar, while he himself flew off to Paris to visit Kevin on sabbatical. Or at least, trust them long enough for Jake, Amy and Charles to get to the house, set part of it on fire, and lose Cheddar, all before Holt got through security at the airport. His epic journey to return home, cut with the whole squad’s epic journey to find Cheddar, cut deeper with Rosa and Pimento’s really weird, really intense paperwork-based flirtation, cut deeper still with Cheddar’s really chill day trotting around the neighborhood, eating leftover soft-serve, all wrapped up with Holt’s moment of emotional epiphany and vulnerability about the state of his marriage, makes for a watch that is both funny and emotionally satisfying.
If pressed, the 9-9 would allow that their #1 professional priority is to do their jobs well and keep New York—and each other—safe. If given the freedom to be honest, though, they would add the coincident priority of beating every other law enforcement agency in town and/or Florida. They have done this on both the intra- and interdepartmental level (“Tactical Village,” “Windbreaker City,” and the cop vs. lawyer arc with Jake’s DA girlfriend for the former; the Vulture, Wuntch, and Hawkins arcs for the latter), but it’s in Season One’s “Sal’s Pizza” (written by Lakhsmi Sundaram and directed by Craig Zisk), Season Two’s “USPIS” (written by Brian Reich and directed by Ken Wittingham), and Season Four’s Christmas-y “Captain Latvia” (written by Matt Lawton and directed by Jaffar Mahmood) that the model works best. In the first, Jake and Boyle compete against the NYFD’s Fire Marshal Boone (Patton Oswalt) to crack an arson case; in “USPIS,” it is Federal US Postal Inspection Service Jack Danger, pronounced “Donger” (Ed Helms), whose authority Jake and Boyle butt up against after Rosa assigns them together to investigate a lead as part of her Giggle Pig task force; in “Captain Latvia,” it is the MTA that Holt and the 9-9 go up against in the interdepartmental holiday caroling competition. Each matchup provides the 9-9—mostly Jake, but also Boyle and Holt—the opportunity to face some personal weaknesses, and then to work through them to do their jobs better, all while giving some very funny and/or golden-throated guest stars to gleefully serve as their foils. Bonus: “Sal’s Pizza” gives Rosa and Amy time to bond as women of equal power who have each other’s backs, reflecting in the show a similar industry breakthrough Stephanie Beatriz noted in 2014 about the happy shock of the fact that two Latina actresses were cast in the same ensemble.
“The Swedes,” written by Matt Murray and directed by Eric Appel, is a cousin to the intradepartmental competitive tradition of “Sal’s Pizza” and “USPIS,” but is set apart in this list both because the detectives Jake and Rosa are competing with—Anders Holm and Riki Lindhome as creepily close Swedish (“Swedish”) Interpol agents—are from abroad, and because the central conflict is less the case the two teams are working together(ish) to solve, and more the interpersonal dynamic between Jake and Rosa as friends. Jake wants a deeper emotional connection (read: hearing about her breakups sooner than a month after the fact) than Rosa is giving him; Rosa wants nothing more than their current pattern of never “talking about our love lives or our families or anything that’s on our minds,” which, she reminds him, is “why you’re my closest friend in the world.” Soren and Agneta’s weird chemistry pricks at not only their native-9-9 competitive streak, but also at the weaknesses of their own maturing friendship, and the diamonds and fish they have to crawl through along the way serve as devices of change. This is the layering that Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s format of iterative gags allows: The jokes work like clockwork in the background, allowing the relationships between the characters to grow in a compelling, real way.
Oh, and also: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, beating Terry in lifting.
5. “Coral Palms, Pt. 2” (Episode 4.02)
During the best part of each broadcast season, Brooklyn Nine-Nine trucks along as methodically as the various paperwork the squad is never not filling out. At each season’s end, however, and folding into the next season’s beginning, it careens out of the mundane hilarity of administrativia and straight into the kind of grand plot an hour-long procedural might have spent its whole year building towards. This year saw Jake and Rosa framed by dirty cops and sent to prison; last year saw Adrian Pimento’s mob ties bubble up and subsume Jake and Holt, sending them into witness protection in Florida. While the worst result of that geographic shift was Jake’s truly awful frosted tips, the best was the extended Jake-Holt shenanigans the three-part Season Four opener allowed for—but especially the middle part, in which Jake and Holt make the decision to take on the mob on their own, buy a bucket of bullets without needing to show any ID at all (“Our country’s broken, coolcoolcool, coolcoolcoolcoolcool,” Jake mutters hysterically under his breath as this part of the plan goes without a hitch), and promptly get thrown in local lockup, where the only way they can get the ire of the Sheriff up enough to come in the cage and leave the door open behind him is by kissing. “It’s 2016,” Holt says scathingly as he closes the lockup door behind him, the sheriff stuck inside. “This one is on you.” As Andy Crump wrote in his original review, the reason this entire gag works is that the foundation of Jake and Holt’s rapport has been so strongly established, that this moment is neither unearned nor a cheap trick, and it says something not only about Jake and Holt’s professional and ethical relationship, but about the world in which their ethics are constantly at work.
All holiday episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine are great episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but as far as Christmas offerings go, it almost (see #3) can’t get better than Jake stumbling into a real-life Die Hard hostage situation (“They’re sealing the exits! OH MY GOD it’s real life Die Hard! I mean… oh nooo… crime…”). Written by Lakshmi Sundaram and directed by Rebecca Asher, “Yippie Kayak” gives everyone joy by doing just that—PLUS it gives Terry the nerve to finally tell off his bully of an older brother-in-law (followed by Holt’s push for him to take the lieutenant’s exam), Boyle the chance to be the sweaty, half-naked hero for once, and the “Paris of people,” Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti), full control over a Macgyver-ed hairspray flamethrower. Its B-story, featuring Amy’s pride warring with her physical comfort as she psychs herself up to join stoic beasts Rosa and Holt in the Polar Swim, is just as joyful, if entirely non-consequential to any of their character development. In Charles Boyle’s own words, “Yippie kayak, motherbuckets!!”
3. “The Pontiac Bandit” (Episode 1.12) / “The Pontiac Bandit Returns” (Episode 2.10) / “The Cruise” (Episode 3.13)
So this is the point at which I truly start cheating, because, as with the Halloween episodes, there is just no way to shake a “best” Pontiac Bandit episode out of the bunch. The original “The Pontiac Bandit,” written by Norm Hiscock and Lakshmi Sundaram and directed by Craig Zisk, has to stay, because it has the original final act fake-out and double cross, and introduces us to the depth of Jake and Rosa’s Academy-based friendship AND features Captain Holt wandering around the precinct yelling while holding a pair of puppies under his arms. The Christmas installment, “The Pontiac Bandit Returns,” written by Matt O’Brien and directed by Max Winkler, has to stay because at least this Doug Judy con gets Rosa a happy end to her stressful Giggle Pig investigation—which gets us the rare-as-cobalt image of Rosa grinning her ass off—plus it has that amazing cold open sight gag of Santa Jake tackling their perp in a Christmas Tree lot with the biggest tree behind them bursting into flames at the moment a family with small children walks by. “The Cruise,” written by Alison Agosti and Gabe Liedman and directed by Bruce McCulloch, might have slipped off this list, but it has Niecy Nash guesting as Holt’s brash and unbridled sister, there to pull our Captain out of his Kevin-less doldrums. I did manage to leave Season Four’s doubleheader, “The Fugitive,” off this list, but only in my excitement to get to the Halloween hootenanny in spot #2—it, like its predecessors, is fantastic, as, I am sure, Season Five’s “The Pontiac Bandit Returns, Again, One More Time” will be.
Your mileage may vary, but when I am in a Brooklyn Nine-Nine mood but can’t be bothered to think about which season and arc might fit my submood, it is the Halloween episodes I turn to. Heists are my Die Hard, and I have been nothing but delighted by the increasingly ludicrous turns of each year’s offering. Unlike Andy Crump, I don’t need any degree of policing in my Halloween offerings (making the original “Halloween,” written by Lesley Arfin and directed by Dean Holland—which, incidentally, introduced the “name of Amy’s sex tape” gag—the one I end up turning on least). The more years the 9-9 puts under its gaudy Halloween heist title belt, the more excited I am to see what possible combination of competitors and outcomes they come up with in the future. This year’s “HalloVeen,” written by Dan Goor and directed by Jamie Babbit, went the furthest afield yet, dragging not only Terry AND Cheddar into the game, but culminating in Jake proposing to Amy with a custom made decoy belt, the series’ most iterative gag working like a well-oiled joke machine in the background while the emotional arc between its central romantic pair gracefully leveled up.
What could possibly top a Halloween engagement in Season Six? Well, I don’t want to put words in Sgt. Jeffords’ mouth but—Terry needs a win.
For all the careful reasoning I put into explaining why individual standout episodes aren’t Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s brand, there was never going to be any list that didn’t have Season Four’s “Moo Moo,” written by Phil A. Jackson and directed by Maggie Carey, in the Number One position. Featuring knockout dramatic performances from Terry Crews and Andre Braugher in an A-story following Terry (the character) through the repercussions of his being trapped in a stop-and-frisk “Terry stop; outside his home by an aggressive white beat cop from one precinct over, and complementary but not overshadowing turns from Andy Samberg and Melissa Fumero as the B-story comic relief, stuck babysitting Terry’s twins and figuring out how to talk with them honestly about race in America, “Moo Moo” is a compact marvel that manages to be as funny as it is harrowing, as hopeful for a more just future as it is unapologetic in the unsatisfying inconclusiveness of how Terry’s situation ends.
It is, also, an episode that a workplace sitcom about the NYPD couldn’t get away with not doing, for while Brooklyn Nine-Nine the TV show functions as a safe and comfortable place to escape to from the real world, the actual institution to which the fictional 9-9 belongs is a major part of the real-world trouble we are trying, even if only intellectually, to escape. To ignore the unjust brutality and racial profiling endemic to American law enforcement in general, and to the NYPD in particular, especially on a show in which the two central characters with greatest authority are black men, would be not only unrealistic, but also irresponsible. It would—as Crews indicates in the special episode promo—risk turning the show into a cartoon. And while cartoon is fine when Charles is dressed like a turkey and caught tail-first in the elevator doors, it won’t fly with a precinct full of the very good, truly ethical law enforcement professionals we’ve spent years coming to know and respect—professionals who would be not only “woke” (thanks, Hitchcock!) to the “deep-rooted institutionalized racism that remains pervasive in this country to this day” (thanks, Gina’s parenting advice!), but who would risk their own careers to try and make that deep injustice even microscopically less pervasive.
The episode doesn’t end with any sort of institutional tidiness, but it does bring both Terry and Holt to a more nuanced understanding of their role as black, good men in the NYPD, and opens the door for the series to approach institutional injustice even more directly than it has before—most recently in the two-part prison episodes that opened Season Five. While I hope “Moo Moo” gets to avoid the iterative franchise treatment Doug Judy, Halloween, and intradepartmental rivalries have all undergone, I know that if the series does choose to tackle endemic police brutality in future episodes, it will be done with compassion and humor.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s milestone 99th episode airs tonight at 9:30 p.m. on FOX.
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.