A review of “Tickling Clocks,” this week’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, coming up just as soon as I find out about the hot goss…
“Tickling Clocks,” a frantic hunt for a precinct hacker that plays out in real time, is the fifth out of 14 episodes so far in Season Six to notably shift the series’ usual tone or structure. That’s following “Four Movements” (Gina says goodbye to everyone in very different ways), “The Crime Scene” (Jake and Rosa spend weeks obsessing over an unsolvable case), “He Said, She Said” (Amy and Rosa clash over how to treat a sexual assault case) and “Casecation” (mid-stakeout, Jake and Amy debate whether to have kids). In seasons past, Brooklyn has tended to do very well with off-format episodes like “Moo Moo” (Season Four, Terry is racially profiled) or “The Box” (Season Five, Jake and Holt interrogate a single suspect all night), but the series is really leaning into the idea this year. I reached out to co-creator Dan Goor to ask whether this shift was a response to the popularity of “The Box,” to the show’s advanced age in sitcom years or to something else.
“As you’ve noticed in your reviews,” he replied, “we try to include all of our characters in a meaningful way in every episode and sometimes that can be difficult. These form-breaking episodes give us an excuse and an opportunity to dial down on just one story and a limited number of characters. Also, we really enjoyed writing ‘The Box’ and felt like it was a real success. That definitely motivated us to try more episodes that broke the mold. Finally, we’ve tried really hard to keep the characters and the world of Brooklyn grounded and true to the reality level that we set up in the pilot, even as we enter Season Seven, but doing that makes it difficult to tell new stories without egregiously repeating ourselves. After 130 episodes, episodes like ‘Tickling Clocks’ and ‘Casecation’ help us keep things fresh for ourselves (!) and hopefully for the audience. That said, we still love writing a good old ‘Jake and Holt team up to catch a serial killer’ episode!”
All of these unconventional episodes have, as Goor had hoped, kept this season feeling fresh. It’s entertaining to see how much these characters and this world can stretch after five-plus years of watching so many variations on the usual formula. But most of them, like “The Box” was, tend to be more plot-driven than Brooklyn usually is, which means less room for jokes. (And some episodes like “Four Movements” and “He Said, She Said,” feature interludes that are designed to be wholly dramatic.) The season’s most hilarious installment so far was “The Honeypot,” which is pretty standard-issue for the series in story and structure. So it’s a trade-off, but one that’s been worth doing to liven things up. Format-busting episodes like “Tickling Clocks” may not be as funny as Brooklyn is capable of being, but it’s still still a lot of fun to see Jake and friends do something relatively new.
The episode’s biggest laughs were consigned to Hitchcock and Scully‘s quest for garlic bread to accompany their Mamma Maglione lasagna. This extended all the way to the episode’s marvelously understated closing joke, where we had to watch the two idiots enjoy their meal in real time. (When everyone’s running around trying to catch a criminal, real time can race by. But real time can be as boring for fictional characters as it can be for us in our real lives.) Amy’s pathological FOMO (pronounced “fo-mou” by everyone) and Terry’s fear of the sorority girls were also chuckle-worthy.
Mostly, though, the episode’s appeal came not only from the tension of the real-time pursuit of the hacker, but from how director Payman Benz completely changed the show’s visual style while filming on the same old sets. Despite the real-time gimmick and the presence of 24 alum Sean Astin as Knox, the criminal posing as an NYPD cyber cop, the episode’s look wasn’t particularly evocative of the adventures of Jack Bauer and friends. Instead, there was a greater fluidity to the camerawork, particularly as groups of characters crossed paths in their scramble in and around the precinct, like Amy passing Rosa and Jocelyn(*) in the midst of their barely-averted breakup. Even more than the frequent references to how much time they have left before Captain Holt has to wipe the servers, it’s the constant movement of the actors and the cameras that keep things feeling both tense and lively.
(*) Subplots can be hard to squeeze into these high-concept episodes. In this case, though, it’s a subplot informed by the main plot, with the hunt for the hacker only exacerbating the problem for the new couple. Plus, it had Rosa warning Jocelyn that the break room couch (much like the one from the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce break room on Mad Men) is full of farts.
There’s always a danger that if Brooklyn deviates from the formula too often, that will begin to feel like a formula itself. But most of this year’s experiments have felt different enough from one another, as well as from more routine outings like “The Honeypot.” And if people get upset about too many of them, Goor may have to make like Jake right before each commercial break and cry out, “Mamma Maglione!”