As Tom Sawyer learned when the people of St. Petersburg, Missouri gathered to erroneously mourn him, Huck Finn and Joe Harper, funerals are wasted on the dead. Better to say all those nice things to the ones you love while they’re still around to hear them.
Last spring, Brooklyn Nine-Nine got to briefly play the role of Tom Sawyer and learn the same lesson. For the day in between when Fox canceled the Andy Samberg/Andre Braugher police comedy and NBC revived it, there was an outpouring of grief the likes of which have rarely been seen for the abrupt end of a series, even one as beloved as this. Testimonials poured in from critics and fans alike (including celebrities such as Lin-Manuel Miranda), in a tone suggesting not just disbelief, but the reassessment of a joyful series they hadn’t fully appreciated until it was, briefly, gone.
I had an epiphany like that too. I’d long loved the show, had recapped every episode and often put it on my Top 20 shows of the year lists. But there was also something that kept me from fully embracing it the way I had creators Mike Schur and Dan Goor’s previous work on Parks and Recreation. Not being quite on par with one of this century’s best sitcoms is no sin. Still, it was hard not to draw comparisons given the overlap in creative DNA, character type (you can see elements of Leslie Knope in Melissa Fumero’s nerdy Amy Santiago, of Ron Swanson in both Braugher’s Captain Holt and Stephanie Beatriz’s Rosa Diaz) and guest star casting, and to find Brooklyn ever so slightly wanting. I would dwell on minor flaws sometimes, particularly the show’s struggle with the high-class problem of having too many funny characters and not enough time to properly service them all. (This sounds like a silly thing to object to, but because the show tried to feature everyone in every episode, it usually led to at least one subplot each week feeling undercooked.) So even as I praised it, I also found myself focusing more on the few things Brooklyn couldn’t do well rather than the many things it could.
Not anymore. Even though odds seemed good that the show would find a post-Fox home (it’s produced by NBC’s sister studio, which makes its continued existence much more lucrative on its new network than its former one), the mere idea that it might not come back was enough to shake loose most of my quibbles as I thought about all I would lose. Start with dramatic powerhouse Braugher’s brilliant gifts being used in service of the silliest jokes — like finding out that an All-Pro quarterback is also the world’s greatest pastry chef. Or the way the series smartly dodged all the usual will-they-or-won’t-they traps as it slowly turned Santiago and Samberg’s goofy Jake Peralta from rivals to lovers and, at the end of last season, spouses. TV conventional wisdom says happy couples ruin sitcoms, but Brooklyn has only gotten funnier the closer Jake and Amy have gotten. (It helps that the show has the discipline to do explicit Jake/Amy couplehood stories only occasionally, and pairs both characters off with other regulars in between so that episodes about them feel special.) Or the way that supporting players like the stoic Rosa, Terry Crews’ excitable Terry Jeffords or Joe Lo Truglio’s weirdo enthusiast Charles Boyle have become so well-defined after five years that slight variations on their familiar quirks (say, Terry’s love of yogurt) can generate huge laughs.
Mostly, though, what that near-death experience made me appreciate more than ever before is the same emotion that Parks so often elicited: the joy of getting to watch exceedingly likable characters do and say ridiculous things while still ultimately caring about each other and the world around them. (Even Chelsea Peretti’s civilian aide Gina has more or less become a mensch by now, when in early seasons she was borderline sociopathic.) Comedies about nasty people who are colorfully awful to one another can be great, too (looking forward to Veep‘s final season), but in troubled times like this, comedy about nice people trying to do good things can be a real balm. (There’s also a higher degree of difficulty to it, since it can be at risk of being too genial to generate conflicts and, thus, laughs.) I laugh early and often at this show, but I also just smile at the thought of it, even on days when smiles can otherwise be hard to come by.
The new season (it debuts tomorrow; I’ve seen the first four episodes) fits right into its new home as a temporary companion to Schur’s The Good Place. (Goor has run Brooklyn solo for several seasons without skipping a beat.) We pick up right where last season left off, with the detectives waiting for Captain Holt to tell them if he’s been named the NYPD’s next commissioner. The news allows Braugher to play an entirely new and hilarious side to a character the show has been very careful to flesh out just a bit at a time from his initial robotic demeanor. The premiere also offers us Jake and Amy’s honeymoon, which has fun with their opposites-attract personalities and their respective fetishes (Die Hard for him, libraries for her), while ensuing episodes find a clever way to keep Amy a regular part of the action even though she’s back in uniform after a promotion to sergeant.
Comedies can often feel strained at this advanced age, when it feels like there’s nothing new to learn about the characters and the only way to generate laughs is to get broader and broader. That doesn’t happen here. (And the second episode reveals a lot of amusingly weird information about squad imbeciles Hitchcock and Scully, played without vanity as always by Dirk Blocker and Joel McKinnon Miller.) If anything, the series feels more in a groove than it did when it was young and new and still surprising. The fourth episode says goodbye to Gina as a regular character. It’s wonderful, showcasing the many different styles of humor the series manages to incorporate, even as its tone overall leans on Samberg’s man-child exuberance. And while Gina is a funny character, the period last season when Peretti was on maternity leave suggested that this will be a case of addition by subtraction, if only because the show won’t have to strain so hard to give everyone their moments each week.
Early last season, when reports began to surface that the show was in jeopardy, I tried to be sanguine about it. Five years would be a healthy run for most sitcoms, it would prevent a possible decline phase and, yes, it was still too easy for me to hold it at emotional distance. When the cancellation actually happened, though, that distance collapsed to a few millimeters at most. Brooklyn Nine-Nine was too good at being good, at telling jokes, at making me happy, to go away. There are all kinds of complicated financial explanations for why the show ended up at NBC, and why it might stick around a lot longer than what Goor once suggested would be a sixth and final season. Mostly, though, it feels like someone who works there realized they needed Brooklyn to continue existing just as much as its lucky audience does.