Must-See TV

01.31.14

How ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ Became This Year’s Hottest New Sitcom

Its Golden Globe win may have been shocking. But after tens of millions tune in to watch its post-Super Bowl episode Sunday, ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ is poised to be one of TV’s most popular comedies.

When Andy Samberg won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Comedy earlier this month for his work on the freshman Fox police comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, two words went through a lot of viewers’ minds. As it turns out, the same two words went through Samberg’s head, too.

“I was like, ‘Oh fuck,’” he says.

Samberg won for Detective Jake Peralta on the show, a mischievous crime-solving wunderkind who alternately charms and tortures his Brooklyn police precinct co-workers with his equal parts smug and sweet personality. It was undeniably one of the Golden Globes’ biggest shockers. The win only held that title for a few minutes, however, as Brooklyn Nine-Nine the series was soon announced as Best TV Comedy, too, beating out odds-on favorites like Girls, Modern Family, and The Big Bang Theory.

“Somebody won big on us winning, if they were betting,” Samberg tells me. “That was the longshot of longshots.” Samberg also knows how these things work, and had a hunch that after his upset win that he might have to take the mic again on behalf of his show. “After I won and did some backstage press I came back to the table specifically because I thought, ‘Oh shit, the Foreign Press like our show.’ There maybe a chance now that our show will win and I don’t want to miss that,” he says.

The thing is: the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press aren’t the only people who like the show. As it turns out, a lot of people do—more than you, or maybe even Samberg himself, might think. After cautiously positive reviews for the pilot—best described as polite golf claps—critics began aggressively applauding the show after an early run of progressively stronger, tighter, and, most importantly, funnier episodes. Ratings are up, too, with the recent Jan. 22 episode scoring its highest viewership to date.

But perhaps the people who like the series most are those at Fox. There are few things that networks can do to guarantee that people will actually watch a show it believes in, but each year one network is given that very power by choosing which of its series to run after the Super Bowl. The potential is huge, with over 100 million football-watching eyeballs up for grabs. Grey’s Anatomy, The Office, and Glee catapulted from TV shows that a few people liked to pop-culture phenomena after their post-Super Bowl berths.

This year, Fox is giving two comedies its vote of confidence, hoping they’ll do the same. First, an episode of Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl will air. Then, it’s Andy Samberg and company’s turn, as Brooklyn Nine-Nine will broadcast right after it. Higher ratings. Awards. The Super Bowl Hail Mary. Brooklyn Nine-Nine might be TV’s next hit sitcom.

***

In a television era where new shows now debut year-round on an ever-increasing number of networks and, more recently, streaming services and outlets for web shows, it’s a near-impossible task to land on a new idea. If not new, at least one that hasn’t been done to death. The latter (more realistic) mission is what inspired Brooklyn Nine-Nine creators Michael Schur, who previously co-created Parks and Recreation with Amy Poehler and was a writer for The Office, and Daniel Goor, a veteran of the Parks and Rec writer’s room, to invent Brooklyn’s 99th precinct. There’s been a handful of police comedies over the years—Barney Miller, The Job—but there hasn’t been a good, successful network one in a long time.

Their pitch: a younger detective—extremely talented, but a little goofy—is unsettled when the work playground he’s created is infiltrated by a new, takes-no-bull captain. That was their idea for the show when, a few weeks later, the duo read in the newspaper that Samberg was leaving Saturday Night Live, where he had been a cast member for seven seasons. “We were like, ‘Oooh, wait a second…’” Schur says. “We went to Fox and said, ‘Hey, if Andy Samberg were available…’ and they were immediately like, ‘Yep, yep, yep. Go.’ We didn’t finish the question before they said yes.”

For his part, Samberg was already a fan of what Schur was able to do for Amy Poehler with Parks and Recreation. “I thought a little about, ‘Do I want to do TV, period?’” Samberg says. “But the answer was obvious. ‘If it’s with these guys, then yes.’”

It was done. Schur and Goor had their little police comedy, an idea that—as remarkable as it is for something so simple-sounding—seemed fresh, and they landed the ideal star to front it. But not everything was so easy.

“A needle we have to always try to thread is that, when you have a cop show, you need the cops to be good at their jobs,” Goor says. “But it’s still a comedy that needs to be funny. Frequently with sitcoms you bring the comedy out of the characters by making them fail at their jobs. When that isn’t an option, it becomes a challenge to write scripts and stories.”

Some things worked immediately. The indomitable Andre Braugher, an actor worshipped for his unshakable work on dramas like Homicide: Life on the Streets, was cast against type as Jake Peralta’s foil, the robotically wry Captain Holt, whose range of emotions land on a spectrum from dour to slightly less dour. The fact that he’s gay is handled with as much blunt ambivalence as everything else that comes out of his mouth. The rest of the ensemble was strong, too, particularly the blissfully odd Chelsea Peretti as the office administrator and Joe Lo Truglio as over-earnest weirdo Detective Boyle.

“There was chemistry with the cast that happened shockingly quickly that took a lot more time than other things that I had done,” Lo Truglio says. And Lo Truglio happens to be a bit of an expert on police shows, having been a cast member on Reno: 911, too. “I’m trying to go through all types of police and authority roles, starting with ‘Officer 1’ on Law & Order way back when,” he jokes. “I finally made detective.”

Other things took more time to get right.

As anyone who’s cringed through Michael Scott’s obliviousness on The Office or winced at some of Leslie Knope’s most over-eager moments on Parks and Recreation knows, it’s incredibly difficult to strike a balance with a lead character who can, at times, be annoying. How do you make him or her quirky enough to be funny, but still grounded enough for the audience to root for? Tempering Detective Peralta’s amusing immaturity and braggadocio enough to make him relatable is a work in progress for Brooklyn Nine-Nine stemming back to the pilot, which critics knocked for trying too hard with Samberg’s character sometimes.

“It’s trial and error,” says Schur. “How silly can we make him before he’s too silly? How immature can we make him before he’s too immature? We’re talking hopefully a multi-year proposition here, so you want to start with him showing glimpses of the guy he’ll hopefully be eight years from now when the show wends. But if you parse him out too quickly or make him perfect right away, then he’s not funny anymore.”

Samberg recognizes the challenge, too. “Jake is not funny because of who he is,” he says. “He’s funny because he’s trying to be funny. Which is hard! It’s really hard, because if that doesn’t fly, you’re like, ‘This guy is obnoxious!’” And when we say that the team works on the balance this every day, we mean they really work on it. “There were times in the pilot where Andy makes one gesture, one little thing with his hand, and we’d go back in forth in the edit a million times over it,” Goor says. “If you keep this thing it’s like, ‘Oh this is a goofy show.’ And if you take it out, it’s like, ‘Oh, now it’s a drama.’”

But the fact of the matter is that somewhere along the way, Brooklyn Nine-Nine really did find its groove. Specifically, it happened on October 15, when the series aired its fifth episode, “The Vulture.” Dean Winters played a detective from a different crime unit who notoriously swoops in to steal Jake’s nearly-solved cases. The precinct works together to stop Winters from solving the case before them.

“It’s a simple concept,” wrote Molly Eichel at The A.V. Club, but it was “the most satisfying episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in its short run so far.” Agreed IGN’s Roth Cornett, “The dialogue and jokes were sharper and more consistent, each character was afforded a moment to shine and some forward progression, both the A and B storylines were funny, and the guest stars added a  bit of flavor to the proceedings without overpowering or unbalancing the meal.”

It clicked for the cast and crew, too. “It was the first episode where we looked at each other and said, ‘This feels really nice,’” Samberg says. “When you saw the way everyone reacted to seeing Dean Winters in the precinct, you got this feeling that long before we started viewing these people on television, there was this rich world they lived in,” Schur says. “I like it in a show when you learn about the people you’re watching through things that happened before you started watching them.”

A string of stellar episodes followed. “Old School” brought on Stacy Keach as a former crime reporter and hero of Jake’s who turns out to be homophobic. “I think that started to create Jake as someone deeper and more responsible than the rebellious goofball we’d seen thus far,” Lo Truglio says. The Thanksgiving-themed episode won raves across the board from TV critics, packing one-liners and strong ensemble work into an episode featuring the most satisfying banter yet between Holt and Peralta. Critics were officially won over; Brooklyn Nine-Nine was good.

The two Golden Globe nominations that were announced the next month seemed to confirm that notion, too. The double wins on awards night? That definitely did.

There’s one pesky, peculiar thing standing in the way of sheer bliss on the Brooklyn Nine-Nine set now, however. It still hasn’t been picked up for a second season. Samberg, at least, would like to think the correct statement is it hasn’t been picked up for a second season…yet.

“I think Mike Schurr said at the press conference after we won the Globe … He was like, ‘Nothing on TV is guaranteed but it would be a pretty baller move of Fox to cancel us now,’” Samberg says. “I thought that was pretty great. I mean, some of my favorite shows ever were canceled early, not to back myself into a corner about our future or anything. I feel like right now we’re still young and still enjoying it.”

So are we.