Have you ever had a caricature of yourself that you’ve really loved? You can like parts of it, maybe the chin’s more defined or the hair’s fuller, but there’s usually some trait the artist picks up on that’s too revealing: Do my teeth stand out that much? Are my eyes that crooked?
Sequels are like caricatures. In trying to replicate the original, they tend to exaggerate its basic elements to the point of ridiculousness. Minor things become overused: A funny side character turns into a main character, a cute gag inflates into the whole plot. This can be great—I’ll defend Shrek 2 over the original any day—but the result usually ends up feeling a little thin. This week’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine attempted to cap off last year’s excellent “Halloween” with a cheeky follow-up, but, with the same plots, and nearly the same conclusion, “Halloween II” emphasized the show’s weaknesses.
Though to be fair, caricatures do reveal some great features: thank you, comedy gods, for Andre Braugher.
The episode begins by cribbing last year’s structure. For those who don’t remember, last Halloween, Jake and Holt made a bet that Jake could steal Holt’s Medal of Valor from his office. Jake did, with the help of nearly everyone in the precinct. Holt had to do Jake’s paperwork for a week. This year, Jake and Holt revive the bet, this time over Holt’s wristwatch. Jake offers five weeks of free overtime if he can steal it by midnight. Holt promises to do Jake’s paperwork for a week if he can’t. “The benefits outweigh the costs,” Holt ponders, “We have reached an accord.”
It’s pretty clear from the get-go that Jake isn’t going to win the bet (sequels have to have some difference), and at first it looks like we’re up for some Greek-tragedy-style payback for last year’s hubris. After all, his distraction includes Scully singing O Fortuna, which basically argues that for every good thing that happens something terrible also has to happen. Anyway, Jake gets a pickpocket, Fingers, to lift Holt’s wristwatch and replace it with a fake. When he goes to pick up the watch from Fingers, the thief has disappeared, and so Jake and Boyle chase him across town.
This part starts to drag: Andy Samberg works great when he’s playing with a foil as sharp as Andre Braugher or Stephanie Beatriz, but he can only do so much with boyish disappointment. He gives Fingers his shoes to trade for the watch, his car (with the watch inside) is impounded, he loses his wallet and badge, he gets separated from Boyle and has to ride on a party bus. Replace “O Fortuna!” with “ah, shucks!” and you get the point.
So by the time a group of bears is herding Jake onto said party bus, you start hoping something else is behind Jake’s ordeal. And yes, Captain Holt has been playing him like Franz Bluheim plays the flute: masterfully. Andre Braugher fizzles with glee as he explains Holt’s revenge plot, getting all the other members of the precinct to turn against him, putting Fingers in his employ, even recording Boyle as he talked about a party bus. The watch never left the precinct. It’s on his wrist, right under the fake one.
The first problem with this structure: It leaves Holt’s reveal until the end of the episode, and we have almost no time to savor it. The twist comes, but it’s too quick. The show feels breathless, and nervous about leaving time for Gina and Terry’s dance in the tag, as it rushes Jake through his required concession, “you are an amazing police captain slash genius.”
The second problem: We knew that already. Captain Holt’s proven himself to be a revengeful genius, and we already knew that Jake’s arrogance gets him into bad situations. “Halloween II” reverses the final result of the bet in last year’s “Halloween,” but the flipped format doesn’t tell us much more about the characters. Heck, last year’s side plot had Terry learn that Diaz secretly went to dance academy (what happened to that?); this year’s has Terry learn that Gina’s secretly going to college (and also in a dance group called “Floorgasm,” but that’s less surprising).
These are nice details, but they have almost no bearing on what happens in the show’s world. We could learn that Gina’s going to cooking school or have Jake outwit Holt again and the episode’s conclusions would feel the same. Like any good sequel, “Halloween” would have done better to destroy its format along the way, and let its characters produce the new plots: Have Diaz dance with Gina, pair Jake up with Terry instead of Boyle, make Hitchcock or Scully the criminal mastermind.
Okay, that’s just some fan fiction, but it still wouldn’t resemble any earlier episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And as Gina might say, Repetition is a dangerous minx for a sitcom to fiddle with. Community, with its succession of paintball episodes, managed to churn out several seasons worth of paintball episodes, for instance, but only by making go-for-broke structural insanity its brand. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is no Community. It doesn’t need to go meta. Its characters, as seen in the past few week’s episodes, can come up with enough wackiness on their own.
The big risk, after all, would be for Nine-Nine to let each of its holiday episodes turn into a rote exercise. This can happen easily enough already. Most Christmas sitcom plots are about love and most Thanksgiving plots are about family (genetic or makeshift). The fun usually comes from upending those structures, having characters reveal their anxieties in ways that contradicts what we expect of them or question why they’re going through these exercises in the first place. This is only the show’s second Halloween, and it ends with Jake promising Holt that he’s already started his plot for next year. Hopefully, Nine-Nine forgets about his plan before then.
Other open cases:
In last year’s Halloween episode, Amy hated Halloween. Has that changed? Is she now on board with “Christmas for jerks”?
Was Terry’s gladiator outfit just a chance to show off Terry Crews’ abs?
Boyle’s Halloween outfits (and the precinct’s reaction): An kumquat (Ms. Pac-Man’s nipple), Hamlet (“not to be”), He-Man (Gay Robin Hood)
“School is cool. That’s why it rhymes!” —Terry’s happily stuck in the Magic School Bus version of life.
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