‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ Boils Down the Justice System in a Moving Bottle Episode

bk99-2Genie in a Bottle is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined.

“Man, this guy is a good murderer!”
“There’s got to be some way to break him.”

Before David Simon was playing around with Franco clones or even working on cable television, he was apart of the groundbreaking NBC crime procedural Homicide: Life on the Street. One of the show’s earliest and most memorable episodes is “Three Men and Adena,” which is still groundbreaking television now but was even more monumental two decades ago when it first aired. It definitely would have been looked at in a previous “Genie in a Bottle” if Homicide was, in fact, a comedy. The episode was written by Tom Fontana and directed by Martin Campbell (who would go on to direct Casino Royale and ahem…Green Lantern decades later) and the installment revolves around a grueling all-night interrogation of an elderly man over the murder of an 11-year-old girl. The entire endeavor is set within the interrogation room.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is an exceptional comedy that has long proven its staying power after surviving five seasons and a tumultuous airing schedule. The comedy has established itself as a worthy successor to Michael Schur and Dan Goor’s Parks and Recreation. Brooklyn Nine-Nine hits similar emotional highs and continues to push its show to challenging new places.

The most recent example of this comes in the series’ latest episode, “The Box,” which functions as the perfect homage to the infamous installment from David Simon’s series. The episode gains even more points because Andre Braugher was also a cast member on Homicide and a major part of “Three Men and Adena,” which makes “The Box” function as a spiritual sequel of sorts. “The Box” plays into this history and uses it to help make the episode feel more significant than the typical installment. Holt and Peralta’s involvement means more than if it were Jake and Amy or Rosa and Boyle that were trapped in this bottle episode. Holt’s relationship with Peralta is analogous to the relationship between Pembleton (Braugher) and Bayliss in Homicide.

Much like in “Three Men and Adena,” there’s a very simple premise: Peralta and Holt have eleven hours to get a confession out of a suspected criminal or he goes free. Perfect. “The Box” also employs a sizable guest star (Sterling K. Brown) for the role of its murder suspect, which is sometimes a large component of bottle episodes. The episode indulges both of the extremes of the bottle episode as it allows the entry to be a showcase for Sterling K. Brown, but also an effective dissection of Peralta, Holt, their relationship, and the process of justice.

The episode gets the most mileage out of the wildly different interrogation techniques that both Peralta and Holt use to try to take Davidson down. In that sense, there’s an added element of competition and a ticking clock, which is the perfect way to up the stakes for a bottle episode, but it also becomes a glowing character study of Holt and Peralta. Their various interrogation methods act as perfect distillations of their characters.

“The Box” wears its bottle episode status proudly on its sleeve and the installment even begins with an ominous intro where Peralta assembles Interrogation Room C, the location that will be the focus for the entire episode. Peralta’s made the room as uncomfortable as possible so Phillip Davidson will confess to the murder of his business partner, otherwise he gets away due to flimsy circumstantial evidence. Those are the makings for a grand bottle episode, especially when Holt and Peralta are the two involved. There are no other two people that you’d rather have examine bear semen evidence from a murder scene.

Right from the jump, Peralta and Holt know that Davidson is guilty, yet the episode doesn’t try to pull any fancy twists or turn him into a hero. This is an episode that’s all about how difficult it is to get a confession from a suspect as well as the obstacles that protocol can cause and how it can actually impede justice sometimes, even if the public do deserve such rights. “Three Men and Adena” is very much about the same thing and dives into the pain of procedure and rules and how there isn’t always a happy ending. It’s no coincidence that both episodes see their characters trapped in interrogation rooms for just shy of eleven hours. Brooklyn Nine-Nine does give the win to its audience, but it would maybe seem a little upsetting if the comedy ends with a man getting away for the murder of his business partner. It’s still impressive to see Brooklyn Nine-Nine tackle such hefty and mature issues, especially all the way in its fifth season and over 100 episodes in. For a point of reference, “Three Men and Adena” was Homicide’s fifth episode, which is just insanity.

“The Box” gets far with a simple, but effective, structural approach to its interrogation. A lot of the first act has Jake and Raymond sequestered together as they formulate theories and bounce off of each other before they let Davidson into the equation. Holt is also eager to get his hands dirty again as he misses this aspect from his detective days, and Peralta knows an interrogation works better with two people so they can get some sort of Rush Hour/good cop, bad cop dynamic going on.

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Jake and Raymond messily work through a few different approaches as they try to find an in with Davidson. The problem is, they both want to solve the case so badly that they’re willing to put each other’s feelings aside for the good of the case. Of course, they’re ultimately only going to crack this if they work together. The overdone message isn’t the point; it’s in the highly creative, ambitious way that it pulls this all together.

“The Box” is able to weave a genuine mystery that the audience simultaneously gets to put together along with Peralta and Holt. That being said, Davidson seems to be consistently ahead of the 99 and even when he does slip up, he’s able to quickly gain his cool composure. Brown really kills the smooth nature of this character. It’s entertaining to watch Jake and Raymond get unraveled in various ways and the other one needs to cover for them, like in the case of Holt’s hangup over doctorates and doctors or Peralta’s embarrassment over his intelligence. Davidson’s also smart enough and spends adequate time with Peralta and Holt that he’s nearly able to turn the two against each other. That’s how effective a deconstruction this episode is of these characters.

When nothing seems to work, Peralta continually wants to lie to force a confession, but Holt never bends. When everything else fails, Jake’s plan continues to look like a better and better option, but Holt would rather let Davidson walk than lie and get a false confession. Peralta can’t help himself, and when he goes rogue with the case, it initially appears to backfire when he bungles his poker face. However, a nice twist of events and some hefty hubris force Davidson’s confession at the very last minute. His crime is so perfect (and really, it is) that he has to have the world know about its intricacies rather than the presumption that he’s a lazier, more “average” killer. That may be a little pat for some, but remember that this is a freaking comedy, not an actual heavy police drama.

“The Box” expertly uses the events of “Three Men and Adena” as its guideline but still feels free to deviate when necessary. Both episodes very much feel like plays and feature the suspect gaining the upper hand in the final hour. Even though they don’t get the confession in Homicide, Andre Braugher’s character, Pembleton, has a newfound respect for Bayliss, which is identical to the final beats of “The Box.” In a way, the episode acts as strong evidence that Andre Braugher is trapped in multiple universes where he must live out this interrogation scenario through alternate realities. There’s a particular poignancy in the fact that Pembleton and Holt are simultaneously both Braugher’s earliest and most recent television roles.

In a nice final moment, the fresh air that greets Holt and Peralta when they finally leave Interrogation Room C is treated like a reawakening. That’s what bottle episodes are all about: valuing the freedom that you have — the very freedom that Phillip Davidson will now be lacking in prison — and some characters passing a milestone. Peralta is able to make Holt proud of him, earn them their escape, and they even have a few minutes to spare before getting into work for the next day.

“Three Men and Adena” won Tom Fontana an Emmy back in 1993. Will “The Box” garner the same results for Luke Del Tredici? Only time will tell.

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