A review of this week’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, “Dillman,” coming up just as soon as my resume rhymes on accident…
Nine-Nine has improbably avoided the ravages of sitcom middle-age for several years now, at times being even funnier and more satisfying than when the characters and running gags were new. This seventh season, though, has finally showed some of the strain of revisiting the same ideas and interpersonal dynamics. Every episode has had its moments, but “Trying” was the only one that didn’t feel like a lesser version of a story the series has told a half-dozen times before. Even temporarily demoting Holt to beat cop didn’t freshen things up much. (And the show didn’t do as much with that idea as it arguably could have.)
“Dillman,” though, was so self-assured and strongly executed that you could slot it into any of the show’s best seasons, and only Boyle’s hair color and the slightly different lighting of the NBC versus Fox episodes would make it seem out of place.
We still haven’t gotten to whatever this season’s version of the Halloween Heist will be, but “Dillman” was in a similar vein: a locked-room, Agatha Christie-style(*) mystery involving all of the characters. No subplots to distract from the story, and only the title character — the great J.K. Simmons as Frank Dillman, the best detective Holt has ever seen — mixed in with our main ensemble. Co-creator Dan Goor has talked about how hard the heist episodes are to make, because they have to work as a whodunnit — or, as Holt insists, a “who has done this” — in addition to being funny. But they also force the creative team to put all of the characters together, and single-story episodes are almost always where Nine-Nine is at its best.
(*) Depending on when this was produced, it might have been fun to swap out Jake’s bad attempt at a Hercule Poirot accent (which instead made him sound like a Nazi) for him aping the Foghorn Leghorn cadence of Benoit Blanc in the very Christie-esque Knives Out.
As the squad and Dillman try to figure out who planted the glitter bomb on Jake’s desk that destroyed a crucial piece of evidence, the episode does, indeed, work as a mystery. Various revelations from the end of the episode are seeded early on. Boyle rightly argues that no one in the squad is the culprit. Jake irrationally points at Officer Howard (Booth), who will prove to be the real culprit. Even Dillman’s weird expertise in types of glitter will be explained as not one of his Sherlock Holmes bits of encyclopedic knowledge, but a byproduct of his humiliating current job as a part-time employee at a Yarn Barn. And the episode works as a character piece, too, since Jake is desperate to impress Holt to get onto a cool task force, unaware that slow-and-steady Boyle has already landed the job(*).
(*) Boyle has generally been presented as a lesser detective than Jake, Rosa, or (in her pre-uniform days) Amy, but never as an idiot like Hitchcock and Scully. He’s good; just not as eager to impress as Jake and Amy, nor as fundamentally terrifying as Rosa. Giving him the task force job is a nice way to acknowledge that he deserves more respect than his fundamental Boyle-ness would suggest.
It’s also just a damned funny half-hour. As was the case in the Human Resources subplot of “Pimemento,” there’s still a lot of laughter to wring out of making these usually close-knit characters all fight with one another. Here, the levels of hostility and paranoia were very high, including Jake suggesting that suspenders were the entirety of Terry’s personality and Jake being upset that Rosa steals his “Title of your sex tape!” joke. And, as you might expect, Simmons commits completely to his character’s deadpan absurdity, particularly in the scene where he relentlessly quizzes Rosa about plot twists on Drake’s Hollow, the soap opera she claims to have been watching earlier in the day. And Holt’s lavish praise of Dillman has two marvelous payoffs after his hero proves to be a liar (and gets fired by Yarn Barn manager Alyssa): first with Dillman recognizing a micro-expression that tells him Holt has lost a lot of respect for him, then with Holt naming a new best detective (Sgt. Leslie Hunt Minkoff), who Jake has also never heard of.
Where “Trying” was a very different kind of episode than Nine-Nine had tried before, “Dillman” was just an example of the show playing to all of its strengths at the same time. Expecting something new every week at this stage isn’t fair, but it’s nice to see some of the old tricks still work when they’re executed this well.