[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” Season 5, Episode 11, “The Box.”]
Jake Peralta, Andy Samberg’s renegade goofy police officer on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” is a character that has always been built on intuition and a sharp appreciation of action movies. The cop movies Peralta grew up idolizing often lead him astray, but there’s always something in his approach that pays off at the end. This week’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” may have referenced “Die Hard,” but this bottle episode benefited from having its own Hannibal Lecter. And it needed the perfect actor to play the man behind the perfect crime.
Enter Sterling K. Brown. In a role that cements him as one of the most versatile TV actors working, Brown anchored one of the best “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” half hours in recent memory, providing the ideal foil to a tandem interrogation from Peralta and Captain Holt (Andre Braugher). As accused murderous dentist Philip Davidson, Brown’s icy demeanor strips away a lot of the natural warmth that’s made him a TV favorite in a very short amount of time. But the charm that’s powered his “American Crime Story” and “This is Us” characters is still there, for an even more effective purpose.
Much of “The Box” takes place in a small interrogation room, with Brown playing some of the familiar steely suspect tropes with ease. As Peralta whiffs on his various techniques, Davidson sits across the table from him with barely a furrowed brow. Luke Del Tredici’s fun “Encyclopedia Brown”-adjacent script and a sure directorial hand from Claire Scanlon lay the groundwork for Brown to deliver the real menace that makes you believe Peralta and Holt would be so flustered.
Davidson is a great character, even when he’s not the main focus of the scene. When Holt and Peralta trade strategy ideas behind the two-way mirror, watching Brown do a tiny little dance through the glass proves that he can be smooth even when he’s not sweet.
So much of Brown’s interpretation of Christopher Darden in “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” came down to giving a national spectacle some humanity. In his failures, there was a real source of empathy in someone who was largely defined by his shortcomings. In a half-hour comedy, how fun it is, then, to see Brown effortlessly embody everything his Darden could not do. Getting to play a villain toying with his prey is arguably a better use of his star presence — he’s very good at grounding real drama, but it’s also fun to see him take that charisma to an endpoint that leaves room for him not to be the likable one for once.
“The Box” is a great example of what “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” can do when it throws a wrench into its own rhythms. Jokes whizzing by at lightning speed (almost too fast to register Holt asking who Amy Adams is) require performers to cut straight to the punchline and not luxuriate in it too much. Even when Brown has to make those crazy faces in the rapid-fire back-and-forth, he gives it just enough of a difference to show that this is a character who enjoys acting almost as much as Brown seems to.
Through mannerisms, delivery and general demeanor, this episode needs someone who can embody this character instantly and consistently so that the Holt/Peralta stuff also has room to breathe. It’s that much more impressive that Brown can do all that without trading on a past of playing bad guys. It would be one thing if Willem Dafoe, Hugo Weaving or Javier Bardem slotted right into this equation, but Brown does all of this without using his career as a shortcut. He’s creating a confident suspect who’s so in control that he can make an impossibly unshakeable Holt lose control. (That hard cut to him exhausted in the main office area is so satisfying and so earned.)
And then there’s that laugh. Davidson’s cackle when Peralta tries to wear him down with an angry monologue is so absent of actual joy that it’s honestly more unsettling than it needs to be. You believe in that moment that he’s convinced that he’s won and that this is just icing on his perfect murder cake.
What “The Box” thankfully doesn’t do is pull its punches and give him a redemptive final moment. Even up through his hasty confession, this seems like the most fun Brown has had in role…possibly ever? (Unless singing Nickelback on live TV is way more fun than it looks.) “Black Panther” gave Brown the chance to play both sides of a single character, but this Davidson fellow is cold, through and through.
The ending of the episode is definitely abrupt, resting on the familiar idea that most murderers are desperate to be discovered and just want the recognition of a crime well done. But in a way, that’s an even better showcase for Brown. If he can do this with just a handful of scenes, imagine what he could do with a whole movie or even an entire series to play around with this side of his actor toolbox. (Maybe that chance is the upcoming “Predator” reboot? We’ll see.) He doesn’t have to be a killer, but someone smart is going to truly take advantage of what Brown is capable of when he’s not the nice guy.
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” airs Sunday nights on Fox.