Sometimes I like to break down and study episodes of TV that I love. Partly this is because I’m a massive nerd with a tendency to obsess over how things work but mainly because it’s a really good exercise to build and sharpen my skills as a writer and script editor.
This blog definitely needs some content so I thought it might be fun to share some of those breakdowns with you (spoilers of course lie ahead)!
ONE GREAT EPISODE: Brooklyn 99 - ‘Debbie’ (S7.5)
Created by Dan Goor & Michael Schur
Written by Marcy Jarreau
I was really excited when Vanessa Bayer was introduced as Holt’s partner Debbie Fogle at the start of Series 7, for those who don’t watch SNL she’s pretty much an expert in ‘manic’ and I thought could’ve added a new wrinkle to the squad. To my disappointment she only really got a few lines here and there in the first couple of episodes of the series, I had faith the Brooklyn 99 writers weren’t going to waste her but I needed to know more about Debbie.
In a twist I definitely didn’t see coming she’s inspired by Boyle’s Greatest Showman tribute to follow her dreams in episode 4, unfortunately for the squad her dreams are about stealing cocaine and drugs from the lock-up!
Episode 5 starts the day after the cliffhanger before…
Brooklyn 99 has always used elements of the police procedural and in particular, the show loves a bit of mystery to hang the story on. It plays with audience expectations by showing Debbie moving between the characters as the squad tries to figure out who broke into the lock-up. By the end of the cold open we’ve flipped the usual formula with Debbie’s demands that Jake kill the culprit and attempts to blame Hot Tub Brian making it very clear to everyone that she’s responsible. With Holt’s lines about the jail time we’ve set up the stakes for Debbie but as an audience we don’t quite know where we’re going.
The first scene after the cold open plays with these expectations again by suggesting Debbie might escape and go on the run. The show also enjoys a manhunt (womanhunt?) storyline and has done them to good effect. A Scully clothesline with a very Scully joke puts pay to that and again we’re left wondering where the episode is going.
We then get a bit of an exposition scene led by Terry (taking over this role with Holt demoted) and we’re on track with the story. Debbie (who we still don’t quite understand) has hidden the drugs and is planning to return them to notorious criminal Silvio Nucci. She might not realise it but whatever she does her life is in danger. We have a plot but we don’t quite have a story…
It’s at this point the episode really gets going. The whole squad is together and at the centre we have a really interesting conflict. Like many workplace sitcoms the Brooklyn 99 crew at one point stop being colleagues and become a family. This makes you more invested in the group but can make conflicts between main characters (the best kind) harder to find, in these situations, you can end up falling into overusing outside threats (e.g - Revolving bosses in The Office post-Michael).
The conflict about what to do with Debbie and how to treat her is very real and standing at either end of the scale are Jake and Rosa with opinions strongly rooted in their characters. Jake relates to someone who made a mistake but needs to fix it whilst Rosa the loner thinks Debbie needs to deal with and atone for her mistake alone. It’s on theme for the show, it fits the characters and it challenges the audience to pick a side for themselves and therefore invest in the outcome. It’s a really great Brooklyn 99 story!
From here the story has momentum and we’re going to enter lots of situations with comic potential. We’re hooked as Jake and Rosa fake being corrupt cops to side with self-professed ‘succulent’ Debbie and we’re physically moving as we head into the first act break.
Act 1 accomplishes a lot of set-up with some fun twists on the usual formula but it’s in Act 2 that the story really comes alive and the jokes start coming thick and fast.
Immediately we’re given a glimpse of what our characters are in for as we learn more about Debbie - she’s doing it for the money but mainly so she can help her sick Father (keeping Jake and Rosa’s debate even). We also get some information about Debbie and her self-defence capabilities, this is set up for multiple pay-offs later on but it’s hidden by some great one-liners and Bayer’s brilliant performance. For newer writers this is a good scene to study if you want to see how a ‘mechanical’ task can work on different levels.
From here we have our first shift in the Rosa-Jake dynamic as they leave the room and then return to find Debbie holding the guns and quite majorly coked-up. Maybe Rosa is right about Debbie being a loose cannon…
We’re 8 minutes into the episode before we get the real start of our B-story, it’s a very slight story and would usually probably only be a C story but this episode just has the two strands so that makes it the B Story! In it Boyle, Holt and Amy are trying to read through Debbie’s mountains of diaries whilst Terry attempts to motivate them. There’s fun to be had with Holt and Amy’s competitive streaks ignited by a speed reading competition and we get more of Holt’s Season 7 sassiness that comes along with him falling to the bottom of the hierarchy as a uniform officer.
We also get a little bit of the tension that now exists between Holt and Terry due to the change in circumstances. You don’t get lots of it in this episode but it’s always fun when a writing staff discovers a new comic relationship to exploit and the Holt and Terry scenes in Season 7 are really funny and quite far from the more serious relationship of earlier series.
From here we’re back to our main plot and probably my favourite scene of the episode. In a few short exchanges the writers ramp up the tension with Debbie doing more coke and arranging the drop-off, drop in some hilarious comedy as the characters discuss their fantasies about international sex symbol Mr Bean (inspired choice) and we build some one-sided sexual tension between Debbie and Jake. This new dynamic is then joined by a change in one of the existing dynamics as Rosa tries to arrest Debbie but is overpowered by the coked-up karate machine. We’re left with a real cliffhanger for the end of Act 2 Mid-Point.
We come back from the ads to find we’re left with Debbie and Jake (faking his corruption still) vs Rosa. We have some bonding and then another turn as Jake’s phone is destroyed.
It’s then back to the B plot with Terry fanning the flames and Boyle entering the conflict as the self-proclaimed tortoise who believes slow and steady and actually reading and taking in the diaries will win the race. Amy and Holt belittle him and the audience is given an expectation for the end of this story…
Things are even worse for Jake now as Debbie has spent the money on a crazy Air BnB and proclaimed herself a ‘mansion girl’. Her lawyer brother who ISN’T afraid of ghosts has paid for her Dad’s surgery and Rosa’s viewpoint has been strongly validated. We’re challenged to lose sympathy for Debbie but this is pulled back when her Mother arrives at the mansion.
Debbie’s Mom (it’s an American show!) represents another life in danger but she also offers an explanation for some of Debbie’s behaviours. One of the few things I think this episode could do better is foreground Debbie’s conflict with her Mother before she arrives. Spoiler Alert - her fraught relationship with her Mom is key to the resolution and allows Rosa to connect with her but we only get what feel like breadcrumbs suggesting the importance of this relationship to Debbie. It’s not a huge thing but personally I think a couple more mentions would help this really land later on.
The B plot amps up the competition with Amy’s paper burn, we get a Charles eye roll as it heads toward its 'inevitable' conclusion.
We then return to the mansion where Debbie’s conflict with her Mom quickly escalates. Jake tries to use her attraction to him (a brilliant exchange involving the word babe and Epcot) to calm things down but having given up on talking her round then tries to arrest her (mirroring the end of Act 2). Again the karate skills joke pays off and we’re left with an armed Debbie holding Jake, Rosa and her Mom prisoner.
Act 4 begins with Debbie against the world and Nucci’s arrival imminent. Previously the comedy has been emphasized but now the characters and the audience are brought back to the gravity of the situation (few shows do this as well as Brooklyn 99) with Jake and Rosa pointing out that Nucci will kill them and possibly Debbie. It’s the moment of truth.
Things escalate and then wrap up in the B plot as it's linked back to the A plot by some Terry exposition. Charles makes a connection to Debbie’s Mom and starts saying ‘slow and steady wins the—‘ but he’s cut off by Holt and Amy who’ve retained huge amounts of information that will help them find Debbie despite moving at such speed. Like I said the B plot is quite slight and really just exists to give the other characters something to do but I think this can be forgiven to an extent because of the way it subverts and plays with our expectation of what this story SHOULD be.
Jake and Rosa are staring down the barrel of the gun and their views are tested by Debbie acting as the embodiment of their debate - she’s clearly wild but she’s also a human being who's made mistakes and stumbled into a situation she can’t control, to make it worse her Mom refuses to help her and actively disowns her due to embarrassment. Jake’s values have been thoroughly tested by everything that happens but it’s Rosa who blinks first and changes her mind. She admits tough love didn’t make her stronger and that doing bad things doesn’t make you a bad person. I think Rosa episodes can be tough and it takes a lot for any shift in her character to feel real and earned but this episode succeeds in doing that and we even get a deserved hug with Debbie!
Nucci arrives but is met with Debbie and her friends Jake and Rose (what she craved all along). Nucci is a bit ‘generic gangster’ but I think that’s probably a good call with Debbie bringing all the silly energy. He’s a function of the plot and gives us our final moment of jeopardy when he grabs Debbie and final pay off of her karate skills (Rule of Three baby!). The cavalry arrive and the team are reunited.
Over the credits we get a final quick scene with Jake and Rosa where we discover Debbie’s fate. We don’t NEED to know what happened to Debbie for story purposes (although I hope in true 99 fashion we see her again in S8) but she’s so endearing that I’d venture this reassurance that she’s going to be OK is necessary for the audience. We also get a reset and reminder that Rosa will forever and always be a total bad ass.
Conclusions & Things to Learn
Rosa episodes I would say are some of the hardest to do well. We love her because she’s strong, steadfast and kind of mysterious. What the episode does so well is set her in opposition to the more malleable Jake by creating a conflict that works with her character but then also gives us the force of nature Debbie to challenge both her and the traits that define her. Vanessa Bayer is a genius and steals every scene she’s in but that doesn’t negatively impact the story because it has such strong roots in character.
As I said the B plot is quite slight and isn’t especially connected to the A-plot or its themes, maybe this is just to give us more Debbie comedy (fine by me). Amy and Holt are always a pair who work well together and it’s really interesting to compare their dynamic here with earlier seasons (great shows need to evolve and B99 definitely does). It’s also redeemed by the way it subverts the usual ‘lesson’ of this kind of story. I feel a bit sorry for Boyle who has to play straight and is maybe a little underserved (apart from a cracking joke about an app he and Debbie both play) but he gets his moment to shine in ‘Dillman’ later in the series and is still probably my favourite character of the whole crew.
Overall this is a great example of how to do a later series episode of a show right. For me Series 7 starts off a little slow but from here on in it picks up a real head of steam and many of the episodes in the second half could stand alongside episodes from any other series. Bring on Series 8!