Braugher, Pierce make prime time a little better this fall

Alumni of 'Homicide,' 'The Wire' play supporting roles in two of the fall's more promising sitcoms

  • Andre Braugher (third from left) in the cast of Fox TV's "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"
Andre Braugher (third from left) in the cast of Fox TV's… (Photo courtesy of Fox )
September 16, 2013|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

As the new network season arrives this week, a couple of old familiar Baltimore faces have caught my eye: Andre Braugher and Wendell Pierce.

Happily, they are in two of the more promising series in an otherwise mostly lackluster field: “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (Fox) and “The Michael J. Fox Show” (NBC).

Neither is the headliner. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a sitcom set in a police precinct, stars Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta, a brilliant but impulsive young detective. “The Michael J. Fox Show” is a family comedy starring Fox as a New York anchorman who returns to the airwaves five years after retiring in the wake of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Braugher, you might remember, played one of those brilliant young detectives as Frank Pembleton on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which was filmed in Baltimore and premiered in 1993. In case nobody told you, it was one of the greatest cop dramas in the history of the medium, thanks in large part to his breakout performance.

This fall, he debuts as Ray Holt, a gay police captain who takes over the underperforming precinct out of which Peralta works. It’s the gay part of Holt’s identity that has gotten much of the notice for the series, which premieres at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on WBFF (Channel 45).

Credit creators Dan Goor and Mike Schur of “Parks and Recreation” for constructing a character who is multi-dimensional and not solely defined by his sexual orientation. If that sounds like faint praise, you haven’t been watching most network sitcoms lately where one-dimension is one-half dimension more than many characters exhibit.

There’s a moment near the end of the pilot that features Holt sitting in a police car late at night with Peralta and Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero), Peralta’s partner.

Peralta, who has been challenging Holt’s authority throughout the episode, says, “With all due respect, sir, why did it take you so long to get your own command?”

“Because I’m gay,” Holt says without hesitation.

“Seriously?” Peralta says looking confused and unsure of himself for the first time during the episode.

“I’m surprised you didn’t know,” Holt says matter of factly. “I don’t try to hide it.”

“When did you come out?” Santiago asks.

“About 25 years ago. The NYPD was not ready for an openly gay detective,” Holt replies.

“But then, the old guard died out, and suddenly they couldn’t wait to show off the fact that had a high-ranking gay officer,” he continues. “I made captain. But they put me in a public affairs unit. I was a good soldier. I helped recruitment. But all I ever wanted was my own command. And now, I’ve finally got it, and I’m not going to screw it up.”

That’s a lot of autobiography to pack into about a minute of screen time in a sitcom as three cops are waiting for a suspect to show. That’s also a lot of insight and nuanced understanding of the ways membership in a minority group can affect a career.

At first, being gay holds Holt back, by his account. But then, generational and societal change reach a point where institutions, especially a government institution like the NYPD, sees that it would be to its advantage to be seen as more diverse.

So, the gay police officer get promoted — but it’s into a job that to him is more about image than the kind of police work he wants to do

But he’s been a “good soldier” and waited it out. And now his time has come.

That’s smart and sensitive writing — certainly by the standards of network sitcoms, even by those of HBO.

And Braugher? Well, few actors can deliver a line with the authority, gravitas, command and dignity of Andre Braugher when he’s going deep with his voice and hard-edged with his stare. Braugher’s Capt. Ray Holt is a presence that demands and gets respect — even in this precinct full of hotdogs and goofballs who will remind some older viewers of the crew in the 1970s ABC sitcom “Barney Miller.”

As I watched Holt in the pilot, I couldn’t help but remember how Braugher blew me away in the pilot for “Homicide” 20 years ago.

It turns out Braugher was thinking about those days, too, on occasion as he filmed “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

“Sometimes, when I look out of my office, and I think, ‘Oh yeah, I’m Yaphet Kotto [the actor who played the captain on ‘Homicide’] now, right? And all of these gorgeous kids — they’re me and Kyle Secor and all the other young guys who were on the ‘Homicide’ show a million years ago,’” Braugher says in an NBC video interview.

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