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In 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine,' Braugher's gay cop a welcome addition to prime time

If the pilot of cop show "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is any indication, police captain Ray Holt is well on his way to joining the pantheon of well-realized LGBT characters on network TV.

It's not that Holt (portrayed by "Homicide" alum Andre Braugher) is particularly central to the new Fox sitcom. That honor rests with Andy Samberg, who plays immature-but-brilliant Brooklyn detective Jake Peralta. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is built around the actor's well-proven hyperactive humor, albeit a little more restrained. To wit: In the pilot's cold open, Peralta recites a "Donnie Brasco" monologue in the middle of a crime scene and stages a fire-extinguisher roller derby in his office. Essentially, he's an unorthodox cop who hates to play by the rules. But rather than being an unethical rogue, he's a giant goofball.

To both allow Peralta's antics to shine and to temper them, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" introduces Holt as a stern new precinct captain with no patience for unprofessional behavior. He wants Peralta to wear a tie -- a grave offense, apparently -- and quit acting a fool. The detective (predictably) rebels against the new boss, and the central conflict of the show's pilot is whether Holt can get Peralta to grow up and respect his command.

That's a familiar trope, and in lesser hands, Holt could easily fall into stock character territory. But Braugher plays the captain as an imposing, placid figure with impeccable deadpan. Holt's uncompromising, to be sure, but his wry sensibility and dry delivery round him out in an important way.

So, also, does the fact that he's gay.

If tension between Holt-the-disciplinarian and Peralta-the-class-clown is what pushes this episode forward, it's Holt's sexual orientation that really drives that narrative. Holt came out 25 years ago, he tells Peralta and his partner, when "the NYPD was not ready for a gay captain." When diversity became advantageous for the force, police brass pushed Holt into a paper-pushing public affairs job where they could trot him out as a token gay while keeping him away from the pavement-pounding police work apparently reserved for real heterosexual men. (That kind of misogynistic and heternormative assumption gets challenged a few times in this show's pilot. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" actually offers a legitimately diverse cast but doesn't trumpet it.) Now that he's finally been put in charge of a precinct, he doesn't want to screw it up, which is meant to explain his hardline approach to Peralta.

The foray into Holt's backstory takes -- as Sun critic David Zurawik pointed out on Sunday -- about a minute of screen time. But that short period is packed with Holt's on-screen coming out, an acknowledgment that his sexuality's hardly a big deal - "I don't try to hide it," he tells a stunned Peralta - and a microcosmic look at LGBT history. When he came out, Holt was stigmatized, then moved to being showcased but sidelined before finally achieving a level of parity with his heterosexual colleagues. Most LGBT viewers - especially those of color, who rarely see themselves represented on network television - will easily understand how that shapes him. The fact that "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" could integrate that into a character's backstory, and still make it feel like an afterthought, is laudable.

What remains to be seen is how "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" integrates Holt's sexual orientation now that what The A.V. Club's Molly Eichel dubs the pilot's "Big Reveal" is out of the way. But if Braugher keeps firing on all cylinders and the tone of the pilot holds up, Capt. Ray Holt is poised to join TV's top ranks.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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