Channel Vision: When unconventional comedic premises work

TV columnist Crystal Duan on why ‘Enlisted’ and ‘Brooklyn Nine Nine’ are actually funny

If I had a DVR, it would spontaneously combust from all the good TV I’d try to cram on it (luckily, Netflix has a lot of room on “My List”).

But even in this golden era, it’s rare for a show to hook me from the get-go, especially if it’s a comedy. Yet “Enlisted” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (both diamonds in the rough, the latter recently known as the underdog of the Golden Globes) had me in giggle fits at the pilot.

The two Fox shows did start out with unflattering trailers. Prior to its Jan. 10 premiere, “Enlisted” seemed like a pathetic attempt to let people see a light side to the lives of men in uniform. September previews of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” spun it as a carbon copy of a crime procedural that doubled as “The Andy Samberg Show.”

It’s a well-known fact that the best jokes play off the audience’s surprise. When we’re caught off-guard by a twist in expectations, we laugh.

So the overarching trick behind these two shows’ premises was that no one expected them to actually be funny — which made them more enjoyable, because everything is character-driven rather than focused on the potential morbid context.

“Enlisted” does an amazing job infusing heart and well-written jokes into its first 21 minutes. Everyone could have rolled their eyes as disgraced soldier Pete Hill (Geoff Stults) comes to a civilian base to deal with a misfit platoon that happens to include his two eccentric and estranged brothers, Derrick (Chris Lowell) and Randy (Parker Young). But the show writers flesh out the Three Bros-keteers so well that you catch yourself giggling and… liking them? Three reluctant heroes struggling with their manhood, challenged by the navigation of siblinghood?

But the begrudging affection and unmalicious undermining is what makes their snide chemistry realistic. The characters’ personalities — alpha and overprotective Pete, sarcastic Derrick, and hot mess Randy — are immediately made known, so the eccentricities actually make sense for a cohesive group dynamic.

That goes for the rest of the Rear Detachment unit, from Ryan Gosling-loving, elbow-knocking female Private Park (Tania Gunadi) to the unit leader Donald Cody (Keith David) who blames everything on his amputated foot to the tough-as-nails rival Sergeant Jill Perez (Angelique Cabral) whose race Pete is not above poking fun at (once again: realistic). And how can you not “awww” at these guys when they resolve an argument by “head-holding” each other in love?

Group dynamics also reign when it comes to “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Andy Samberg, everyone’s favorite genitalia-gifting, mother-loving and golden-rule-anointing “Saturday Night Live” cast member, is acting as a version of himself in “SNL” life as Detective Jake Peralta.

Making immature comments and displaying obnoxious bravado in the process, Peralta is effortlessly good at his job, but a new addition to his job description as golden boy requires him to have a degree of sensitivity toward new 99th precinct leader Captain Ray Holt (Andre Braugher).

Holt has been discriminated against for years because he is gay, but he isn’t your fabulous, fashion-judging, butt-slapping TV trope. No, this is a straightlaced authority figure who literally embodies the stereotypical “man’s man,” giving far more comedic meaning to the show with his poker-faced statements (when asked if he is upset: “I went to Barbados with my husband. We wove hats out of palm fronds and swam with the stingrays. I’ve never been happier.”) and occasional willingness to indulge Jake’s childlike side.

The rest of the precinct (Melissa Fumero, Stephanie Beatriz, Joe Lo Trugilo, Chelsea Peretti, and Terry Crews/the Old Spice guy) calls Jake out for his antics, instead of mindlessly humoring him like so many other ensemble casts with “that one famous guy.” Add that to the fact that they have (good) stand-alone storylines, and you have a cast with chemistry. Just like “Enlisted.”

More importantly, there are no insensitive digs at touchy topics … yet. No one’s died … yet. But with these shows, just like real-life soldiers and cops, you can trust that when the time comes, they’ll handle it well, likely with an appropriately placed laugh. Or two.

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