In a perfect world, every sitcom — no matter how jaw-clenchingly cheesy or overdone — would be like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” There would be no more relying on stereotypes, no more characters acting needlessly cruel to one another for the sake of a cheap laugh, no more reducing characters of color to poorly-written tokens. Unlike most network comedies, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” makes a noticeable and often fruitful effort to improve upon the sitcom format and provide an entertaining half-hour program without stooping to raunchy lows. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is today’s answer to recent sitcom legends like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” taking a simple concept — a New York City police precinct detective team deals with workplace and personal issues, most of which are uniformly lighthearted — and elevating it with a deft blend of sharp writing and brilliant characterization. By avoiding tired sitcom tropes and tackling the more problematic aspects of police work, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” stands out in the modern comedy lineup. Its fifth season promises to continue delivering clever, introspective laughs.

The season four finale saw Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) being sentenced to prison, falsely accused and wrongly convicted of robberies neither committed. “The Big House, Pt. 1” picks up a few weeks into their sentencing, with Peralta stuck at a crooked prison and Diaz at a women’s correctional facility. Peralta’s uptight girlfriend Amy (Melissa Fumero) and his best friend Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) are appropriately terrified and deeply miss Peralta. Diaz’s superiors Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) and Captain Ray Holt (Andre Braugher) attempt to help Diaz by completing increasingly ridiculous favors for her. It is Peralta’s story to tell, though, as he fumbles his way through prison life with the assistance of his cellmate and convicted child cannibalist Caleb (Tim Meadows, who sells the role). As a cop, Peralta quickly draws the ire of his fellow inmates and even some guards, placing his life at risk. However, he continues searching for a means of proving both his and Diaz’s innocence. He also struggles to find physical security in a gang, even if that means resorting to illegal undertaking — including Ramen smuggling — and allowing an unbalanced guard to mercilessly beat him three times just to see him fired. 

As sunny and irreverent as most “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” stories are, “The Big House, Pt. 1” is a surprisingly dark season premiere. From the unflinching depiction of prison life to the realistic fear and stress regarding a loved one being incarcerated, the episode does not refrain from emphasizing the severity of its characters’ situations, nor does it pull any punches portraying the injustices of the modern prison system (Peralta actually makes a comment about how difficult prison is for transgender inmates, proving he is just as woke behind bars). Peralta tries to remain optimistic, but his brand of frat-boy enthusiasm does not exactly go over well with the inmates, and even the unflappable Diaz admits to feeling scared by her situation. While the plotline will doubtlessly be resolved soon — almost every season of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” opens with the characters in a seemingly impossible predicament — “The Big House, Pt. 1” creates some suspense by committing to its dark, hopeless tone and plunging headfirst into the story.

The only issue with the episode’s refreshingly realistic and gritty depiction of prison life is that the trials of incarceration do not exactly translate well to comedy. Aside from a humorous cold opening that turns out to be a dream sequence — Boyle misses Peralta so much that he keeps falling asleep at work just to dream about him — there are few laughs or memorable moments. Splitting up the main cast of a show that depends on the dynamics between its characters for comedy is never a good idea, yet “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” keeps its characters isolated from one another, and the episode suffers as a result. Samberg is great as always, nervously lapsing into his catchphrase of “cool-cool-cool” after being asked to murder a guard and offering Ramen tips to a gang leader, but his banter with Caleb just cannot hold a candle to his repartee with the detectives at the precinct. Even the Diaz subplot, which should be funny given it features Crews’s delightful Terry and Braugher’s hysterically deadpan Holt — the two best characters on the show — comes off as too melancholy and uninspired to earn more than a few chuckles. Everyone is doing their best with the material given, but without having characters around to bounce jokes off of, the episode never takes off and remains relatively grim throughout.

However odd a season premiere, “The Big House, Pt. 1” is still an entertaining episode that confirms “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” will continue its legacy of deconstructing stereotypes and exploring the healthy relationships between its characters. As other networks unveil more sitcoms that depend on mean-spirited, two-dimensional characters and their cynical outlooks, it can become difficult to have any faith in the sitcom format at all. It may not be a perfect world, but as long as “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is airing and shooting finger guns, it isn’t quite so terrible.