Crossover episodes—that is, when the worlds of two TV shows collide—once a staple of sitcom programming for broadcast networks à la ABC’s TGIF, NBC’s Must See TV, CBS’s Shameless Monday, have become a rarity. This is due mainly to the reduction in live TV viewership and the newfound struggle to launch commercial hits worth branding.
Fox has certainly felt the effects of changing habits and technologies: Its live-action sitcom lineup is in pretty disastrous shape. Currently airing in the 8–9 pm block on Tuesday nights are its flagship comedies, New Girl (now in Season 6) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 4), which have pulled in paltry 1.0 ratings shares in the key demographic this television season, with less than 2.5 million weekly viewers tuning in live. Together, they easily rank dead last in the timeslot among the big five broadcast networks—and while they’ve held up reasonably well in quality, both feel a little ragged in this era of rapid content creation.
But without much around them—with The Last Man on Earth faring even worse with viewers and with newbie Son of Zorn too young to fully assess—Fox has been compelled to keep viewers interested. And the network went for a pretty retro gambit in getting people to pay attention to the two series again, if only for a week: a heavily promoted, admirably contrived crossover event that aired Tuesday night. In its conception, the opening Brooklyn Nine-Nine half-hour would find New Girl’s Jess (Zooey Deschanel) dropping into New York, only to inadvertently help Jake (Andy Samberg) on a case, while the New Girl installment to follow would provide backstory on how exactly Jess ended up in that mess in the first place.
It goes without saying that these are two very different shows that might not mesh so easily. But what was striking about Tuesday night’s crossover was the half-hearted execution. The presence of New Girl in the Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode “The Night Shift” amounted to nothing more than a cameo, with Jake flinging himself into Jess’—or specifically, as we’d come to learn, Schmidt’s mother Louise’s (Nora Dunn)—car and taking the wheel as she held a carton of hot soup in her lap. The scene lasted less than a minute and was erratic, pushing through forced banter on whether New York or L.A. (New Girl’s hometown) should be considered better, as the two sped through the streets of Manhattan. In New Girl, meanwhile, Brooklyn Nine-Nine characters popped up more frequently but were still sidelined from the main action. (There’s also a great cameo at the end that I won’t spoil here.)
Given their relatively small audiences, what a crossover could really have brought to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, or Fox overall remains unclear. But the structural benefit of the episodes airing back to back, playing with time and location, indicated some untapped creative potential—an opportunity to try out an ambitious construct or a more delicate plot weave. Instead the two mostly stood on their own as decent episodes, with cameos from each other’s series rendered either distracting, unnecessary, or both. The promise of a “crossover” felt a little disingenuous, even. When Jake finally got into Jess’ car and she knowingly exclaimed that “it’s a Crossover!”—describing the Crossover SUV she was driving but, well, you know—the show wittingly acknowledged the stunt but without spinning it in a more creative direction.
There were questions, certainly, that devotees of both shows were excited by: What would Jess and Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) interacting look like? Could audiences handle the first meeting between Schmidt (Max Greenfield) and Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz)? And might Winston (Lamorne Morris), a cop in New Girl, end up finding his way to Brooklyn’s 99th precinct? Crossover episodes are made for such fan theories to come to life—or, at least, to be toyed with. But this crossover managed to only hint at what could have been: Jess and Holt did meet in what was certainly the best “crossover” moment of the hour, but it felt arbitrary, going through the motions of establishing Jess’ flightiness and Holt’s highbrowedness. Indeed, if appealing to the series’ respective fan bases was the goal, it’s difficult to call this a success. There was no moment that comedically or narratively justified the overlap; beyond the cuteness of Nick (Jake Johnson) and Winston gathering subway change in New York or Gina (Chelsea Peretti) proving to be of most terrible help to Jess back at the 99th station, the lack of energy translated into a lack of purpose.
Both shows are the opposite of commercial successes at this point—their value lies in their quality, the comfort of aged familiarity that comes with being a sitcom only slightly past its prime. And so this “event” orchestrated by the network was a missed opportunity on both sides; the writers of New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine hardly embraced the concept, each prioritizing their own characters and storylines. And it’s hard to blame them, even as they undercut Fox’s obvious, perhaps desperate attempt at product integration. Staging a mediocre crossover was not going to bring more eyeballs, either from everyday viewers or critical minds, to the network. Rather, Fox was likely hoping for a burst of innovation—a chance for Brooklyn Nine-Nine and New Girl to leave a mark as they haven’t in years, or to at least provide a moment or two of ingenuity. But they made a different kind of statement instead, one that in retrospect should have seemed inevitable to the network’s executives: They’re old, they’re doing fine, they’re a little tired, and they’re better off left alone.