In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Andre Braugher's Captain Holt was the ultimate role model
The stony-faced superior was the real beating heart of this offbeat comedy.
Very few celebrity deaths have hit this writer as hard as Andre Braugher’s. Sure, I’ve never met the man, although plenty of heartfelt tributes from his colleagues suggest he was a charming, friendly guy away from the camera, but in Captain Raymond Holt, the deadpan police chief in zany sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the 61-year-old portrayed a character that played a big role in my life.
When I first stumbled across Nine-Nine, as a naive college student who was still figuring out who he was, it was very much Andy Samberg’s mistake-prone, constantly-resorting-to-humour-as-a-defence-mechanism detective Jake Peralta that I felt the strongest connection to.
The serial mistake-maker projected an unbothered exterior, but internally, secretly, wanted to be the best around. In short, 17-year-old me could relate.
Yet over the years, as I grew up along with the show across its eight seasons, it was Braugher’s Captain Holt that I ultimately came to admire most. An authority figure and leader who was both stern but sympathetic, who knew when to take a joke but also knew when to, for want of a better phrase, lay down the law, he was a fully fleshed-out person that transcended the sitcom he was in.
Without a doubt, Braugher’s comedic chops will likely be what most people remember from his time on the show. Shouts of "hot damn!" and "bone?!" have created phenomenal GIFs that will stand the test of time. Terms like "bingpot" have become part of many people’s vocabulary, including my own. And his petty head-to-head with career-long rival Madeline Wuntch will never not be funny.
More like this
But it was the actor’s dramatic capabilities that really made his character stand out. While Braugher shone in Nine-Nine – a comedy – the man was a stage actor at heart, a theatre fanatic who received his training at one of the most prestigious schools in the industry, and viewers would regularly witness his true talent in heartfelt moments that spoke not just to the characters on screen, but to those at home.
The dynamic between Peralta and Holt is perhaps the most touching mentor-mentee relationship in sitcom history as, across eight years, the accomplished and self-assured Holt moulds Peralta into an accomplished and self-assured man, increasingly growing in respect for the detective as time goes on.
When we first meet Holt in episode 1, it appears he has little time for the childish figure, but even in early scenes we get the sense that he knows there is a talented detective hidden under his seemingly carefree act. So he sets about teaching Peralta the importance of teamwork and discipline, challenging him to push himself, and bringing him back down to earth when his head gets too big.
As Peralta faces challenging tests in his personal and professional life, Holt is always there to lend a listening ear or a word of advice, never leaving this ultimately scared young man to fight battles on his own.
Early on, when Peralta is freaking out about Amy potentially leaving the force for a different department, it’s Holt who encourages him to be there for his friend. And later on, when he’s worried about making a relationship work with Amy, it’s Holt who keeps him calm and measured.
And by the season finale, Holt’s work is complete, with Peralta becoming a confident and assured adult in his own right, someone who is so evolved that he no longer feels the need to tie his identity to his work, instead stepping back from the force to focus on what life is really all about.
Acknowledging how far Peralta has come, Holt utters in the tear-jerking finale, as he sees off his protégé ahead of his life away from tackling crime, "Over the years, you've sometimes referred to me as something of a father figure. But I want you to know, if I had had a son, and he had turned out like you, I would be very proud of him."
When looking around the real world right now, there appears to be an absence of proper leaders (I’m looking at you, Westminster), but in Holt, Braugher developed a character that showed what it really meant to lead, to take responsibility and to help others, and that feels more poignant than ever.
What makes him even more inspirational, though, is that while he was constantly fighting for those around him, he was also fighting – and had always fought – his own battles.
In the season 1 episode Full Boyle, Holt delivers the line, "You know what the toughest part about being a gay Black police officer is? The discrimination." This "observational humour" is largely there for laughs, with Braugher’s stony delivery deliciously juxtaposing the severity of his 'joke', but it also speaks to the challenges that this character faced throughout his career to achieve his goals.
Despite clearly being intelligent, patient and incredibly good at his job, Holt faced setback after setback in his early career, to the point where Kevin, his husband, can barely stand the idea of being in a room with police officers when we first meet him. For the future deputy commissioner to not only overcome this adversity, but to do so with calm and grace, is a testament to the strength of his character.
Throughout the show, at no point does Holt channel bitterness or resentment towards those who wronged him or the institution he works for, but instead he strives to make sure the next generation of Holts have an easier time of it.
As he admits to Rosa in an early episode, Fancy Brudgom, when he was younger he wanted to become a captain so he could "throw some lightning bolts", rather than get zapped himself. But by the time we meet him, he is measured and mature, moving on from seeking revenge to seeking a better future.
For all of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s positives, one criticism it consistently received was its willingness to show the police force in an overly positive light, to brush over the many problems it faces.
Yet through Holt’s character arc, the show offers a damning indictment of his employer's history – and its present – all while allowing Holt to use that struggle to become a better person than those around him, ultimately becoming a winner in an institution that, at times, desperately wanted him to lose.
Throughout Braugher’s esteemed career, the Chicagoan delivered plenty of powerful performances, and shouldn’t solely be remembered for his time on this largely silly sitcom. But there’s no doubt that, across almost a decade, he crafted a character who everyone can look up to, a leader who channelled resilience and care, and who used his experiences and challenges to help others.
At a time when empathy and leadership feel like they’re sorely lacking from our leaders in the real world, many can learn a thing or two from the captain of this fictional one.