While it feels like the more luxe bastions of cable and streaming TV create new stars every week — we’re going to make the On My Block kids a Thing, darn it! — network television seems far less successful in that arena of late. Yet, there has been one unquestionable breakout star from the world of traditional, core four TV, and his name is Sterling K. Brown. The This Is Us star is so relentlessly charming that when you picture him in your mind, he’s probably beaming with his ridiculously disarming smile.
Since Brown’s 2016 transformation into a television powerhouse, complete with back-to-back Emmy wins, it’s difficult to see the man best known as Randall Pearson as anything other than a walking, talking, extremely handsome, dad joke come to life. Except, the actor’s guest starring appearance on Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Sunday night episode, “The Box,” just might change the way you look at Brown, and resident This Is Us good guy Randall forever. On B99, Sterling K. Brown plays a cold-blooded murderer.
The reason Brown’s short-lived tenure on Nine-Nine, one of TV’s best comedies, by the way, is so unsettling is because of how similar his FOX character, dentist-slash-actual killer Philip Davidson, is to Randall. They even both tend to wear the uniform of all middle-aged-but-cool professional men: a crisp, basic-hued button-down, an open, complimentary-colored jacket, and slim-fitting tan pants.
But, more importantly, both fictional men are total perfectionists. So much of Randall’s character is built around his near-obsessive need to do everything flawlessly and have everyone notice as much. It’s why as a child, Young Randall (Lonnie Chavis) had a near-panic attack over his preferred Halloween trick-or-treating route. That led to his teenage anxieties over every piece of homework and every paper. And, finally, as an adult, we’ve been privy to all the crippling stress Randall has put himself under since the beginning of This Is Us.
Randall avoided finishing up his foster parent paperwork out of fear he wouldn’t be the perfect foster father. A decade earlier, he went momentarily blind because he was so terrified he wasn’t going to be a perfect biological dad. He even unwittingly unleashed an army of roaches into the low-income apartment building he bought just to prove to the tenants he would be the perfect landlord.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Philip Davidson is equally focused on perfection, albeit through a much more nefarious lens. When we first meet the murderous dentist, he perfectly defends himself against Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Raymond Holt’s (Andre Braugher) interrogation techniques in much the same ultra-intelligent manner as Randall would. That’s why Philip outlasts the trained detectives for almost 20 minutes in television time and nearly 11 hours in Brooklyn Nine-Nine time. Philip knows all the right answers.
Then, just as Philip is about to be released from police custody, Jake starts monologuing about how he believes his suspect murdered his business partner. The key to the story Jake tells is that it frames Philip as messy and impulsive in his killing, and proves he only got away with it because he was “lucky,” a word Jake uses at least three times. This, more than anything, gets under the dentist’s skin — how dare someone accuse him of “losing all control” and being a “flustered,” “panicked” killer when he obviously crafted the perfect crime? So, Philip explains as much.
“It wasn’t luck!” he yells before detailing his entire, extremely well thought out premeditated murder plot. “I made a rod out of a special dental polymer, killed him with it, and then melted it back down. It’s already in a patient’s mouth, son!”
As Jake explains to Holt after getting the confession, “He needed us to know how smart he was,” and the detective used that fatal flaw against Philip. That sentiment is the dark echo of Randall’s own emotional “The Trip” revelation to Ghost Jack, “I spent my life striving for perfection. You know why, Dad? Because I live in fear that if I let up for a moment, I will remember that I am unwanted. And then what’ll happen to me?” All of a sudden, it’s pretty easy to imagine why Randall Pearson would plan a murder, and how he would avoid ever getting caught.
All of this bloody, prideful malevolence might seem out of character for Brown, who is everyone’s favorite corny dad on This Is Us and brought beleaguered good guy Christopher Darden to life on American Crime Story, but, that’s not exactly the case.
The actor has been bopping around television for well over a decade and was first brought to my attention by Supernatural, 12 whole years ago. The now-Emmy winner played Gordon Walker, a vampire hunter whose obsession with eradicating the deadly creatures turns the would-be hero into just as much of a monster as his fanged targets. By the last of Gordon’s four appearances on Supernatural, he ends up becoming a bloodthirsty, red-eyed vampire too, and sentences an innocent young woman to death as a way to gain revenge against the Winchester brothers. Unsurprisingly, Gordon's plan fails and Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) beheads him with a bunch of metal wiring. Even while experiencing one of early Supernatural’s most disturbing deaths, Gordon was still fearsome, growling and flashing his sea monster-esque fangs until his head was separated from his body.
So, let's all remember that's a lot more of an edge hiding under Randall Pearson's dad sweaters and eye roll-worthy jokes.
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