One episode of the first season of “Battle Creek” was provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
When looking at CBS’s current drama lineup, it’s easy to see how Battle Creek will make a nice fit by virtue of standing out. In the network’s primetime-programming block, you’ll find no shortage of vics and perps, but a distinct scarcity of comedy. Five of its seven weekly 10PMs are already filled by crime-focused spinoffs, literary adaptations, or paranoia thrillers, so for CBS to round out the numbers with yet another cop show makes sense. The network is nonpareil when it comes to dredging up dead bodies, but with Battle Creek, it tries to run down a few Sunday night laughs, with inconclusive results.
Occupying a space somewhere between the reformatted familiarities of CSI: Cyber and NCIS: Los Angeles, and original-enough ventures like Blue Bloods and Person of Interest, Battle Creek’s novelty lies in its throwback appeal. It’s an unabashed revival of a format that has more in common with 1982’s 48 Hrs. than the network’s own 48 Hours: the mismatched partner comedy. Setup as a slobs versus snobs clash of law enforcement cultures, Battle Creek’s pilot settles on a much headier, if confused battle of cynics and optimists.
By the end of Sunday night’s premiere, it’s hard to tell just which camp you’ll fall into with regards to the potential of Battle Creek. With a byline that reads as more laughably cliché than anything you’ll chuckle at during its first hour, the premise of Battle Creek is every bit as outdated as the 10+ year-old script on which it is based. Point: Cynics. That script, however, comes from Breaking Bad mastermind Vince Gilligan, who cut his teeth on network procedurals well before he abandoned the format for serialized television.
That’d be point Optimists for the series as a whole, were it not for the fact that Gilligan is currently busy with his victory lap around Albuquerque. Through just one episode, his brand of black comedy and intricate plotting feels absent, with about the only residue of Gilligan flavor to be found being an offhand mention of meth. It’s from House showrunner, and fellow executive producer David Shore that hope for Battle Creek springs. Through its mostly respectable lifespan, House offered a staging ground for worldviews across medical and moral jurisdictions, so the framework for a procedural starring existential opposites is a familiar one in Shore’s hands.
Dean Winters, a regular on the network cop show beat, fits comfortably into the skin, if not necessarily the persona of callus detective Russ Agnew, the pragmatic but popular lead investigator of Battle Creek, Michigan’s underfunded police department. It’s both blessing and curse that Winters has an established knack for comedy, as the offset between his dogged determination and misanthropic view of police work doesn’t strike a proper balance by the first hour’s end.
More consistent is Russ’ new partner and ideological adversary, Special Agent Milton Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel), an F.B.I. golden boy who’s good at everything, as evidenced by his introduction by a co-worker who literally tells him he’s good at everything. Transferred to Battle Creek as an F.B.I. liaison for the struggling local law enforcement, Chamberlain’s resources, looks, and outlook provide the sweet to Russ’ sour.
In the early goings, the economic contrasts between the two leads, and the ones between Battle Creek and its CBS contemporaries, make a decent case for its existence. The opening bust Russ and his partner (Kal Penn) have to make is complicated by budget constraints, making on-the-job improv a clever potential avenue for the show. “We could just shoot people,” Penn’s Detective White dryly proposes to his Commander (Janet McTeer), a joke that might play queasy-at-best on other cop shows. Here, though, the desperate ingenuity required of Russ and company gives the initial crime-solving a throwback taste, where clues are found by knocking door-to-door, not mocking up an elaborate 3D computer model.