Imagine it: you’re a CBS intern who knocked over some dusty old files in the basement where you’re hiding from your mean studio boss, and there you see it: “created by Vince Gilligan.” No more internship for you! Hello VP of Development!
Yes, Battle Creek is a show Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan pitched over a decade ago to CBS, and they have sat on it until now. The Battle Creek you see today, though, is what would happen if you blended up all of CBS’s procedurals, and spit them out into one show. That doesn’t really scream “Vince Gilligan project” does it? One wonders how Gilligan imagined it then, and what made CBS pass on it originally, and how much it has been tinkered with. Because don’t let The Eye network fool you — Gilligan is listed as an executive producer, but it’s House creator David Shore who is running Battle Creek now.
Here’s the boilerplate of Battle Creek: reluctant law enforcement partners who are opposites, but whose differences help them solve cases together? Check. Office populated with sundries and oddballs who also tick off boxes for token diversity? Check. Hint of an office romance where neither party is brave enough to make a move? Check. Weekly crime to solve? Check. Super high-tech forensic work? Check. But still old-school police work? Check.
Despite its producer pedigree and Bryan Singer‘s direction in the pilot, Battle Creek feels extraordinarily ordinary. The setup is thus: grizzled Detective Russ Agnew (Dean Winters) is attempting to solve crimes in the small, dying Michigan town of Battle Creek with zero resources. The tasers are dead, the batteries don’t work, and the surveillance equipment won’t turn on. Michigan is apparently Under the Dome.
Luckily, Battle Creek is getting the high-tech and fully-funded help of the FBI, in the form of Josh Duhamel‘s Special Agent Milton Chamberlain. He’s charming and handsome, and has no good explanation of why he’s in that one-horse town spending oodles of Uncle Sam’s money, but who cares? He’s so handsome!
Russ and Milt come up against one another instantly, with Russ loathing Milt’s charmed life and endless resources. Though Russ tries to one-up Milt with his hard-boiled cop knowledge, every one of this schemes comes to nothing, as the Stepford-esque Milt smiles and has everything always go his way. The pilot episode (the only one available for review) spends a lot of its time allowing Russ and Milt to always have their full say in every scene, painstakingly highlighting how each of their approaches differ. It’s essentially CSI: The Odd Couple.
Battle Creek may have all of the elements of a familiar, though light-hearted, crime drama, but it doesn’t yet have any life to it (there’s an attempt at quirk with the fact everyone in town always eats coffee cake, but it falls flat). That’s a shame, because its cast is good — Duhamel and Winters do their best with the ironed-out material, and Janet McTeer and Kal Penn do even more with much less. As I always point out, pilots alone are hard to judge in some ways, because they are designed to be a broad introduction to the show. But when there’s a character who exists seemingly only to show he has really tiny teeth (played by Justified‘s Damon Herriman, who deserves so much better), one has to wonder.
CBS loves producing procedurals, and they are very, very successful at it. Battle Creek is not good, it’s not awful, it just exists. But in a TV landscape full of shows that are really, really good, and deserve time and viewers, the decision to not show up for Battle may not be much of a struggle at all.
★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated