If “Battle Creek” is a solidly entertaining new cop show, why will some viewers and critics find it disappointing? Because it was created by Vince Gilligan and David Shore. The first guy created “Breaking Bad” and the second created “House.”
Right about here is where you could insert that threadbare quote from Scott Fitzgerald about the paucity of second acts in American lives, but even if “Battle Creek” isn’t as great as the signature series of its co-creators, it has its own charms, as evidenced in the full 13-episode season sent to critics before Sunday’s premiere on CBS.
Gilligan originally wrote the script for CBS a decade ago and, in a good way, it shows: While it doesn’t have the dramatically nuanced sweep of “Breaking Bad,” it does have Gilligan’s trademark blend of oddball humor and drama.
“Battle Creek” is meant to upend the concept of buddy cop shows. Detective Russ Agnew (Dean Winters) is a battle-weary local cop in Battle Creek, Mich. — yes, the place where the cereal comes from and in itself a symbol of another era, when breakfast was more than a Pop-Tart and triple macchiato to go. He’s weary of battles on and off the job. Nothing works at the underfunded, ill-equipped Battle Creek Police Department, and in spite of his obvious interest in office manager Holly Dale (Aubrey Dollar), he’s too afraid of rejection to ask her out.
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His colleagues include Detective Font White (Kal Penn), Detective Aaron Funkhauser (Edward “Grapevine” Fordham Jr.), Detective “Niblet” (Damon Herriman), nicknamed for his kernel-like teeth, Detective Jacocks (Liza Lapira) and Cmdr. Guziewicz (Janet McTeer).
The squad gets along as best as it can with outmoded equipment, mostly because nothing much ever happens in Battle Creek.
Then one day, there’s a new occupant in the office across the hall: classically handsome, perfectly tailored Milt Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel), the FBI’s local agent in charge of the Battle Creek office. Russ hates him on sight, while his co-workers collectively develop a huge agent-crush on him. Of course, Russ and Milt end up having to work together to solve a continuing crime wave in Battle Creek as the series becomes an episodic cop show set against a broader context of what makes Chamberlain tick and why someone so seemingly perfect at his job would be dispatched to the relative backwater of Battle Creek, Mich.
The series is admittedly uneven and suffers from a kind of identity confusion. Is it a straightforward episodic cop show or a quirky comedy-drama about mismatched cops? In Sunday’s pilot, the local cops resort to using a baby monitor to listen in on a conversation between Teddy the Snitch (Dustin Ybarra) and a drug dealer. In the second episode, Milt and Russ have to figure out how a guy found naked and tied to a tree managed to drown in maple syrup.
Yet other episodes seem fairly standard fare, entertaining and involving enough on their own but lacking the offbeat quirkiness of maple syrup drownings. If the “straightforward” episodes weren’t so well-written and directed, this could be a problem of consistency, but as it is, the series is fun and only slightly flawed.
The script does have a problem with predictability, but oddly enough, it’s a problem only because Gilligan and Shore are clearly determined to avoid it.
Here’s what I mean. There are two basic varieties of predictability in television. By far, the more common variety is that a setup of some kind immediately suggests an outcome that arrives on time a minute or a few minutes later. The other, a more unusual and generally more sophisticated variety, is what I call reverse predictability. It begins with a setup as well, but almost every time, the opposite of what you have been led to expect occurs.
That’s great, except that the more the gimmick of reverse predictability is used, guess what happens? The unpredictable becomes predictable, and that’s what you’ll begin to see as “Battle Creek” evolves.
We are supposed to care more than we really do about what’s beneath Milt’s gleaming surface, but the eventual revelation at the end of the first season at least makes a pretty decent episode. And it says a lot about the care with which the show has been crafted that you’ll find the “funny” episodes just as involving as the “serious” ones.
With the obvious exceptions of new shows on streaming platforms such as Amazon and Netflix, critics rarely get the chance to see an entire season at once. In fact, the last time I remember having that opportunity was with HBO’s “Luck,” and look how that turned out. The fact that CBS made all 13 episodes of “Battle Creek” available is somewhat of a gimmick, but at least it shows that the network is smart enough to back a new project by Gilligan and Shore for a full season. Any other decision would have been just flaky.
▪ “Battle Creek” airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on CBS.
▪ “Last Man on Earth,” Will Forte’s sitcom, debuts with two episodes starting at 8 p.m. Sunday on Fox. Its regular time slot will be at 8:30.
▪ “Secrets and Lies,” a drama starring Ryan Phillippe and Juliette Lewis, debuts with two episodes starting at 8 p.m. Sunday on ABC.