Vince Gilligan is a pretty busy guy this year. In addition to the spin-off ‘Better Call Saul‘, the ‘Breaking Bad’ creator has also teamed with ‘House’ (or ‘House M.D.’, whatever you want to call it) creator David Shore for the new cop dramedy ‘Battle Creek’. Can the writers of some famously edgy TV shows survive under the pressures of a big mainstream network like CBS?
Make no mistake, both men’s instincts have clearly been watered down for public consumption. ‘Battle Creek’ is a rather safe, conventional and not particularly original series. But it’s not terrible, and that puts it on a level way above most CBS fare.
Dean Winters from ‘Rescue Me’ and those Allstate Insurance “Mayhem” commercials stars as Russ Agnew, a detective in the Battle Creek, MI police force. Like many things in Michigan these days, the department is underfunded, poorly-equipped and in pretty bad shape. As the pilot episode opens, Agnew and his partner (Kal Penn) can’t get their antiquated wire recording equipment to work, and resort to duct-taping a baby monitor with failing batteries to the underside of a diner table in order to listen in on a conversation between their snitch and a drug dealer. That plan does not go well.
Enter Josh Duhamel as Special Agent Milt Chamberlain (har har), a rising do-gooder hotshot in the FBI who has apparently irritated the wrong superiors into exiling him to a new FBI satellite office in Battle Creek. Milt has no illusions about what has happened to him, but is determined to put on a good face and pretend to be happy to help wherever he’s needed.
In contrast to the PD, Chamberlain’s satellite office (which consists only of himself and a secretary) is absurdly well funded and has all the resources of the federal government at his disposal. Naturally, this means that he and Agnew will butt heads. More specifically, it means that the jealous and intimidated Agnew will constantly try to one-up Chamberlain and prove that his street-smarts are superior to the fancy-pants FBI guy’s book-learnin’.
Will these two eventually learn to have a grudging respect for one another? Hmm, I wonder…
In the pilot episode, ‘The Battle Creek Way’, Agnew and Chamberlain are forced to team up to investigate the double homicide of a pair of meth cooks. (Gilligan’s influence there, no doubt.) The case has a twist where the kid they convince to lie during a police line-up in order to intimidate the drug dealer they think is the killer turns out to actually be the killer himself. The details aren’t important. The point is that, no matter how hard he tries, Agnew just can’t catch a break, while Chamberlain seems to walk on water and everything comes exceedingly easy to him – which of course only frustrates Agnew all the more.
The show has all the usual mismatched-cop-buddy tropes, and a fair amount of fish-out-of-water stuff for Chamberlain. It doesn’t break any new ground in any way, or even try. However, the cast is fairly appealing, some of the gags and banter are reasonably funny, and the writing is never so abjectly stupid that I hated watching it. By CBS standards, that’s a win. I doubt that I will go out of my way to watch again, but if I happened to come across another episode and had nothing else to watch at the time, I may not necessarily change the channel.