‘Battle Creek’ Tries, But Fails, to Liven Up the Procedural Genre

CBS is mostly known for two things: Generic comedies that tend to last forever and predictable cop procedurals that birth multiple spin-offs. Battle Creek is of the latter variety, a slightly comedic drama about two mismatched officers created by Vince Gilligan and David Shore. It hits all of the expected beats in a procedural, but at the same time, it struggles to break free from the simplistic formula. Based on the pilot, it likely won’t succeed in doing so. 

Russ Agnew (Dean Winters, Law and Order: SVU30 Rock) is an effective but cynical detective in the eponymous Michigan small town. He’s cursed with trying to do his job for a police department that’s understaffed and underfunded, resulting in poor equipment and no batteries for the taser that fails to go off when he tries to subdue a suspect. For reasons that the show never exactly explains, Milt Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel, Las Vegas) arrives from the FBI to Battle Creek to join the force and become Russ’ … boss? Partner? There is a lot about this show that isn’t quite clear. The small town never had any real crime until Milt shows up and suddenly, on his first day, there’s a double homicide. What are the odds?!

From there, the show sort of devolves into The Odd Couple With Detectives — Russ and Milt disagree on basically everything, but mostly it’s just Russ resenting Milt’s good looks and good luck. They fall into good cop/bad cop routines, not to help interrogate a subject but because those are just their natural roles, and because they always have to be in opposition with each other. Their banter is forced and unrealistic and they too often fall into cop clichés (including one of my least favorite tropes in cop dramas: detectives condescendingly calling a black/Latino suspect “homeboy”). The writing can be very trying at times, like Russ responding to someone’s “How did he die?” question with “Negative reaction to a bullet going through his head.” It’s supposed to be darkly funny, to show how clever and sardonic Russ is but it just doesn’t work, not even with Winters’ usually-great delivery.

To be fair, Battle Creek has the potential to be fun and breezy and to let its cast (including Kal Penn) run loose with the tired genre. It’s aiming to break out of the procedural a bit, to focus more on its characters and their interactions rather than on the case-of-the-week (which I can’t imagine will be murder after murder considering this characterization of this town) but it’s not yet sure how to go about it. It’s too stuck on Wilt’s perfection and Russ’ cynicism to move any further along.

But there is some hope: David Shore, who is in charge of the series as Vince Gilligan (smartly) devotes his time to Better Call Saul, found gold with House and kept it going strong for multiple seasons even when it was seemingly the same story week after week. He has a way with these misanthropic characters and their interactions with a foil’s optimism, so it’s possible he could bring life to this series somewhere down the line (and, because it’s CBS, it could possibly be on for the next decade). The tough part will be viewers finding the patience to wait and see.