Monday, March 2, 2015

Pilot Review: Battle Creek

Battle Creek (Sundays at 10:00 on CBS)

Welcome to CBS's newest (well, most recent, considering this pilot was first written over a decade ago) exercise in pointless mediocrity, Battle Creek: a show that blends some wonderful creative talents with a great, quirky cast and yet somehow still ends up feeling like the Dullest Dullard in Dullsville.

Let me start by saying that there's really nothing wrong with Battle Creek. It's a perfectly fine show with all the right parts working like a well-oiled machine. In other words, it's right at home on CBS, home of the paint-by-numbers police procedural. This latest series has just enough of an edge to make it stand out on the totally whitewashed (in more ways than one, if you look at the casts of their shows) network. This time around, the cops are from the small town of Battle Creek, Michigan, where resources are limited and so is the crime. Detective Russ Agnew (Oz's Dean Winters, otherwise known as the Mayhem Man from the Allstate commercials) takes his position a bit too seriously for a guy who spends his days breaking up homegrown meth labs and fielding calls from a crazy woman who thinks Magnum, P.I. is real and needs to be arrested. Luckily the FBI is opening a field office in Battle Creek (why?) and sends Special Agent Milt Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel, Las Vegas) to run lead... whether because he deserves or just to get him out of their hair is unclear. Soon after Milt's arrival, Russ and his team of weirdo coworkers (they include a male and female with the name Aaron/Erin and a guy with baby teeth nicknamed Niblet) get a double homicide case to solve, and Russ's overeager, small-town mindset is soon at odds with Milt's easygoing professionalism and access to cutting edge technology.

Most of what sets Battle Creek apart is its quirky cast, which includes a fun supporting turn from sitcom star Liza Lapira. These aren't the no-nonsense detectives typical of a crime show; they're oddities, especially in the world of procedurals: there's an Asian woman, an overweight black man, an Indian guy, and the aforementioned tiny-toothed Niblet. So they're not all exactly "weird," just atypical in that they're actually a diverse group of people... you know, like a normal assortment of coworkers. Oscar nominee Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) is the police chief, but don't expect much bluster: she's reserved and sweet, much like the show itself. Battle Creek doesn't seem interested in being anything more than a breezy, low-stakes dramedy full of slightly off-kilter people. It's an unsurprising collection of characters considering the pilot was co-created and co-written by House's David Shores and Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan (the latter of whom wrote the script way back in 2002 and now serves only as an executive producer), two writers known for character-driven shows with quirky ensembles. That's one of the things Battle Creek has working in its favor.

The rest, however, is a slog. The odd-couple buddy-cop pairing of Winters and Duhamel is uninteresting, a mixing of personality types we've seen done to death over the years. Winters turns in a really fun, anxious performance; Russ is the squad's resident overachiever, polishing off his plaques every morning after he picks up eclairs for his fellow officers. But being the best in Battle Creek is a far cry from being the best at your job, which Russ learns the hard way when Milt shows up. Younger, better looking, more charming, and with better tools at his disposal, Milt throws Russ's work life into chaos. There's nothing new to their relationship, and the chemistry between Winters and Duhamel isn't good enough to really sell the partnership in the way, say, Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic do on Castle. Duhamel isn't doing anything to prove that he's more than just a pretty face, and Winters deserves a better scene partner. Of course, it doesn't help that the crime Milt and Russ are solving in the pilot is an exercise in banality: drug deal gone wrong, dealers murdered, innocent victim, vengeful family member, yadda yadda. It's extremely well-trod territory.

What it all comes down to is that Battle Creek is as boring as the small town of its namesake. There's  nothing new or exciting in its premise, in its central pairing, in its writing, or in its direction (everything is muted browns and greys, and there aren't any chases or shootouts to liven the pace and plot). Everything is adequate, watchable even. But it's just so typical. It could be swapped with about a half-dozen other shows, and you would never know the difference.

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