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In the end, Vince Gilligan’s brilliant Breaking Bad allowed him finally to sell the series idea for Battle Creek that he’d been pitching around town forever. And with Better Call Saul up and running as a spinoff of Breaking Bad, you could probably say that, despite the time lag, everything came up roses for Gilligan.
That luck extends to Battle Creek landing at CBS, the absolute best network for developing the kind of broad-appeal cop drama that Battle Creek is and that co-executive producer and showrunner David Shore (House M.D.) helps polish. Sunday’s premiere set up the premise in an entertaining, CBS-smooth kind of way, where Battle Creek, Mich., is the setting for a smallish city (50,000, according to the show) with bigger-city issues. The underfunded police department can be a dangerous place to work (in that kind of broadcast-network danger where the peril is sometimes funny as it’s happening and almost never shocking or brutal).
Detective Russ Agnew (Dean Winters) is the force’s best, racking up awards and commendations plus the respect of his boss, Commander Guziewicz (Janet McTeer), and the awe of his fellow detectives, including partner Fontanelle “Font” White (Kal Penn).
Agnew pines for the cop basics that are missing from his department — like equipment that actually works. The help he eventually gets comes from the FBI — in the personage of agent Milton (yes, Milt) Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel), the dashing and good-looking good guy who could not be more different than Agnew. That’s your basic flip-side cop pairing, but in this case, the casting (and the writing) really makes it work.
Winters is excellent as Agnew and proves through a number of episodes that his many supporting roles could easily have been leads. Duhamel’s charm and quick wit are essential here as well, but the best trick he pulls off is never being hammy or oily as everyone around him fawns over his good looks and nice-guy demeanor. This can’t be understated, since it adds to the humor and tone of the show — Chamberlain takes every compliment with class and charm and often thanks Agnew for compliments that were meant as put-downs. But Chamberlain is no empty suit — he knows how to solve complex crimes as well and makes a formidable partner.
Battle Creek is the kind of show where the crimes are just interesting enough to keep you hanging in there, but it’s the cast and the workplace-dramedy setting that hook you. Penn and Edward Fordham Jr. are eclectic detectives with the kind of added seasoning that makes a show like this work. Aubrey Dollar is the department’s office assistant who meddles just enough to be helpful and provides the lure of romance, even though it’s pretty old-school to have the dudes out solving crimes when the pretty women are back at the office.
Liza Lapira and Damon Herriman are also in Battle Creek, but not nearly enough (how to mix them in appears to be unresolved). McTeer, a superb actress, happily will get some of that good American-network TV money if Battle Creek succeeds — which is likely — but she, too, seems underserved here.
Shore knows how to guide a solid series and one that has quirks, as House proved. Battle Creek works best when it lays on the quirkiness and sputters a bit when it gets too coy or sappy about the crimes the detectives are solving. But the series, thanks to Winters and Duhamel, is very entertaining and kills an hour with ease (as most good CBS procedurals do). It looks like all these years later, Gilligan’s idea will pay off on the broadcast side, while he works simulataneously on the cable side — a resolution that should work for everybody, including viewers.
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