If ever there were words that should inspire confidence in TV viewers, they would be: “From the creators of ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘House.’ ”
Alas, “Battle Creek” — whose original pilot script was written 12 years ago by “Breaking Bad” mastermind Vince Gilligan and is being shepherded onto CBS Sunday at 10 p.m. by “House” leader David Shore — doesn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations built into that tease. But, honestly, what show possibly could?
Were “Battle Creek,” set in the Michigan city famed for its cereal exports, to come from a no-name producer, it would be a perfectly acceptable mismatched-cop dramedy. While it by no means reinvents the concept, it is an entertaining-enough diversion that has sufficient fresh — or freshly recycled — elements to differentiate it from its ubiquitous procedural brethren. It feels a bit like a small-town mashup of “Barney Miller” and “NYPD Blue,” with crimes ranging from the solemn (a double shooting) to the absurd (a drowning by maple syrup).
The show revolves around two alpha dogs of law enforcement and the plucky group of cops with whom they work.
First up is grumpy, cynical senior detective Russ Agnew (Dean Winters), whose grossly underfunded police department must deal with problems both ignominious and dangerous. Riding into town on a white horse is FBI agent Milt Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel), who bigfoots the department’s best cases with his endless resources — databases! mass spectrometers! a toothsome smile! — and approaches everyone from suspect to victim with a humane touch. Milt is welcomed with open arms, and some drooling, by most in Battle Creek. Not so Russ, who burns with white-hot resentment. He’s skeptical of a forced partnership with someone so seemingly earnest and naive — for instance Milt doesn’t believe in bluffing suspects with a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic.
Winters and Duhamel, who appears to be in possession of some miracle anti-aging formula, make for a good, prickly pair for the most part.
It’s clear there is a backstory to how Milt ended up in Battle Creek — probably an unflattering one — and Duhamel hints at the darkness lurking beneath the charisma.
The much more difficult role belongs to Winters, however, who has proven so adept at playing both comedic and dramatic roles, from “Oz” to “30 Rock.” Not only is he the “bad cop” — his character is the one who will threaten, pressure, and lie to get what he wants from a potential suspect, while Milt appeals to the heartstrings — but in the first three episodes, at least, Russ’s approach often doesn’t work. His suspicion of and anger toward the FBI agent — which Winters acts out effectively — seem unreasonably churlish, given that Milt’s instincts are usually correct and his tactics effective. But there is one element that sets “Battle Creek” apart and bodes well for the rest of the season: Russ despairs over his attitude, his jealousy, his self-doubt and openly wonders why he is so resistant. It’s a great moment of self-awareness not usually afforded characters in TV procedurals.
So far, the writing and acting are strong enough to make going up the “Creek” worthwhile.