[In case you've Forgotten, and as I will continue to mention each and every one of these posts that I do: This is *not* a review. Pilots change. Sometimes a lot. Often for the better. Sometimes for the worse. But they change. Actual reviews will be coming in September and perhaps October (and maybe midseason in some cases). This is, however, a brief gut reaction to not-for-air pilots. I know some people will be all “These are reviews.” If you've read me, you've read my reviews and you know this isn't what they look like.]
Show: “Battle Creek” (CBS – MIDSEASON)
The Pitch: “Hi! My name is Vince Gilligan. You might remember me from such shows as…” “Sold!” “Wait, but I'm not actually going to be available to do anything here.” “We *said* 'Sold.'” “Woo-hoo!”
Quick Response: Vince Gilligan's script for “Battle Creek,” which sat in a desk for a decade before getting a straight-to-series order from CBS, is NOT “Breaking Bad.” It's a goofier, lighter brew than what you're expecting and if I had to compare it to anything in Gilligan's filmography, I might actually go with something earlier and more comedic, like “Home Fries,” which NOBODY at CBS wants to hear. I liked “Home Fries.” It's kooky and charming. “Battle Creek” is also kooky and charming, but I can't say with certainty that that's what anybody at CBS is going to want it to be long-term, a long-term that will take place mostly with the very sturdy David Shore at the helm, rather than Gilligan. As befits its left-in-the-drawer origins, “Battle Creek” feels entirely unstuck-in-time, like it's set in 2014, but nothing in the narrative feels contemporary, the references are dated and the entire series flows like an '80s mismatched partners dramedy, like a rough-around-the-edges “Hardcastle & McCormack” or “Hart to Hart” or “Magnum.” There's instant amusing chemistry with Dean Winters and Kal Penn, plus Josh Duhamel, whose Ken Doll looks and posture are being used to fine effect. Janet McTeer is being underutilized, but there's potential for awesomeness and I wasn't immediately distracted by her American accent, which I sometimes am. And the supporting cast is well-suited for a straight-up comedy, with Damon Harriman, Liza Lapira, Grapevine and Aubrey Dollar all going for laughs. In fact, “Battle Creek” feels less like a CBS drama and more like an hour-long Midwestern “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” OK, it's not QUITE that broad, but it's definitely going more for “funny” than you might be guessing and not even the sort of dark chuckles that “Breaking Bad” aimed for. The pilot is full of quips and banter and larger-than-life performances and I'm not sure when I last remember Bryan Singer directing something with such a light touch, or at least not well (Sorry, “Jack the Giant Slayer”). And “Battle Creek” looks terrific as well. There's a nice amber glow to much of the proceedings, a filtering I'd describe as “Michigan-y,” or at least that's the intent, to make you think that look is natural. David Shore tried to remake “Rockford Files” at NBC a couple years ago — DERBIL! — and if they master the tone on a weekly basis, maybe this could be that kind of show. Or maybe not? It's hard to tell, because while I enjoyed watching “Battle Creek,” I found it a bit slippery. There's no real urban verisimilitude to ground it. There's no real seriousness to the case-of-the-week to ground it. There's only a little gravity to any of the character relationships to ground it, especially since when Dean Winter gets roughed up a little, you're just gonna go, “Oh, that wacky Mayhem,” rather than thinking Dean Winter can feel pain. There needs to be something to hold “Battle Creek” in place. For now it's playful, but insubstantial. CBS has a bad track record with this kind of thing.
Desire To Watch Again: Strong. The “Battle Creek” pilot has the cleverness you'd want from a show with its creative pedigree, but you may want/expect/hope for it to be “better.” But maybe it just wants to be clever and jaunty and a little sloppy? I'm definitely curious to see more.
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