CBS' promos for its new cop drama “Battle Creek” (Sunday at 10 p.m.) present it as a team up between “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan and “House” creator David Shore. This is only partially accurate.
Gilligan wrote the “Battle Creek” script over a decade ago, but CBS passed on it during that year's development cycle. Then he went off and gave the world Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, and suddenly “Battle Creek” – set in the eponymous Michigan city, involving a local cop and visiting FBI agent who awkwardly work together – became a much more desirable property. But with Gilligan busy doing “Better Call Saul,” Shore is the man in charge of day-today operations at “Battle Creek.”
This isn't a bad thing, necessarily. “House” at its best was a terrific mix of standalone mystery stories (albeit medical mysteries), humor and complex characterization – the kind of thing so many network procedurals claim they're trying to be, but that so few of them can actually pull off. His sensibility isn't Gilligan's, but he's one of the first people I would call if I were mounting a show like “Battle Creek.”
You just have to recalibrate your expectations if you're expecting an actual Vince Gilligan-style show – even on the level of his “X-Files” episodes (or the short-lived “Lone Gunmen” spin-off – rather than the solid cop show with a good cast and a quirky sense of humor that “Battle Creek” actually is.
As cynical cop Russ Agnew and Ken doll federal agent Milt Chamberlain, Dean Winters and Josh Duhamel make a good odd couple duo. Winters has plenty of experience in both crime drama (“Oz,” “Law & Order: SVU”) and comedy (his recurring role on “30 Rock” as beeper king Dennis Duffy, or his work as Mayhem in a popular series of Allstate ads(*)), and as the Battle Creek native frustrated with his department's limited budget and equipment, he nicely sets the tone for both halves of the show. In the early going, Duhamel is mainly asked to be someone whose perfection Winters can react to, but he has solid light comedy chops, and later episodes(**) allow him to have fun with the way Milt takes advantage of other people's assumptions about him.
(*) How strange that Winters and J.K. Simmons had their first big breaks together on “Oz” and two decades later are both spokescharacters for insurance companies. And when will Geico build a campaign around Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje?
(**) In a rarity for network TV, CBS sent critics all 13 episodes of this season in advance. I didn't have time to watch the whole batch, but saw the first three and then two later ones that make good use of guest stars Patton Oswalt and Candice Bergen.
It's not really a laugh out loud kind of show, but it's clever, understands the strengths of its actors – even if it doesn't always have room to give supporting castmembers like Kal Penn, Janet McTeer and Damon Herriman (Dewey Crowe!) enough to do – and lets its mysteries feel twisty in a fun way, rather than one just meant to string the audience along through the final commercial break.
CBS' long run of success over the past 15 years was built on the backs of smart procedurals like “CSI” and “NCIS” (and on their many less entertaining spin-offs and imitators). When the network deviates too much from that formula – with a “Joan of Arcadia,” a “Chaos” or a “Vegas” – the audience hasn't gone along with it. “Battle Creek” is more of a compromise (in the way that “The Good Wife” was to an extent when it started): formulaic in the major details, but idiosyncratic in the smaller ones. If you go in looking for another “Breaking Bad,” you'll be sorely disappointed – even if the second episode contains several visual nods to the work of Heisenberg – but if you're looking for a snappy cop show, you should do okay.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com