‘Battle Creek’: Does CBS have another cop show hit on its hands?

Starring Josh Duhamel and Dean Winters as mismatched cops, new CBS police procedural has the right mix of detective work and humor to become a hit.

Dean Winters and Josh Duhamel.
Left to right: Dean Winters as Det. Russ Agnew and Josh Duhamel as Special Agent Milt Chamberlain. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2014 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

WASHINGTON, March 1, 2015 – About 10 days ago we received an unusual PR package from CBS TV’s intrepid marketing people: A DVD containing not one preview episode but the entire season run of its brand new cop show, “Battle Creek.”

Based in the same small, down-and-out Michigan industrial city where Kellogg’s makes its headquarters, CBS’ newest dramedy offering debuts tonight, March 1, at 10 p.m. EST (9 p.m. Central).

The new series stars Dean Winters—whom some might remember as “Mayhem” in a recent series of TV insurance commercials—as rugged, down-to-earth local veteran detective Russ Agnew.

The series creators have paired him with his polar opposite, Special Agent Milt Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel) a tall, handsome FBI cop who, for some unknown reason, has been sent to Agnew’s largely unknown mess of a Rust Belt town from his posh former digs in D.C.’s FBI Headquarters Building.

In addition to having a strange sense of humor, Russ has developed a nasty edge of bitterness, largely as a result of having to solve crimes while operating in the grossly underfunded police force.

Meanwhile, Milt seems to coast his way through life, taking Russ on as his usual but unhappy partner and doing most of the face time on TV news reports. It’s an oil and water kind of relationship, bound to lead not only to trouble, but to great one-liners and quirky crime-solving as well.

Luckily for CBS, “Battle Creek” is the brainchild of Vince Gilligan and David Shore. If those names don’t exactly ring a bell, we should probably add that Gilligan created the monster cable hit “Breaking Bad” and its current smash successor, “Better Call Saul,” a brand new “Breaking Bad” prequel.

As for Shore, he was the brains behind another almost legendary hit series focusing on the inspired but strange genius of a brilliant doctor with the worst bedside manner in the history of medicine: Gregory House (Hugh Laurie), anti-hero of Fox TV’s durable series, “House.”

Gilligan and Shore penned tonight’s pilot episode, and Shore will run the series from that point, assuring the presence of a steady hand on the series’ helm.

As we’ve already hinted, “Battle Creek” offers a lighter, more idiosyncratic touch than most of the network’s dramas. But as the series develops, its disparate elements begin to gel in an entertaining and promising way.

As with most introductory episodes, tonight’s pilot episode is a little heavy on new character introductions. But we get through them quickly, and the characters themselves define themselves efficiently without eating unnecessary time from the plot clock.

That supporting cast, BTW, includes former “House” denizen and some-time Obama White House official Kai Penn as laissez-faire Detective Fontanelle White; Janet McTeer as yet another one of TV’s obligatory female police chiefs, this one named Commander Guziewicz (and note the authentic Midwestern Polish surname); foxy and all-too-cute Aubrey Dollar as Holly Dale, a mostly-office cop adored by Agnew who can’t bring himself to say it; and Edward Fordham Jr. as Aaron Funkhauser, the department’s token black cop with a broad sense of humor and an even broader waistline.

Judging from the six advance episodes we’ve watched thus far, we’d say that “Battle Creek” has a much better chance than usual of getting picked up next fall for a full season. The show’s pair of Odd Couple cops seems a bit artificial at the outset. But Winters and Duhamel grow in their roles, and their characters become more interesting and complex with each episode.

Stories increasingly take unexpected turns, many of them the result of Agnew’s attacking each case with conjecture and shoe leather—not having much of a budget to do anything else—while Chamberlain goes after the criminals with high-tech, state-of-the art FBI toys and profiling, both of which sometimes fail to work.

As each successive episode airs, the crimes get a bit more puzzling and the detective work gets increasingly complex. But there’s always time for some sardonic humor, most of it provided by the embittered Detective Agnew.

But, thus far at least, each show has arrived at a logical, if sometimes unexpected, conclusion, making it better than average as an entertaining cop show. Added to that is the big plus of a locale that isn’t Beverly Hills—likely attractive to most TV viewers, as the bulk of them, and the bulk of U.S. citizens, live in places whose names are not Los Angeles or New York.

If you’re looking for something new, “Battle Creek” is certainly worth a shot tonight. Give it two or three episodes, and you might just start making it a regular part of your Sunday night viewing, an antidote to the fact that you’ll have to wake up Monday morning and head off to another dreary job, a lot like the one Detective Agnew has to endure.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17