A bit of an outlier for CBS, “Battle Creek” has about as much heft as the prize in a box of cereal, yet it’s also a great deal of fun. A long-dormant, pre-“Breaking Bad” script from Vince Gilligan provides the foundation for this lighthearted series produced under the stewardship of “House’s” David Shore, with Josh Duhamel and Dean Winters well cast as mismatched lawmen. Tonally similar to “Picket Fences,” the concept becomes a bit more mundane as the episodes progress. At least initially, though, the mix of quirky comedy and drama seems nicely suited to its post-“The Good Wife” precinct.
Winters plays Det. Russ Agnew, the standout cop on an underfunded force in the relatively quiet confines of Battle Creek, Mich., whose world is turned topsy-turvy by the arrival of Special Agent Milton Chamberlain (Duhamel), the straight-out-of-central-casting FBI operative stationed there.
He’s part philosopher, part charmer, all dreamboat, and everyone other than Russ is almost immediately in awe of his leading-man looks and access to cutting-edge equipment. Moreover, he quickly lands a double homicide in a town, as Russ notes, which never gets them.
If Milt (yes, Milt Chamberlain, hoops fans) appears too good to be true and says all the right things, there are hints he might harbor a darker side — and Russ’ skepticism as to whether Milt can be trusted, and his search for his Achilles heel, becomes an ongoing through-line in the opening batch of episodes.
For Winters, an alum of “Oz” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” it’s certainly a welcome step up from those irritating Allstate commercials, while Duhamel is one of the few current actors who leap to mind as being able to invest Milt with Sir Lancelot-like qualities despite a role that’s purposefully written not to delve much beneath the surface. Right off the bat, the interplay between the two characters in the Bryan Singer-directed pilot (another link to “House”) hints at a chemistry the show will need, inasmuch as the bickering cops/grudging partners formula is such a familiar one.
While “Battle Creek” hews relatively close to CBS’ procedural comfort zone, the series also exhibits the wry, slightly jaundiced view of the world that has always characterized Gilligan’s work. Later episodes, for example, feature a maple syrup “cartel” and, inevitably, a “cereal killer.”
That said, this is still pretty meat-and-potatoes fare, in terms of constructing hours around a quickly solved crime, taking too little advantage of supporting players like Janet McTeer and Kal Penn as Russ’ boss and fellow detective, respectively. By that measure, it feels like one of those projects written when Gilligan was perhaps more eager to please than he has to be now.
“Battle Creek” premieres the same week as “CSI: Cyber,” which suggests CBS hasn’t exactly decided on a total makeover. But it does represent a modest spin on its crime-procedural niche, recognizing that the genre needs to evolve as its core viewers move further up the demo ladder.
As for whether that approach will yield a prize, to borrow the gauzy, nostalgic image that the title evokes, you mail in your box tops and you take your chances.