Review

Winningly ill-matched in 'Battle Creek'

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
A police officer and an FBI agent find themselves thrown together. Battles erupt on 'Battle Creek.' A review

Vince Gilligan, who created "Breaking Bad," and David Shore, who created "House," have a new show together, a semi-comical, sometimes dramatic police show called "Battle Creek."

Based on a 10-year-old unproduced script by Gilligan, it premieres Sunday on CBS, home of the world's most successful procedural franchises (your "CSI," your "NCIS"). This is mostly not like those, in ways that I would call good. But it is also a little like them and other shows of its substantial ilk.

It is also mostly not like "Breaking Bad" or "House," except in its mix of light and dark — here to a lighter effect — and the presence of Kal Penn (who was on "House") and the fact that "House" was kind of a detective show. The Gilligan-related show it more resembles is "The X-Files," on which he was a writer and producer, in its teaming of a skeptic and a believer, looking for the truth that is out there, albeit not quite so far out there.

Dean Winters plays Russ Agnew, the skeptic, a senior detective in the "understaffed and underfunded" Battle Creek, Mich., police department. Josh Duhamel is the believer, Milton Chamberlain, a federal special agent who has materialized across the hall in a fancy new FBI branch office, which all your tax dollars have evidently gone to decorate and which he occupies alone. Jurisdictions notwithstanding, cop and fed will work all their cases gratingly together.

The title "Battle Creek" names the setting — where the cereal comes from, a fact that will be acknowledged in an upcoming episode, "Cereal Killer," featuring King of Guest Stars Patton Oswalt as the mayor — and also nods to the friction between the two main characters. It's a friction as old as, well, two characters: Adam, he goes by the book; Eve, she makes her own rules.

With a face that seems to have been created, like a work of art, to embody the idea of handsomeness, Duhamel's super-agent is effortlessly charming, with a professed faith in human goodness and friends in high places. Yet his extreme composure suggests a walled-away Dark Secret that forms the answer to Russ' constant question, "Why are you in Battle Creek?"

Russ: "Everyone seems sincere to you because you have a gracious mind."

Milton: "Thank you, Russ."

Russ: "You see, you thought I was being sincere."

Winters, recently of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" but perhaps most memorable as Liz Lemon's bad boyfriend Dennis on "30 Rock," brings his familiar brand of rumpled pugnaciousness to Russ. He pitches his volume low and handles potentially loaded lines like "She cares deeply about the truth, but she cares even more about justice" without excess drama. I like him very much.

As with nearly every procedural now on TV (see Fox's "Backstrom" among other mid-series premieres), the leads are surrounded by a quirky coterie of colleagues, superiors and subalterns, who will come in and out of focus and occasionally get a story line of their own to carry. Alongside Penn, there are detectives played by Edward "Grapevine" Fordham Jr., Damon Herriman (who was the hapless Dewey Crowe on "Justified," and here is very much not) and "NCIS" vet Liza Lapira, with Aubrey Dollar as the office manager, Meredith Eaton handling the forensic stuff and Janet McTeer, OBE, as the commander who rules them all.

All the performances are well shaded and, among the regular cast, get deeper and more individuated as the season goes on. (CBS made all 13 episodes available for review.) Shifts in tone are well handled within in each episode and from week to week: The show incorporates a satisfying range of subjects and styles, from straight drama to straight-out farce; it even finds time to parody "Breaking Bad" in its maple-syrup-themed second episode.

"Battle Creek' may be a little low-boil compared to other network mysteries, which I don't account a fault; even when it runs to caricature, it stays convincing. And if it doesn't break any new ground, it nevertheless feels fresh and genuine. It will make good company as winter turns to spring.

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'Battle Creek'

Where: CBS

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

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