Why New Crime-comedy Show 'Battle Creek' Looks Like a Re-run

One of the questions hovering over the series is what a nice boy like Milt is doing in a place like Battle Creek. That’s for me to know and for you to find out.

Cliff Lipson

Once, when TV was still TV, humanity was divided – roughly – between two species: those who, upon entering the room, turn on the TV, and those – usually a spouse or roommate – whose finger knows only one button on the remote, which is red and marked “off.”

Those days are long gone, along with the TV set. No, you don’t have a “set” anymore. It’s called a “screen”, and the larger and flatter it gets, the more it costs. And whether it is on or off, or which channel it is tuned to, matters only to those who count the ratings and calculate the advertisers’ revenue. Breaking news apart, there is no programming, and the home TV set bites the dust along with the landline, in a world that has gone mobile.

But in this rapidly changing world of ours, some ideas and notions persist, and one of them is the “odd couple.” It is sometimes referred to as “opposites attract [each other]” and the general idea is that when you juxtapose two conflicting and conflicted elements you get a conflict: how odd, indeed. And that means drama, action and interest, which brings viewers to the screen, wherever and in whatever size it happens to be.

As an ingredient of a TV series (which binds the viewers to many successive episodes, which eventually boosts someone’s revenue) this means cramming into a small, relatively exotic but mundane location (a small town, population circa 50,000, say Battle Creek, Michigan) an odd couple. They can be of contrasting hues, as in the movie in which Sammy Davis Jr. played a detective named Salt, with Peter Lawford as his partner, Pepper. They can be of different genders, which adds a romantic-erotic aura, where the sleuthing couple bicker over the issue of who’s on top, work-wise only, of course. Or they may be of different backgrounds and dispositions.

For instance, a small-town cop, brash, uncouth, disillusioned, with a chip on his shoulder, plus a suave, elegant, big-city FBI agent who opens a field office in the small town mentioned above. Both have to solve a crime, and each episode pits the rough against the smooth, the big agency against the small police station, the rich against the poor, the one equipped with all the most modern technical paraphernalia and the other trying to wire a drug deal using a “baby phone.” One relies on logic and keeping an open mind, while the other trusts his gut instincts and enjoys jumping to conclusions. Both arrive at the same solution to the same crime almost at the same time.

Now one has only to fill in the names and details: The series is called – you’ve probably guessed it by now – “Battle Creek,” a new comedy-laced crime procedural produced by Sony Television Pictures and CBS, which commissioned 13 episodes for a season, and committed itself to run all of them. The ratings were nice to begin with, starting with almost 8 million viewers and declining steadily since (last week’s episode was viewed by 5.58 million). The reviewers were kind, but there is no news about a second season yet. It is broadcast in Israel on HOT Zone.

Detective Russ Agnew is the local boy, played by Dean Winters; Josh Duhamel is FBI Special Agent Milton Chamberlain. One of the questions hovering over the series is what a nice boy like Milt is doing in a place like Battle Creek. That’s for me to know and for you to find out.

Strangely dated

That, of course, is only the bait to lure the viewer to the series, apart from the crimes committed and solved in the episodes. There is also the police station Commander Guziewicz – who leads an intriguing private life – played by the acclaimed British actress Janet McTeer, and Russ’s police partner Fontanelle White, played by Kal Penn. (Penn played Dr. Lawrence Kutner in “House MD” and was written out of the series – the character committed suicide – when Penn joined the Obama administration.)

All that sounded interesting enough for me to sample a couple of episodes, and while I might have appreciated the intentions, and the production value, and the nice try at creating an odd mixture of drama, blood and comedy, it all looked strangely dated to me. It was brand new – new location, new actors, new characters – and yet it looked like a brand new rerun.

This was pretty strange, considering the names of the series’ co-creators and their illustrious pedigrees. One of them is Vince Gilligan, who wrote and produced many episodes on “The X-Files,” then had us glued to our screens for several seasons with his next creation, “Breaking Bad,” and now keeps us on tenterhooks with “Better Call Saul.” The other is David Shore, the writer and producer of “House MD.” How did these two bright guys come up with something that is perfectly watchable, but not necessarily anything to write a TV column about?

The answer, as always, lies hidden in the small print. It turns out that Gilligan was pitching the idea of a small town cop/FBI agent duo 10 years ago, and had even already written an episode. And then came “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” and Shore delivered “House MD.” Imagine yourself as a TV channel or studio executive, having the chance of Gilligan and Shore creating and writing and running a series for you. Wouldn’t you bet your money on them?

I would have. But then again, I’d be doing it knowing and trusting my own tastes as a viewer. And Sony and CBS people know very well that they have to keep producing fodder for screens all over the world 24/7, to be run and rerun till the remote do us part.