Review of CBS’s Crime Drama Battle Creek

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“Did two million people just move to Battle Creek?”  Well, technically, they did, at least for an hour a week. 

Having been raised in Battle Creek Michigan, and having written several books about not only Battle Creek, but crime in Cereal City (Lost Eagles, Murder in Battle Creek, The Murder of Maggie Hume), my objectivity  is a little strained in this review. I want this show to be successful, not because it will help my books but because Battle Creek deserves a success.

This is a police drama from Vince Gilligan who brought us Breaking Bad.  At its core, this show is about two characters – a grizzled local officer who plays by his gut instinct, and a FBI outsider who relies on technique.  It’s one of those classic odd-couple mixes where their working together makes both better.   With one episode under our belt we still don’t have all of the chemistry in play yet – but there is fertile ground here for the writer’s the experiment with.  At the same time this odd-couple mix is old ground in television.  This has the effect of you looking at this series and feeling you’ve seen this kind of drama before.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a disaster.

There is a wry undertone of humor in this series which I think will be its saving grace.  The writing is top-notch in this show.  There are some great one-liners in the episode which seem to fly by if you’re not listening for them.  Solid writing may yet carry this series more than the actors.  For example:

Milt: “I love it here, are you kidding me? I grew up in a small town, so this is just like coming home.”

Russ: “You grew up in Michigan?”

Milt : “Monaco actually, but, you know, same deal.”

In some respects, Battle Creek reminds me of The Rockford Files (now I’m dating myself).  The characters are not pristine but closer to real life than what you see on CSI Miami.  The Agnew character is actually kind of fun, but in a James Rockford kind of way, rough around the edges and funny only by his response to the situation he’s in. By the end of the episode Agnew admits he’s flawed and that his new partner can help…but he hates him.  And the FBI agent Milt Chamberlain’s former boss certainly dropped a hint there is more to this character than we have seen so far.

The Battle Creek Police Department is portrayed as having almost no working equipment of its own and forced into constant improvising.  The incoming FBI agent brings with him an army of forensic investigators and tools.  While this worked well for the first episode, I’m not sure how this theme will play out long-term.

The secondary characters, where the meat of future stories are built off of, are a well rounded mix.  As with all shows of this genre, it will take half of the first season for us to start to see the interactions between the ensemble of characters to determine if we really like it.

Battle Creek is a metaphor for any Midwestern rust belt city.  Its connections to the real Battle Creek in this first episode are tied to the opening credits.  The opening sequence with the locomotive cracked me up since I spent 1/3 of my childhood stuck behind a train in Battle Creek.   I know a lot of my friends in Cereal City would like to see the show reflect more of the real Battle Creek, its characters, its locations, etc.  My caution to this criticism is:  be careful what you wish for.  A trip to Meijers or Walmart on a Friday or Saturday night might change your thoughts of including more of the real Battle Creek in the show.  (Seriously, there can’t be that many people in Rascal Scooters…they outnumber the people that can walk…) 

The real Battle Creek is struggling with gangs and drugs while trying to emerge from its past and clean up its image.  It is a city that is on the cusp of recovery.  It’s been on that cusp for decades though, always out of sync with the rest of the world.  I mean the city got a disco in 1984 – while the rest of the company celebrated the death of disco.  My own experiences with the BCPD indicate there is a significant gap between the real-world and the portrayal on the show…thank goodness.  This isn’t a docu-drama, it is a dry comedy/drama.  The BCPD bears no resemblance to the officers in the episode.

As a side note:  I want to see the winter episodes of the show, which, according to my calculations, should account for roughly 75% of the episodes of the program.  When I see kids going out for Halloween wearing winter coats under their costumes, I know they have really captured the essence of Battle Creek.

Will the show make it?  It’s too early to say.  You really need to have about 3-5 episodes of any series under your belt before you can see if the characters are developing in ways you like.  The time slot is rough, but at least it is not up against The Walking Dead or some other series that would crush it. If the show can build some momentum and a following, it might just survive.  I sincerely hope it does. It will all come down to good writing and character development, and you can’t get that out of one episode.

I’ll watch this show, but On Demand.  I like it, but not enough to stay up on a Sunday night with the dreary Monday morning looming so close in the distance.  In the end, this gives you a good idea of how much I think of the program.  It is worth watching but I am not going to be on the edge of my seat to see it as it airs.

And for my friends in Battle Creek, I can only hope that this show is successful because it will draw in more tourist dollars and visitors to the community. Who cares if it’s filmed there or not?  #BattleCreek

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