The pitch for tonight’s episode is that Patton Oswalt is playing Rob Ford, albeit a rather more jovial, less hateful version of the crack-smoking former mayor of Toronto. Oswalt’s Mayor Scooter Hardy is the first character the show has introduced that feels like more than a means to a narrative end. Yes, the story of his attempted murder turned inadvertent shooting turned attempted murder once again is what drives the episode, but Scooter Hardy has dimensions to him that don’t specifically tie into his role as the target of an assassin’s bullet.
His final interaction with his arrested, largely unrepentant brother—played by Peter Jacobson, who last worked with David Shore as House’s Dr. Taub—is a particularly nice moment from Oswalt, as his performance straddles the line between an earnest belief in people’s capacity for betterment and a willingness to manipulate that borders on the megalomaniacal. Basically, Scooter Hardy is the quintessential politician, but it’s up to the viewer to decide which kind he is. He denies the very possibility that his brother could hate him, despite all the evidence to the contrary. To Milt, that’s just a pair of flawed but fundamentally flawed men working toward some kind of grace. To Russ, it’s just one more convenient lie for a man who has made a very successful political career out of ignoring the truth at every turn.
The key is that there’s real ambiguity in that final moment, and the show would need subsequent appearances from Oswalt’s mayor to resolve it one way or the other. That’s a very good thing, because Battle Creek needs that kind of narrative uncertainty in its case-of-the-week plots to undergird the interactions between Milt and Russ, yet previous episodes have struggled to provide such support, with only last week’s exploration of the commander’s complicated personal life coming close. Most of the episodes have ended with a moment that could be good or bad, depending on one’s perspective—the commander’s decision to take the father’s confession at face value in “Syruptitious,” Russ’ closing observation that money is going to ruin that kid in “Heirlooms”—but those tended to feel tacked on, in part because those moments weren’t about the guest characters so much as they were about Russ and Milt discussing the guest characters. And yes, that happens here too, with the pair disagreeing about lies and the laws of gravity, but that is directly supported by Scooter and Darrel’s preceding scene.
Oh, right, also: Patton Oswalt’s mayor goes to a crack and prostitutes party.
Battle Creek is a show that doesn’t always have the right energy to be funny—more on that in a minute—but it reaches a comedic apex with the aftermath of this party scene, as Mayor Hardy and his dealer Stevie Venson work through their illicit financial arrangement right in from of Russ and Milt. Again, this is where Hardy feels more multi-dimensional that pretty much any guest character we’ve seen so far. His drug habit is something of a narrative cul-de-sac—not to mention a slightly stale current events homage—irrespective of who the target is, but the episode takes time to play out the fact that Mayor Hardy considers it important for the law enforcement officers to know that he’s the sort of man who always pays for his admittedly illegal drugs. More than anything, he is crushed to learn that this may not be the case, given his dealer’s own fiduciary malfeasance. There’s a freewheeling goofiness to Oswalt’s performance that lets him move beyond the more expected comedic rhythms of Russ and Milt.
Speaking of which, “Cereal Killer” does a decent job of delivering the banter between our two leads, but they are fast approaching a rut here. In particular, Russ’ resistance to anything and everything Milt has to offer is starting to feel rote. The introduction of the digital evidence board offers some intriguing opportunities to get back into something alluded to all the way back in “The Battle Creek Way,” as it opens up the same kinds of questions about the surveillance state that Milt’s reference to trawling NSA phone records did in the premiere. Hell, Holly even kind of touches on some of the efficacy questions surrounding the technology with her reference to that one Economist article she read about the unreliability of cellphone-pinging technology, but Milt bats that aside with a simple declaration that the FBI is appealing that ruling.
Battle Creek doesn’t need to get political if it doesn’t want to, and Russ as presented thus far would be a weird character to champion the rights of the individual against law enforcement overreach—though he’s got just enough of a wild-eyed independent streak for that to have kind of work, if the show had committed to it from the off—but raising questions like that would at least represent something concrete, something tangible. Having the characters ping-pong about the virtues and vices of advanced technology just ends up feeling so damn abstract. It’s the kind of thematic, writerly argument that needs to be anchored in something immediate; Dean Winters and Josh Duhamel do some of the work with their performances, but there isn’t enough there in the rest of the episode to make those links come alive. We get close with the visit to the high school robotic lab, as the teacher basically champions the dehumanizing effect of his work, but even there the episode leaves it as an isolated bit of business, not something that can really connect with the rest of the episode.
That’s about right as a general assessment of Battle Creek at this point: There remains potential here, maybe not for anything vital or revolutionary, but for something that is consistently both entertaining and interesting, and that’s not something to be immediately discounted. Winters, Duhamel, Janet McTeer, and Aubrey Dollar are all doing solid work, and I’d say the same of Kal Penn if his rumpled performance weren’t such an odd match for the wacky comedic subplots the show keeps stranding him in. That misallocation of resources is holding the show back, and so too is a more general struggle to commit to its most intriguing elements with sufficient gusto. There’s some fun structural kookiness in committing to one theory for half the episode, then switching to a completely different one, only to loop right back around to the original hypothesis in the closing minutes. There are some interesting ideas on the margins, particularly as the show explores the particular pathology of the would-be mascot and his homophobic hatred of the popular kid who got the gig and apparently didn’t approach his duties with the appropriate solemnity.
The show keeps getting shots in the arm here and there: from shifting the focus onto Janet McTeer’s commander last week, from letting Patton Oswalt do his best Rob Ford. But those are mostly interesting in the way they work against the patterns the show has already established, and I’m not sure how much better the show can get without a way to break out of its central routines. These might just be the growing pains of a young show (albeit one that may already be more or less at its midway point, if the ratings are any indication). But the show needs to keep pushing, and Patton Oswalt can only smoke so much crack.