Tonight marks the end of regular coverage for Battle Creek, and I can’t imagine that comes as too much of a shock. As the show reaches the halfway point of its first—and, if the ratings are anything to go by, only—season, Battle Creek remains a stolidly mediocre show. Even some fun, reasonably high-profile guest appearances—Patton Oswalt last week, Candice Bergen this week—have only done so much to liven up the proceedings. So then, since this is the end of the line for me as reviewer, it makes some sense to step back and look at the big picture to sort out just what’s wrong with this show. The temptation with any faltering show is to say that it has potential, particularly one with this show’s pedigree: Seriously, have you heard Vince Gilligan (sort of) created this? It’s especially easy to cling to the notion that a show can turn itself around when it sports a cast like this—Dean Winters and Josh Duhamel are doing effective work as the leads, Aubrey Dollar is winning as Holly, and Janet McTeer is frankly way overqualified for what the show is asking of her—but honestly, there are enough good actors out there that you could praise the casts of all but the very worst of shows. The real question is whether Battle Creek has any idea what to do with what it’s got.
Seven episodes in, the fundamental issue for Battle Creek is one of specificity. Much of this goes back to what the show is trying to do with Milt. On the one hand, the show needs Milt to function as a counterweight to Russ, the sunny optimist there to balance the jaded cynic. All the show’s case-of-the-week investigations are meant to be filtered through those dueling perspectives, but the danger is those viewpoints become reductive without the show providing us with more concrete details about the two characters. To its credit, Battle Creek has made some effort to do that with Russ, and that’s never more true than tonight’s extended examination of his deeply messed-up family history. It isn’t just that Russ has been worn down by life; it’s that we now know what specific incidents did the damage. He never knew his father, and his mother was always running some scam, working some angle. As Russ indicates in one of the interrogation scenes, the worst wasn’t wondering whether his mother even loved him—he made peace with his mother’s shortcomings on that score a long, long time ago—but rather the fact that her recklessness and her arrogance about her own abilities meant he could never stop worrying about some horrible fate befalling her.
Those are all good details! The bit in which Russ reveals how scared he is for his mom’s safety is especially affecting, one of the few character moments Battle Creek has really landed, and it goes a long way to explaining why “Mama’s Boy” is one of the show’s more successful entries. But we can’t really say the same about Milt, who remains frustratingly opaque. Yes, this episode ends with maybe the most concrete revelation about him yet, as he calls his mom’s house and finds she still doesn’t want to speak to him. But even that represents only the outlines of a revelation, particularly considering, again, we’re halfway through the season, and all we really know about Milt’s exile is that it came from on high, that it was coincidental to his immediate superior’s hatred of him, and now that it might have some connection with a rift in his family. Constance isn’t allowed many moments of unvarnished truth, but we’re meant to take in earnest her assessment that Milt is not to be trusted. And, sure, maybe we shouldn’t trust him, but “he’s hiding something” is such a frustratingly empty reason at this point in the show’s run.
But this is where the show’s competing creative impulses really run into conflict. As “Mama’s Boy” indicates, Battle Creek is at its best when the characters are driven by specific, concretely defined motivations, ones informed by their backstories and their underlying desires. I mean, that isn’t meant to be a particularly illuminating statement; that’s true of all television, of all storytelling for that matter. Yet outside a few choice moments—the most notable of which is still Milt’s confrontation with the revenge-seeking brother in the series premiere—the show refuses to give us those specifics about Milt, which in turn limits how much Battle Creek can push Russ, and what could be character-building debates about the nature of criminality and justice become vague, abstract game of thematic ping-pong. For Russ and Milt, the cases of the week rarely test anything deeper than whether one’s cynicism or the other’s optimism is justified, and that’s not much to build around.
Bringing in Constance alleviates this problem about as effectively as any story yet has, but Battle Creek’s unwillingness to define Milt has lent the show a more general sense of vagueness. Part of the initial appeal of the show—part of the reason why it’s called Battle Creek, surely—is that it would gain particular power from its setting, that its location would inform how the show told its crime stories. Seven episodes in, the clearest sense of Battle Creek the place was last week’s acknowledgment of its status as Cereal City; otherwise, the fictional Battle Creek has been presented as a generic cash-poor burg that is normally presented as a small city but can take on more town-like characteristics when the plot demands. Similarly, tonight’s exploration of con artists features little more than people saying the word “con” over and over; I’m not asking for the charming incomprehensibility of the latter-day Ocean’s movies, but there’s potential here to give us some sense of a culture to which Constance belongs, and there’s precious little of that here.
The end result of all this is a show that is absolutely trying to do something different from other cop procedurals, but it has proven terminally unable to define just what that something different is. I should stress that I’m not arguing for Battle Creek to be something that it doesn’t want to be; it would be facile to argue the show could take a lesson from Breaking Bad, but there may well be some good lessons to be gleaned from showrunner David Shore’s previous effort, House. Even at its apex, that show could be plenty repetitive and reductive in its take on the world and the characters that inhabited it, but it remained compelling on the strength of Hugh Laurie’s performance—and, much as I enjoy Winters and Duhamel, neither is doing work on that kind of level—and because it kept piling on new details and new insights about all its characters, even if most all of that information just seemed to reaffirm that all the characters were horrible people.
Given that Battle Creek’s entire first season—which, again, likely means its entire run—is already long since completed, there’s likely no opportunity to course-correct, and that’s a shame. There’s something about Battle Creek’s low-energy, low-stakes vibe that is, if not exactly interesting, then at least weird in a way I’m glad is occasionally out there on the airwaves. But that isn’t much justification for continued existence, and even a relatively strong episode like “Mama’s Boy” doesn’t much change the sense that it’s time to sign off.
- Two random comparisons I was thinking of when writing this review but decided to omit from the main body: First, the show’s whole nonspecific approach to Milt reminds me, of all things, of the Comics Curmudgeon’s frequent takedowns of the Herb And Jamaal strip. And again, it’s more than just the fact that an unnecessarily withheld mystery tends to kill narrative momentum, though I’d argue it doesn’t help the general feeling of malaise that hangs over Battle Creek. It’s also that the show has to work like crazy to write around the concrete details it is unwilling to provide, and thus we get really silly moments like Milt inexplicably returning in the middle of a manhunt to whether the polygraph really did show that Constance doesn’t love Russ.
- And, the second random comparison: I doubt Milt is meant to be full-on evil, but the evidence does appear to be tilting toward him hiding something relatively major. While I can buy there being secrets sufficiently interesting to justify hiding them from the other characters, I’m less convinced it’s a good idea to keep the audience in the dark. And here I’d point to The Flash as another first-year show that is doing an infinitely better job building up and gradually revealing the mysterious, malevolent side of an apparently good character. Seriously, if a story is worth telling, you might as well just get on and tell it, instead of hiding it behind some big, twisty reveal that is bound to disappoint.