The challenge of procedural, episodic storytelling is that it isn’t really isn’t set up to explore any of the deeper structural or societal issues that undergird its plots. That potential shortcoming can become painfully obvious when we’re dealing with cop shows, which by their nature are about crime, even if they aren’t particularly interested in actually exploring that subject. Because the unit of storytelling is a single episode, a show can really only hope to pay lip service to the notion that this specific crime is part of a more generalizable problem, and it’s almost inevitable that, sooner or later, the need to tell the most compelling story will reveal some crucial detail about the characters involved that will shift our understanding so that it really is their responsibility, not society’s. The best procedural shows can find ways to explore those nuances even within the framework of a fictional universe that more or less resets at the end of every week, and it’s worth pointing out that plenty of shows—including a fair few of Battle Creek’s CBS brethren—have evolved beyond the narrow strictures of their original storytelling framework.
Okay, so that’s the abstract version of my point. More concretely … man, there are some funky optics in “Man’s Best Friend.” You have a white cop repeatedly skirting—if not outright violating—proper procedure because he’s so certain a pair of black parents are using their daughter as a drug mule, and once he has to abandon that theory, the whole department throws everything behind running down a newfound Dominican gang presence without ever confirming that they are even involved in this particular incident, and the error is egregious enough that it’s discovered before the police are even done celebrating their big arrest. Throughout all this, you have a police officer who remains by far the most obvious suspect in this whole mess, yet it’s he whom, after an initial round of rough interrogation, the department loses interest in first. Particularly given the current national conversation about the police and race relations, there are plenty of potentially troubling contours to tonight’s episode, and plenty of ways for the show to go about teasing out issues of larger social significance.
And honestly, it ends up feeling kind of weird that it doesn’t, that it so studiously avoids examining this case through a more socially conscious lens. Make no mistake: I’m not saying that the show has to take that approach, as I’m not interested in arguing one way or the other for a show’s cultural responsibility when telling stories that brush up against hot-button issues. From a strictly narrative-focused perspective, Battle Creek’s only responsibility is to tell the most compelling story possible, and one quick and dirty way to tell the episode doesn’t do that is the fact that I spent so much of the episode’s running time considering what other stories the show could be telling. “Man’s Best Friend” does itself no favors by invoking so many real-life parallels it apparently isn’t interested in exploring, but even that wouldn’t matter that much if it had a precise handle on the way it does want to tell its story, which is a more personalized tale of Russ, Milton, and the department working the case.
After all, as far as Battle Creek is concerned, this is never the story of “a white cop” doing anything: It’s always about Russ. And this is where we most strongly see the David Shore imprimatur on tonight’s episode, as the ever cantankerous Russ is really doing his best Gregory House impersonation here. In both cases, Shore uses the generalized misanthropy of his protagonist to elide any more targeted hatred. Russ isn’t overstepping his bounds because he’s internalized the police’s longstanding, institutionalized distrust of minorities, but because his specific circumstances have made him a cynical asshole about everyone. He doesn’t see race, but he does see wrongdoers and fakes everywhere. Shore was able to make this compelling with House—at least for four or so seasons—because the show was reasonably committed to exploring the doctor’s Brobdingnagian capacity for self-destruction, and because Hugh Laurie was that damn good in the title role.
Dean Winters is plenty talented himself, though Battle Creek hasn’t yet asked him to explore terrain as dark as that of his spiritual predecessor. Rather, the show continues to take cues from the comedy side of his resume, finding ways to undercut at least some of the seriousness he connects to the crimes. After all, as “Man’s Best Friend” repeatedly points out, Russ is angry about a cop potentially using his niece as a heroin mule, but he’s possibly still angrier about not being invited to said dirty cop’s barbecue. This is where Battle Creek shows its most potential, as it keeps veering between major crimes and the pettiest nonsense. The real-life Battle Creek is a community of just over 50,000, which means it’s at roughly the right population to take on aspects of both cities and small towns; we might associate the show’s criminality with the former, but the characters’ sensibilities track more closely with the latter. Much as last week found Russ demanding the commander look beyond the syrupy circumstances of a murder victim’s death to focus on the fact that there was, indeed, a murder victim, “Man’s Best Friend” again indulges in moments of quirkiness, even as its characters rebel against it and demand to be taken seriously. That remains one of the show’s cleverest ideas, even if Battle Creek hasn’t quite yet figured out what to do with it yet.
The biggest point in this episode’s favor is how it uses the supporting characters, with a particular emphasis on the women of the Battle Creek police. After all, precious little of the eventual resolution of this episode comes down to any particular investigative brilliance from Russ or Milton. It’s Holly who has the sudden realization that heroin doesn’t have to vanish from the evidence lockup for it to not be there anymore, the second week in a row where she makes a crucial observation that allows the detectives to crack the case. And it’s Commander Guziewicz who takes the lead on the sting operation that brings down the crooked cop, as she expertly offers him just enough rope to hang himself. Liza Lapira’s Detective Jacocks gets a little time in the spotlight, as her FBI training session gives her some (very possibly bullshit) understanding of micro-expressions, and she at least helps Russ get one step closer to unraveling the ever-growing mystery of Milt’s exile to Battle Creek. In and of themselves, none of these character beats are particularly revelatory, but they speak well to Battle Creek’s potential to build up more of an ensemble around its two main characters, and it shows encouraging confidence to let characters other than Russ and Milton prove the more pivotal movers in the plot.
“Man’s Best Friend” is the kind of early misfire just about every procedural has, an episode straining for a point that it does not yet have the characters or settings sharp enough to make. Even so, the attempt is there to dig into deeper ideas, and the show finds a nice final moment with Milt and the little girl, as the former explains why he and the police had to arrest the uncle that the girl had worked so desperately to protect. As Milt compassionately explains, he understands why she went to such lengths to protect her family, and he would have done the same. But that doesn’t change the outcome here, because that man wasn’t his uncle. It’s a poignant little reminder of the distinctions that must be made between the personal and the professional, between the individual and the social. Battle Creek isn’t quite at the point where it can tell and entire episode powerful enough to support that kind of closing sentiment, but I’m not one to discount such signs of ambition.
- I remain ever more confused quite what Kal Penn is doing on the show. It really feels like he ought to have more to do. It’s like he’s Russ’ ex-partner who should have heroically died in the first episode to clear the way for Milton, but he’s just sort of hung around as this relatively senior figure with no obvious place in the show’s ecosystem. Eh, I like Kal Penn, so I’ll keep rolling with it, but still, it’s weird.
- I appreciate the ever-increasing preposterousness of Milton’s childhood. Then again, if you are going to learn Spanish in Tehran, I suppose it would make the most sense to learn it from Spanish teachers.