If you hit a person hard enough, what happens next? Does the person stay down, or does he hit back still harder? The key phrase there is “hard enough,” because making that part of the premise of the question implies that there must be some point at which violence will bring a person under control, and the only challenge is to find that level without killing the person outright. To subscribe to the latter view is either to reject that premise or to acknowledge a necessary complication: Violence causes damage not just for the person being hit but for the person doing the hitting. And if you grant that, then the only options left are to stop caring about those people who are out of control—society’s criminal elements, to make this slightly less abstract—or to find a way to bring such people to bear without having to hit them. But that takes resources, that takes patience, and that takes a kind of explicit idealism that can look a hell of a lot like naïveté if it’s not clear what formative experiences and what thought processes led you to arrive at that worldview. It also probably doesn’t hurt to be really good-looking, but that’s more or less always true.
Yet, in all those cases, the end result is the same: Actions invariably lead to reactions, and it’s hard enough to predict or to control the things both internal and external that happen in direct response to your actions. It’s damn near impossible to anticipate the cascade of events that can spin out in reaction to even a single choice, and all that’s left for those whose forced to take constant action is to find a philosophy that lets them endure all the inevitable damage.
These ideas represent the subtext of so much that happens in the series premiere of Battle Creek, and it’s possible here to see some strains of the Vince Gilligan portions of the show’s creative DNA. I mean, I honestly didn’t set out to draw a Breaking Bad parallel, but there’s plenty here in terms of the scientifically inflected language of actions and reactions, not to mention the limits of control. That said, given the genesis for this project predates the creation of Breaking Bad, and given Gilligan’s by all accounts minimal involvement in the show’s current, David Shore-run incarnation, it’s probably best to see those connections as a curiosity. But that doesn’t change the fact that the material is there to support those connections, and that the material itself represents some of the more compelling portions of “The Battle Creek Way.”
Indeed, the premiere isn’t exactly subtle in its exploration of the worldviews that drive Dean Winters’ Detective Russ Agnew and Josh Duhamel’s Special Agent Milton Chamberlain. Not that a lack of subtlety is necessarily a bad thing: I swear I’m going to stop with the Breaking Bad comparisons, because they really aren’t that useful or fair, but that show was frequently unsubtle in delineating its themes, especially in the early going. It’s the confidence and the virtuosity of a show’s obviousness that really matter, and it must be said that there are absolutely moments in which Battle Creek relies on clunky, on-the-nose monologues from Agnew and Chamberlain to develop its ideas further. I count at least five such big moments: when Agnew says Chamberlain just gets lucky because he’s so handsome, but that he gets increasingly unlucky as people get to know him; when Agnew speculates that Chamberlain had the perfect childhood; when Chamberlain explains he wanted to work with Agnew because he cares enough about saving Battle Creek to risk his career; when a hospitalized Agnew muses on just why he hates Chamberlain so much; and when Chamberlain tries to talk down Kenny, possibly drawing on his own tortured past to connect with the young man who has killed but isn’t necessarily a killer.
If you isolate those moments, paring those scenes down to just their core monologues, Battle Creek can come across as painfully obvious, even didactic. More encouraging, however, are the little details surrounding those lines. There’s the fact that Chamberlain is genuinely flattered when Agnew calls him good-looking; Chamberlain’s cryptic “I agree” to Agnew’s childhood comment, not to mention the suspect coming in on the intercom to tell them not to break down his $5,000 door; the odd sense of menace that undergirds Chamberlain’s compliments to Agnew, as he rides a line between supportively pointing out a flaw in the plan and passive-aggressively calling out his partner; the way in which Agnew’s hospital monologue appears to carry very different connotations for Holly, the possibly smitten office manager; and Agnew’s disbelieving response to Chamberlain’s big earnest monologue about making the right choice. There may not always be genius here—honestly, quite a few of those can be attributed to some funky acting choices by Duhamel, and I’m not at all sure how intentional those are—but there is messiness, a sense of a larger narrative organism that exists beyond the narrow confines of a few carefully chosen themes. Particularly for a procedural show, it’s those weird moments on the margins that really count, as they are where Battle Creek is likeliest to find the storytelling rhythms that can keep the show just off-kilter enough to remain compelling in the long run.
As for how well this all connects with the episode-specific plot, it’s difficult to judge that based on a premiere that has so much other ground to cover. The titular Battle Creek way, in which Agnew and Chamberlain convinces the (as it turns out, guilty) pizza delivery guy to falsely incriminate their prime suspect in the hopes of getting the guy to cut a deal, places Agnew right on the line between clean and crooked. As the scene plays out, Agnew makes it fairly clear that he’s just exploiting every loophole he knows to compensate for his lack of other advantages, but his initial suggestion to Chamberlain that any evidence they obtain will have to be manufactured suggests a far more problematic line of thinking. As for Chamberlain, there’s no better support for Agnew’s closing declaration that he’s the devil than when he calmly informs the drug dealer that he can use NSA data to inform his every family member of his criminal connections. Both of these end up just being minor elements, and it’s hard to tell whether the show has any particular interest in exploring these notions further or if they are just there to help set the early parameters for Agnew and Chamberlain’s partnership, more important for how they define each character in terms of the other than what they tell us about the characters themselves.
The temptation here is to characterize the show’s personality as quirky. There are certainly aspects of that, particularly in what little we see of fellow detectives Funkhauser and Niblet, and there’s a zippiness to how the show moves through the early portions of Chamberlain’s story that suggest Battle Creek isn’t all that interested in remaining anchored in reality. But quirkiness implies a level of artifice and remove that isn’t what the show is going for. Dean Winters’ tetchy, irate performance helps sell the notion that all this is really happening and really matters, and there are shades to the supporting characters that suggest there are actual human beings here waiting to be discovered. Battle Creek feels like an overclocked version of our own reality, but only by 10 percent or so.
The opening sequence—in which Agnew and his partner, Kal Penn’s Detective Fontanelle White, have to improvise a wire using a baby monitor—could play strictly as a bit of larger-than-life goofiness, but again there’s a bit more going on. White’s subsequent offer to just shoot people instead of tase them is played as a real, albeit slightly heightened moment; this side character is allowed to have frustrations and wants that are there to do a bit more than support Agnew’s story. Part of that comes in casting Kal Penn, who previously worked with David Shore on House, as he’s an actor with more presence than the role of White requires in this first episode. But there are similar moments elsewhere, as when Holly points out the éclairs Chamberlain brought in are the same as the ones Agnew brought in the day before. Funkhauser’s response is quirky, yes, but there’s an emotional reality to Holly’s defense that feels like an unexplored thread. This early on in a show’s life, the suggestion of more ideas waiting to be discovered is the big thing I’m looking for. Now Battle Creek has to prove it’s up to the task of developing those ideas.
Welcome to our coverage of Battle Creek. If I had to cover one Vince Gilligan-created show starring a much-loved comedy actor taking on a more serious role, well … this is certainly one of them! Okay, that bit of business aside, I’m legitimately intrigued to see how this show plays out and what David Shore and company can do within the CBS procedural framework, an arena in which Person Of Interest and Elementary have already had plenty of success. As Erik mentioned in his pre-air review, CBS sent out all 13 of this season’s episodes to critics, so hopefully the reviews will post as soon as the episodes air. However, I’m not going to be watching ahead as I write these reviews, just to ensure I give the most honest possible appraisal of the show as it develops.
I realize I barely touched on the case of the week. As series premiere cases go, this one was actually pretty solid: Given how much else a show has to set up in its first episode, these mysteries are always a bit underdeveloped, and the affluent drug distributor felt particularly undercooked, but it did a solid job both of giving Agnew and Chamberlain some space to find a working relationship and of connecting back to the themes I discussed at the top of the review.
A lot of fun names here, but one I’m curious about is the fact that the grinding, realist detective’s first name is Russ, presumably short for Russell, and the ludicrously impressive wonder boy special agent’s last name is Chamberlain. The latter in particular feels distinctive enough for me to at least consider whether the basketball homage is not a coincidence. Still feels like kind of a stretch though, I’ll admit.
Out of curiosity, is it at all plausible that Chamberlain actually grew up in Monaco, by which I’m pretty sure he has to mean the European city-state? I suppose it’s conceivable his parents were Americans doing some kind of high-powered work over there, and he was educated in some kind of international school setting that would have left him without an accent. Just trying to work out if that’s best understood as a silly throwaway gag or a vaguely plausible bit of backstory.