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'Battle Creek' Has The Flavor Of A TV Throwback From An Earlier Age


Last year, TV writer-producer Vince Gilligan wrapped up "Breaking Bad," the much-acclaimed AMC drama series about a meek science teacher turned master criminal. Earlier this year, he launched another cable hit, "Better Call Saul," the prequel to "Breaking Bad," co-created with Peter Gould. And this weekend, he teams with another TV producer, David Shore from "House," to present another new series - "Battle Creek," a cop show premiering this weekend on CBS. Our TV critic David Bianculli says this new show is very different in a lot of ways. Here's his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: It seems like only a few weeks ago that I reviewed a new Vince Gilligan TV series. It was only a few weeks ago when I raved about AMC's "Better Call Saul," his delightfully entertaining prequel to "Breaking Bad." And now comes "Battle Creek," a show that's also a lot of fun to watch, but that's about where the similarities end. It's a broadcast network show made for CBS, and that's a big difference right there. It's a cop show about two very mismatched investigative partners. And unlike some of the depressingly dark police procedurals on CBS, like "Criminal Minds" and "Stalker," this new series plays more like a comedy. In terms of tone, it's less like the "X-Files" and more like "The Rockford Files."

It has the flavor of a TV throwback from an earlier age, one in which the investigators are as interesting as the crimes. Even in terms of its premise - a cynical veteran investigator is paired with an astoundingly idealistic and good-looking counterpart - "Battle Creek" is an unofficial reboot of some classic pairings from TV's past. There's the Chicago detective paired with a Canadian Mountie on "Due South," for example. And way back on "The Rockford Files," a pair of episodes in which Tom Selleck, later to star in "Magnum P.I.," guest starred as a comically upbeat and lucky private eye, opposite James Garner. Both Rockford and Magnum get referred to in Sunday's premiere of "Battle Creek," so I don't think that connection is too much of a stretch. But what is a stretch is how "Battle Creek" got on the current CBS schedule.

Gilligan originally pitched the show a dozen years ago, but only recently, with Gilligan white-hot after "Breaking Bad," did the network think about dusting it off and moving ahead. Gilligan already was busy pondering "Better Call Saul," so CBS teamed him with David Shore, the creator of "House," and the series moved ahead. Shore, not Gilligan, is the one involved day-to-day with "Battle Creek." But this new series reflects the sensibilities of both. Characters are complicated and surprising. Actions have consequences. The performances are strong, and the dialogue is crisp and quick. Here's a scene from Sunday's premier. Dean Winters, from "30 Rock" and HBO's prison drama "Oz," plays world-weary detective Russ. And Josh Duhamel, from NBC's "Las Vegas," plays Milt, the handsome new FBI transfer with all his high-tech equipment and natural charm. The two of them are working the same crime scene, but approaching it very differently. Winters, as the Michigan detective, speaks first.


DEAN WINTERS: (As Detective Russ Agnew) I spoke to every tenant on the floor, and they had absolutely nothing to tell me.

JOSH DUHAMEL: (As Special Agent Milton Chamberlain) That's a shame.

WINTERS: (As Detective Russ Agnew) Oh, it's told me quite a bit, I figure. The people in this neighborhood, they've never been fans of the cops. And the fact that they were nice while telling me nothing tells me that it's not about us. It's about the crime. These people, they're scared, yes. But I think that they're really relieved that these guys are dead. I think that these guys were cooking meth or PCP.

DUHAMEL: (As Special Agent Milton Chamberlain) 2-CP.

WINTERS: (As Detective Russ Agnew) What's 2-CP?

DUHAMEL: (As Special Agent Milton Chamberlain) It's...

WINTERS: (As Detective Russ Agnew) It's new.

DUHAMEL: (As Special Agent Milton Chamberlain) The gas chromatograph connected to this mass spectrometer detected several picograms of phenethylamine. Did you find anything else?

WINTERS: (As Detective Russ Agnew) Yeah. Well, I think the empty wallet was left to make us think that it was a simple robbery as opposed to a territorial dispute. We can get the vic's names by running it through the DEA database and...

DUHAMEL: (As Special Agent Milton Chamberlain) Gavin Smart and Dante Perrone.

WINTERS: (As Detective Russ Agnew) How?

DUHAMEL: (As Special Agent Milton Chamberlain) The gentleman in 605 told me over coffee cake.

WINTERS: (As Detective Russ Agnew) So then you don't - you don't need me here?

DUHAMEL: (As Special Agent Milton Chamberlain) Well, you're welcome to stick around if you'd like, or you could head back to the office.

WINTERS: (As Detective Russ Agnew) I'm going to go back to the office.

BIANCULLI: Future episodes make it clear that "Battle Creek" is not a one-joke show, and that these characters all are a lot deeper than they initially seem. The supporting cast, by the way, includes Oscar nominee Janet McTeer and former "House" regular and "Harold And Kumar" co-star Kal Penn, and they play complex cops as well. CBS sent out the entire first season, all 13 episodes, for preview, which is unprecedented for a broadcast series. And it's one big show of faith. Another is televising the series right after it's best drama, "The Good Wife," which returns this weekend. CBS clearly thinks it has something special with "Battle Creek." And after binge watching all of season one, so do I.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRFreshAir. And if you're having trouble syncing your schedule with our broadcast time, check out our podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.