Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Battle Creek

This review is Spoiler-free.

In this cleverly cynical police procedural, Detective Russ Agnew () gets stuck working with one of the FBI's best, Special Agent Milton Chamberlain () when he is sent to assist with the small-town precinct's lack of resources and manpower. And as they go through unintentional routines of "good cop, bad cop" with the criminals of Battle Creek, Michigan, they also find plenty of time to clash heads with each other, bringing a whole new inverse meaning to the buddy-cop genre.

Best tv show ever! So, of course... cancelled.

Battle Creek was a CBS crime drama that was cancelled in the middle of a thirteen-episode first season in the spring of 2015. It was recently added to Netflix's instant streaming, and that's where I found it. I'll save you the whiny spiel about how sad and unfair it is that it was cancelled, and focus on why it's a show worth watching anyway -- whether it's thirteen episodes long, or three, or three-hundred.

And therefore, I must start with the characters. They are both the beginning and the end of what makes this show stand out among so many other crime dramas flooding the airwaves. I only started the show because Dean Winters was in it, who I absolutely loved in his smallish but memorable role in Life on Mars (and who didn't love those "Mayhem" Allstate commercials?). Then there's Josh Duhamel, who I never thought to take seriously before -- mostly because of his role as the pathetically characterless soldier guy in the first three Transformers movies. Both these guys get a well-deserved chance to shine here.

"You're a good person, Detective Agnew." "And you, Agent Chamberlain? You're the devil."

If Russ being played by Dean Winters doesn't immediately clue you in to his character, let me enlighten you: He's a stereotypical brazen, cynical detective with a harsh and crusty exterior... and apparently, an equally crusty interior to match. He's a good cop who gets results (often in an "ends justifies the means" type way) but not a widely liked person -- to understate the common dislike of him -- and he dislikes everyone right back. Milt is the exact opposite. He is, in fact, unreal in how perfect he is. Never a hair out of place, and he's kind and gracious to everyone he meets -- to the point of naïveté. He goes by the book, never seems to be wrong, and every resources and technology is at his fingertips. So Russ absolutely hates him. But there's something off and insincere about Milt's unfailing positive attitude, and Russ, the only person not taken in by it, is determined to uncover what he suspects is a very dark past for Milt.

Ah, Milt. Dumpster-diving and still spotless. Meanwhile, Russ is almost always injured in some way.

There's also a large supporting cast present who all get a turn in the spotlight, and add rich depth and humor to the show. The precinct Commander () finally breaks the spell of all police captains in crime dramas being annoying to me with a leader who's not just there to create roadblocks and be hard-nosed about everything. Holly () the office manager is a fun character; she's a secret genius, and figures out just as many cases as the detectives do. She also has a will-they-won't-they romantic tension going with Russ, which has its due ups and downs. There's detectives Erin () and Aaron () and Font () and Niblet () with their own thoughtfully-developed personalities; and the ME () is quite a stubborn foul-mood-ed handful, which is quite amusing to see her play in scenes with Milt, who she loves, and Russ, who she hates, while Russ hates both of them and Milt loves both of them.

Erin, Niblet, Font, Aaron, and Holly.

In the middle of all these fun relationships, they solve crime! On the surface, it masquerades as a typical cop show. There's a new case to solve every week, and they are solved by following clues and evidence and interviewing suspects... etc, etc, with lots of insults and cynicism on Russ's part, and overly-dramatic, inspiring speeches on Milt's... and wacky comparisons of maple syrup to meth, and police dog rivalries. The cases are taken seriously and there's real stakes at play -- and in some ways it goes even darker than an average serious drama -- but the ever-present cynical attitude creates a depth of meaning and comedy that is totally unexpected and totally inimitable.

It's almost satirical. It's definitely tongue-in-cheek. They put clichés into the script and give them a little twist, and suddenly... it's Battle Creek. It's a subtle thing, and there's nothing I can equate it to, but it's masterful. There will be a cheesy cliché, but it's turned around into not a cliché, so it's not cheesy, so it actually, successfully conveys the idea that the original cheesy cliché was going for! And thus the show is filled with an amazing amount of unexpectedly poignant character moments, while never having to sacrifice a single bit of humor to get them because the humor was built in, allowing for, and practically creating the sincere moment.

The best duos are the unexpected ones. And the ones that make you laugh.

And I promise, if you start this show and love it you'll love the way it ends too. After falling in love with this show the possibility of a weak ending worried me quite a bit, but happily everything that we want to see wrap up gets wrapped up -- season-arcing mysteries and character tensions, and there was nothing left wanting. Not that I hypothetically wouldn't say no to more episodes, but these thirteen left me ultimately satisfied, and it's better that the show ended on a high note with a few ideas unexplored, rather than fizzling out after a few seasons, tired and empty.

The mysteries are smart at an average level, but Battle Creek rises above the mantra by never striving to confuse you with gimmicks and endless rabbit trails that lead to the bad guy being pulled out of a hat for the end twist. It keeps its plots neat and honest, and well-written in the details, and I appreciated that. I guess the whole show is so great and memorable because of the way it was developed. The pretty normal plots that were given outstanding details to enhance them; the script that edged on clichéd and satirical at the same time; and the characters, who were made to be stereotypes just so they can point and laugh before breaking out of them in impressive and humorous ways. With its brilliantly unique self-aware wit, a winning good-cop bad-cop duo, and plenty of heart to keep you invested, this show is nine hours and forty-five minutes of an unexpectedly good time of crime-solving -- the Battle Creek way.

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