Battle Creek is CBS’ slightly offbeat and highly enjoyable cop show starring Josh Duhamel and Dean Winters (famous for his “Mayhem” in those clever Allstate commercials) as FBI Special Agent Milton Chamberlin and Battle Creek Police Department Detective Russ Agnew. The series, which is equal parts drama and humor also stars acclaimed British actress Janet McTeer and Kal Penn (who adds his great deadpan humor to the mix).
The show revolves around the small, poorly funded police department of Battle Creek, Michigan, it’s world-weary, rumpled, cynical detective Russ Agnew and the sudden intrusion into this world by newly assigned FBI special agent (and new partner) Milton Chamberlin. Chamberlin is nearly Agnew’s opposite: a virtual Ken Doll of perfection (outwardly, anyway), and a huge thorn in his new partner’s side. Agnew itches to know Chamberlin’s real story, and why such a model of FBI-ness landed in the pit of the police world.
The series was created by Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) and David Shore (House). I had a chance to catch up with Shore, who spoke with me about the series, and even a little bit about his iconic creation, House, M.D.
Tell my readers about the concept behind Battle Creek.
As the poster says… Not all cops are buddies. It was this characterization that Vince developed that initially attracted me to this. Two cops, same objectives but very different views of the world; how does this affect their work and more fundamentally, how does it affect their lives; and how does it affect how the world sees and interacts with them. And even more fundamentally, are they who we think they are?
I love the casting of the show. How did you come to cast Josh Duhamel and Dean Winters?
Josh was the first name we thought of for Milt and Vince (Gilligan) and I had lunch with him and we never looked back. Josh loved the idea of playing with perceptions; all those things I discussed above BUT making sure everything was more complicated than it seemed. Which was completely in keeping with our thinking. Dean took longer to find. But when his name finally did come up and Bryan (Singer) and I met with him it became apparent that he was perfect. On the surface, he’s rough, but his eyes communicate so much more. Again, we wanted the surface to be true. To some extent. It was crucial that there be so much more to the story.
What sorts of stories do you want to tell with these new characters in this new universe you’re creating?
It’s a cop show. But it’s a cop show set in a small city. And we want the crimes to reflect that. If a story could be told on CSI or one of those shows, we don’t want to tell it. Yes, we want stakes and we want scares but we want to be a little more personal. (And a little more fun.)
Can you talk a little about your main characters of Russ and Milt, who they are and what will make their relationship interesting as time goes on?
As time goes on, as we answer questions about each of them; hopefully we will be raising more, deeper questions. To me, that’s the beauty of television: the long-term exploration of character.
The show seems a mix of procedural/humor, and possibly some interesting character stuff. What’s the balance?
I agree but I hate breaking things down like that. When we’re doing it right, hopefully we’re doing all those things basically at the same time. The procedural should be fun but with real tension AND it should be revealing things about the characters.
One of the things that made House extraordinary was that you so beautifully used the procedural formula to explore everything from hypocrisy to religion to medical ethics. Will Battle Creek’s landscape allow for the same sorts of things, and what do you have in mind going forward (if so…)
Hopefully. That’s what I like to do. The mysteries being solved have to be interesting and our characters have to be smart and that’s fun to write but, fundamentally, the reason for telling the stories is to explore deeper questions (not to answer them but to explore them).
A lot of my readers are fans of House. And I’ve noticed that Tommy Moran and the great writing team of Lerner and Friend are also on your team of writer producers. What about Battle Creek will intrigue House fans?
I think it has a similar sense of humor. It definitely has the same sense of fun. And the desire to punch holes in hypocrisy. And never to be satisfied with simple answers. And it has me (and Moran and Friend & Lerner and Kal Penn). The same stuff that drew me to the stories and character explorations in House will be what draws me to the stories and character explorations here. Hopefully, the House fans will be similarly drawn.
Speaking of House (and Kal Penn), it’s great to see Kal on Battle Creek. What’s in store for his character? Will we see any more House-folk on the show?
Well we’ve already seen Peter Jacobson. And Candice Bergen. And we have some great stories for Kal (and I’ve promised him that Font [his character] will not kill himself unless he gets another job offer from the White House).
(Author’s note: Penn’s character committed suicide when Penn went off to work in the Obama White House in 2009.)
You are competing in a very difficult time slot on Sunday nights, and hopefully CBS will give you the room you need to find your audience. Any comment on that?
From your mouth to whoever’s ears need to hear that.
(Author’s note: The ratings of the series have not been great, and the series deserves that chance, so please do tune in!)
My readers would shoot me if I didn’t talk a little bit of House with you (I hope you don’t mind). The ending of the series was about as perfect (and Holmseian) an ending as could have been. With 20/20 hindsight at your disposal and through the perspective of nearly two years since the series end, would you share your thoughts about the character of House, the ending arc of the series, and whether, if you could go back and change anything, what it might be?
Thank you. Would I have done anything different? Undoubtedly. But I try not to dwell on that. That show was everything I could have possibly hoped it would be and way more in so many ways. The idea of parsing what I did wrong would be incredibly ungracious.
Battle Creek airs Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. ET on CBS.
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