The locals in Battle Creek who like to complain about, well, everything, were certain that this series would be a hash job on this once-famous hamlet. They dismissed it, just as they once dismissed the hot air balloon championship, the "cruise the gut" events downtown, or resurrected attempts at live theatre (of course, they do nothing to promote their city in the meantime, they just drink their bottomless coffees and mutter into their doughnuts). Their dwindling numbers contribute little more than illogical ventilations on the newspaper's editorial page, or perhaps random radio rants on the local station whose fortunes have sunk such that it can no longer afford a call-in meteorologist.
"Battle Creek" has had two episodes now, and it's fun, but it does have some problems. The main one is that it was a back-burner project thrust into hasty production due to the success of "Breaking Bad" and "House" -- with Vince Gilligan and David Shore giving it the attention they could, but it was certainly not undivided.
"Battle Creek" has a near manic pacing, so much that the murder in the first episode is nearly buried beneath all the attention to character quirks, occasionally representing spectacularly bad policework termed the "Battle Creek Way" (a phrase that vanishes by the second episode) - when Dean Winters as Russ Agnew handles an evidenciary gun and takes a bite from the fleshy evidence on it, announcing "anchovy" and a resolution of the crime, you wince less at the possible cannibalistic action of the scene and more at the sheer sloppiness of the method: why not have Josh Duhamel (Milt Chamberlain, a cute but not that clever of a character name) protest Agnew's intended action, and then have Agnew grab Chamberlain's arm while he holds the gun in gloved hand, and then bring it to his mouth to take the bite of anchovy? That would be a "Battle Creek Way" - pragmatic, but achieving an end by working around established rules. Something very simple, but what was shown just seemed like an underdeveloped idea.
In "Battle Creek" the interior settings are strangely dark, the exteriors strangely bright, the downtown incredibly long and large, and sometimes the green-screen backgrounds repeat themselves within the same shot, much as the backgrounds of a Hanna-Barbara cartoon did in our misspent youths. In fact, for a town of 50,000, this representation of Battle Creek has the breadth of a Grand Rapids at 200,000. This strange disconnect percolates through a press conference in the first episode, attended by dozens of cameramen and reporters, or in the second where a marihuana dispensary seems to be the size of a city block. The actual media in the Surreal City no longer includes a local television station, the newspaper struggles to keep a dozen staff employed, and itinerant dispensaries hop from storefront to storefront.
The plot line in the second episode, dealing with a "maple syrup cartel" in southwest Michigan, wasn't necessarily surreal or odd, it just came across as random nonsense. Now, it could be that "maple syrup" was originally intended as an aside to the cereal industry here, but when it comes to mentioning cereal and Battle Creek in the same sentence these days, the elephant in the room wishes to remain anonymous...Kellogg has become focused on not being associated with Battle Creek as it slowly shuffles its headquarters to Grand Rapids or becomes a buyout target. In fact, it is the Post cereal plant and not the Kellogg plant that is fleetingly viewed during the opening credits of the series. The maple syrup sap lines and hurriedly created processing plant are supposed to evoke memories of "Breaking Bad," but the joke is muddled by not being completely thought through. Why a "cartel" - why not just a mobster with an obsession over maple syrup? Or the Kal Penn character craving shredded wheat with syrup after his migraine "therapies." To some of my associates, a "maple syrup cartel" plotline simply jumped the shark.
The series reportedly has its 13 episodes in the can at this point, and I'll be happy to add them to my collection of Battle Creek ephemera when the DVDs emerge. It's still quite exciting to see establishing shots filmed a block from one's home on a network program, after all. If "Battle Creek" gets a second season, I hope that these talented producers will have a chance to exhale from their other projects and think through their outlines a bit more - is "Battle Creek" supposed to be a milder "Twin Peaks" or some amalgam of "Green Acres" with "Matlock"?