Sometimes, pedigree just isn’t enough. Take Battle Creek. It’s written by David Shore (creator of House) and Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad); its first episode is directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men, X-Men: Days of Future Past). It has ‘winner’ written all over it.
But it’s poor. It’s very poor. It’s a buddy-buddy cop dramedy set in the little town of Battle Creek, Michigan. What kind of buddy-buddy, you might wonder? Is one neat, one tidy? Does one play by the book and is the other a Maverick? One black, one white? Male, female? Gay, straight? Old, young? Blue collar, white collar?
No, surprisingly, Shore and Gilligan have gone for “rich, talented and handsome” versus “poor, incompetent and ugly”.
Dean Winters (best known as Liz Lemon’s bad ex-boyfriend in 30 Rock) stars as a Battle Creek police detective who has had to try to solve small town crimes on a small town budget. No wires, so baby monitors will have to do; tasers that don’t work; and so on - you get the picture. As a result, he has to cut a few corners here and there.
Of course, it’s easy to blame a low clear up rate, your suspect ethics and all your problems on your tools if you’re a bad workman… or your tools really do suck. But then Josh Duhamel (Las Vegas) arrives in town. A high-achieving FBI special agent, he has all the skills, resources and looks Winters doesn’t. Will Winters be able to cope, dwelling in the shadow of this golden boy? Or will he - like Duhamel’s previous work colleagues - try to get him shunted to some other god-foresaken outpost somewhere, as soon as it’s humanly possible?
That’s really all the show is built around and there’s not much to like about it. The two halves of the first episode show the problem quite well: the first half, while not especially well written, actually has the comic potential, with the fun pairing of Winters and co-worker Kal Penn (House) doing well milking their failed tech problems for all they’re worth. Then Duhamel turns up and the comedy becomes all about how Winters can’t do something, but Duhamel can because he has a forensics lab, etc. Time after time, whatever Winters wants to do, Duhamel simply does it. There’s no challenge.
There’s also no chemistry. Duhamel is the square cut Platonic ideal of an FBI agent, but little more, and the two have the easy going relationship and interactions most people have with alabaster. It’s not Duhamel’s fault so much as the fault of the set-up, which doesn’t lend itself to normal human interactions. And while there’s the potential for drama rather than comedy, the show doesn’t seem inclined to have Duhamel lording it over Winters rather than simply being oblivious to the effect he has on others.
On top of the fact the crime the couple investigate in the first episode isn’t that interesting, thrilling or complicated, and the supporting cast (bar Penn) aren’t worth watching either, you have a show that merely exists to fill up a Sunday evening schedule and add to CBS’s annual crime show quota.
In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, CBS In the UK: Acquired by Channel 5 for Spring broadcast
For a long-time, CBS's CSI franchise had a world record. One of its glorious members, which included CSI: Crime Scene Investigations, CSI: Miami and CSi: New York, was not only the most watched TV show in the world, it was also the most stupid. It was just atomically stupid - if you could have distilled the stupid in CSI: Miami and then drunk it, you could have proved maths wrong because if you have a 1 and you add 1 to it, you get 11, not 2, don’t you, nerd? And then the world would have ended and we’d have reverted to an agrarian, barter-based economy that could only ever trade one item at a time.
But the era of CSI: Miami is no more, David Caruso is no longer on our screens and the world’s average IQ has increased by a point or two as a result. That doesn’t mean the Carusometer doesn’t miss it, of course, but all good things come to an end eventually.
Since the demise of CSI: Miami, CBS has made a concerted effort to come up with shows equally as stupid, the latest of which has been Scorpion, in which a bunch of technical geniuses get together to fight crime and solve problems by attaching ethernet cables to 747s as they fly overhead. Even if you have no knowledge of IT at all, you can probably tell that’s as dumb as hitting yourself in the face with a brick. All the same, Scorpion has never quite hit the heights of CSI: Miami’s awe-inspiring numbskullery.
Clearly hoping to fill the stupid vacuum and perhaps ultimately bring back the plough and chicken-swap meet, CBS has asked the CSI producers to come up with something that makes you feel like a drill is slowly working its way through your temple and into your frontal lobes while you watch it. And they've come up trumps again, with an astonishingly poor piece of television that once again has the power to reduce propositional calculus down to “Because duh!"
Originally piloted as an episode of the mothership, CSI: Crime Scene Investigations, CSI: Cyber eschews the tyranny of geography and the physical in favour of the unlimited potential of cyberspace, giving us a crack unit dedicated to fighting computer crime around the US. A decent idea with a lot of potential, one might think, with the opportunity to fight state hackers employed by Russia, China and North Korea, intent on stealing government secrets; organised gangs who write ransomware or extort major companies with phishing emails and DDoS attacks; or break-ins into SCADA systems by terrorists. The opportunities are vast, the scale of the problem potentially massive. This could be big.
So naturally, for this first episode, big boss “cyber psychologist” Patricia Arquette petitions her mumbling growling boss, Numb3rs' Peter MacNichol, to put her five-strong FBI team in charge of an investigation into a baby kidnapping. Because the parents heard 'foreign voices' on the baby intercom.
Just have a think about that for a minute. Think about the sheer mind-numbing, xenophobic implausibility of it all. One day, you're busily chasing people who know how to perform MySQL injections, exploit zero-day Adobe Acrobat security flaws and use Tor to navigate the ‘dark web’. The next, you basically decide to get yourself onto a case in which an actual person has been kidnapped, possibly by people with guns, because there's a chance that both a piece of electronics and foreigners were involved.
Okey doke. Where are my Shades of Justice?
Of course, despite the fact that you'd need dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands, of highly trained, highly intelligent computer scientists working round the clock to service all the computer crimes already being committed in the US at the moment, the Oscar-winning Arquette - who's apparently already undergoing the surgical procedure that turned Golden Globe-winning actor David Caruso into CSI: Miami's Carusobot - has opted for the lesser known "They'll do” approach to assemble her team. As well as her half-robot self, she has "soldier boy" James Van Der Beek to stride around doing manly things like shooting. His qualification for this particular job is that he likes gaming. No really. This is official:
Elijah Mundo (James Van Der Beek) is Avery's second in command and a senior field agent assigned to FBI's Quantico Cyber Crime division. He is an expert in battlefield forensics, weaponry, vehicles and bombs. An avid gamer, on or off duty, he's always on the field of battle.
Van Der Beek has, of course, been doing very well for himself in comedy shows for the past few years, something for which he has actual talent. Unfortunately, his over-sized Canadian Connecticut brain apparently won't let him embrace the stupid so readily, because he prowls through every scene like he's about to deliver the best one-liner you've ever heard - one so good it will coruscate the absolute ridiculousness of everything he encounters. Except he never gets to say it and he just sort of smirks instead. Take a look at that promo shot above: he can't even take that seriously. Every cell in his body wants to send this show up.
After that, it all starts to get even sillier. You didn’t think that was possible, did you? We have a former black hat hacker (Shad Moss), whom the team had previously arrested, out on a sort of prison-release programme to help them - it's CBS, he’s black so naturally, he's the criminal; we have the white hat hacker (Charley Koontz) who caught the black hat hacker and is largely there to emphasise the point that anyone male who knows about computers must be overweight and not especially good with people (cf Scorpion); and we have a not-overweight female geek, who because she’s female tackles the girly end of cybercrime over in social media and ‘cyber trends’. I’d make an IT pun on ‘token' at this point, but I’m pretty sure no one on the show’s writing staff would get even that level of techy in-joke.
Now there is a golden rule that it’s easier to take a good writer and teach them about a subject than to take a domain expert and teach them how to write, so to some extent expecting the writers of CSI: Cyber to know their TCP packet header from their PGP envelope is unrealistic. Even if they did, that’s not the stuff that drama is easily made of.
All the same, there’s not really that much excuse for starting the whole process with bad writers. Because the writing on this is bad. So, so bad. Even once you get beyond the ridiculous foundations of the show, the dialogue is just painful to listen it, the plotting makes you want to scream and the characterisation comes down to everyone shouting out their own live-action doxing. The acting is uniformly bad, from the central cast through to guest actors who seem to be auditioning for musical theatre the whole time. Even the set design is woeful, with our team of top computer experts forced to work in a generic giant-monitor-filled room, in front of their incredibly tidy desks, with not an IEEE specs document or Oracle manual in site. Where are the dozens of quarantined PCs grinding away under the desks? Where are the extra hard drives being forensically mirrored? Somewhere else, being looked after by the people doing the real work? People who are allowed to sit down on chairs?
If there’s one thing to come out of this whole sorry mess, it’s a realisation that CSI: Miami got through some pretty dreadful writing and years thanks to an engaging cast, some great photography and the power of android acting. Without those, you end up with something as truly dreadful - and not even entertainingly dreadful like Scorpion - as CSI: Cyber.
Literature - and in particular science fiction - has a long tradition of imagining what life would be like if everyone in the world was dead except for one person. Indeed, the very first English-language novel, Robinson Crusoe, is largely about one man’s exploits alone on a desert island. And since then, there’s been the likes of Castaway, Life After People, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, The Omega Man, Silent Running and even Red Dwarf.
A common theme ever since Crusoe has been that finally having no distractions and the chance to do whatever one wants by oneself is unbearable. And almost always the author gives in and provides the hero someone else with whom he can interact - because the story’s also pretty dull otherwise. Crusoe had his Man Friday, Silent Running had its little robots, Red Dwarf had its Rimmer and so on.
So in a sense, the similarly themed The Last Man on Earth is nothing new, despite being both a sitcom and having the unlikely home of Fox. The show sees Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte seemingly the only man alive in the whole of North America, if not the world, following the outbreak of a terrible virus (that apparently destroys human bodies right down to the skeletons, leaving no ugly dead bodies behind anywhere…). For over a year, he’s by himself doing whatever he wants, appropriating whatever he needs from wherever he visits, but apparently happy to settle down in a McMansion in his home town of Tucson, Arizona.
Gradually, he begins to realise there’s no point to life without other people and prays to God that He send someone, anyone, to end his loneliness - preferably female, though. God fails to answer, so Forte tries to kill himself. Except at the last moment, it turns out his prayers have been answered and there is one woman alive in the world still, and she’s found Forte.
Unfortunately, she’s Kristen Schaal. And just as Burgess Meredith discovered in Time Enough At Last, you should be careful what you wish for.
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I'm Rob Buckley, a freelance journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of, although you might have heard me on Radio 5 Live's Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I've edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for trade magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider and the equally short-lived Death Ray and Filmstar magazines; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it "web site for urban hedonists" The Tribe. I'm freelance now and have contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network and TV Scoop.