“The truth is always dark. That’s how you know it’s the truth.”
After the mixed bag that was Backstrom’s pilot, I entered this second episode with open expectations. I was ready to give it the benefit of the doubt since pilots are not always representative of what the series turns out to be. In this case though, Backstrom’s second episode is cut from a very similar cloth as the first one was. And that cloth is already beginning to accumulate a lot of holes.
While the first episode looked at drugs and homicide, we’re treated to a serial arsonist case this time, as that random “Special Crimes” moniker really broadens itself already by the second episode. It’s an arsonist this week. It could be an animal poacher the following, or a possessed pedophile after that—actually, that’s probably getting saved for Sweeps Week. This broadness could certainly help the show in terms of keeping cases fresh and varied, but pick a focus, would you? Audiences are going to get whiplash or just disoriented after a while.
Again we’re reminded of Backstrom’s ornery nature early on as we see him puffing away on his trademark cigars right in front of a burned down house. When the child that lived in the house asks if Backstrom’s going to catch the arsonist that has rendered him homeless, Backstrom scoffs at him and shoos him away lest he harsh his cigar high.
Before we’re even out of the cold open, Backstrom has put together a ridiculous theory that firefighters are starting fires in houses and then robbing them. Backstrom finds a solo lovebird figurine at the crime scene and another large leap is taken here with Backstrom deducing that these houses must be getting robbed because lovebird figurines always come in pairs. A lone one in the house must mean the other was stolen (although why both weren’t stolen, or at least, the remaining “evidence” disposed of never gets addressed).
This idea is paired with the fact that Backstrom was wronged by some firefighters when he was a child. He refers to them all as “glory hogs and thieves” as he shuts down the rest of his team and sends them out to do work that none of them seem that confident in. Again I ask why would any of these people want to work with Backstrom? At numerous points people should be saying, “None of this makes any sense.” Or when the dots do connect in Backstrom’s assumptions (because of course they do), people should at least be acknowledging how unlikely and coincidental this has all been. This entire case gets kicked off on a personal prejudice of Backstrom’s rather than real evidence. More often than not the Special Crimes unit seems to just be operating off of this madman’s whims.
How the writers are choosing to portray and establish Backstrom is the weakest aspect of the show so far. There’s the feeling that if they’re not constantly reminding us of his faults, we’ll forget that they’re there. There’s a very peculiar scene that’s made to look like Backstrom is drinking liquor from the burned down house while on the job. He acts dazed and talks slurred, but quickly informs us that it’s just “water that I brought from home because fires make me thirsty.”
This show is constantly full of moments where we think we see Backstrom acting unscrupulously only for the show to reveal that it’s actually a piece of his hard-to-understand “genius.” That it’s that universe that speaks out to him, as we were told last week. The thing is, his explanation here doesn’t make any sense. He brought water from home—that’s in a liquor bottle, mind you—because being in the presence of fires makes him get thirsty. What? It’d have been better if he was just stealing alcohol and drinking while on the clock—even though that might shatter our ability to empathize with our protagonist in the second episode—but it’s at least a more confident, logical character choice.
It’s especially embarrassing when you see Backstrom essentially bullying the grown-up D’Agostino brothers when they’re handcuffed, and when they try to defend themselves, Backstrom’s crew tells them to stop. It’s an uncomfortable abuse of power. What’s even worse is how the firefighters respond later when they “bully” Backstrom back, practically putting his life in danger to teach him a lesson.
As headway happens to be made on the arsonist case, they find out that the part responsible is a group of arsonists called The Green Flame. The reason being that the group uses acids as accelerants that end up giving off a green hue. They’ve set 17 fires so far, but have started upping their game by suddenly targeting humans. It would have been a saving grace if we found out this was a team of pyro-based supervillains with Backstrom finally meeting his Big Bads for the year. But alas, it’s just humans. Humans being derivative criminals.
More detective work brings the team to Ms. Norberg, a fire sculptor—which is a thing that’s real—as well as being someone who is just generally obsessed with fire and green flames specifically, which seems like a lead that’s a little too good to be true. When they hit her up, almost immediately she compares fire to orgasms and confesses to being an arsonist. In case the show still hadn’t made its point yet, she even goes into a monologue about how “sex and fires have much in common,” where she waxes on about loins and the taste of ashes. Honestly, about thirty seconds into this meeting the detectives should have just been like, “We’ll do this another time. You’re clearly on ecstasy.” And so at least two episodes into the series, the female characters aren’t getting any more refined or fully realized.
Mind you this is also following when the female side of the Special Crimes unit were ogling the firefighters’ calendar, featuring the hunky D’Agostino brothers. Not long after we see Backstrom trying to smell the hair of one of his co-workers with there being little bearing to it. Yep, men are just muscles and women are just bundles of emotions and sexuality, right people? Oh, and there’s also a bet made between Backstrom and Valentine on whether Valentine “can turn” Niedermayer, so at least all sexualities are being equally stereotyped. In spite of the reductive nature of these scenes, they are at least entertaining for how blatant and exposed they are. I’d rather watch something broad like this that is still trying to say something—as misogynistic as it may be—than just a dry, lifeless scene where they talk to a male fire artist that just washes over you.
Another suspect that’s brought in is billed as a “fire aficionado” with his house being filled with burned relics. None of these suspects end up going anywhere other than filling up the episode’s runtime and giving the impression that the world is full of more fire-obsessed people than you’d think. The series makes it feel like basically every other person is an arsonist or pyro here.
Amongst all of this flailing, the strongest character on the show so far is the beleaguered Detective Gravely. Watching her just try to do her job right, maneuvering around Backstrom’s insanity is a nice dynamic to the show, and stretches of the episode that focus on her actually seem to work. It almost makes you feel like if the show were from her perspective as she watched the brash, new Backstrom get put in charge of her team it would be a better perspective for the show to take. Backstrom would even be a stronger character if we saw him along the edges of everything instead of the show trying to put us in his head. There’s a refreshing moment towards the end of the episode where Backstrom relinquishes control to Gravely that should be a step in the right direction. However, Backstrom stammers and makes such a big production out of admitting that he was wrong, that it nearly defeats the purpose of the whole thing.
The episode concludes pretty conventionally and there’s a sweet upbeat moment that it goes out on, but it’s not enough to make all of this feel cohesive. I’m sorry for being so negative and harsh on this show here. The premiere started off to great numbers so it’s entirely possible that Backstrom might be sticking around.
Make no mistake, I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy this show, but rather, I’m just so confounded and interested in it. It’s baffling to watch as so many senseless decisions are made that cater to all the wrong things, like “biting dialogue” or jokes to exit a scene on. There were numerous times in this episode where I unconsciously uttered “What?” out of confusion. It feels like so many different parts moving out of sync with each other, that it’s currently just a mess of a sideshow and will be until it irons these issues out.
There’s still time for Backstrom to become a more competent program and to be the sort of cynical show that it’s trying so hard to be (with exchanges like, “You’re going to die alone, Everett.” “You idiots. We all die alone.”), but in the meantime it’s just a lot of fun watching this show try to juggle it all and sort it out. It’s infinitely more entertaining than a procedural like Scorpion or NCIS: New Orleans, because its perspective is so unusual and skewed, and whether this eventually turns into a good show or not, just watching Wilson conduct all of these misfires is enough for now.
And if not, we’ll probably get to those supervillains that are still biding their time until they finally show themselves to Backstrom and his team soon enough.