Backstrom: Takes One to Know One Review

In which religion is the killer and Backstrom is God…

“There’s no difference between cult and religion.”

There’s a very big scene in this episode where Rainn Wilson screams, “I AM THE WALRUS!” in front of a congregation of people, and so, regardless of anything else that happens in this episode (or series, even), let’s not forget that we at least had that at one point. The episode may simply be trying to see if we’ve fallen asleep or not, but it’s this insane sort of tone that Backstrom should be embracing more. There’s almost an entire act of this episode where Backstrom is trying to solve the case while on experimental tiger tranquilizers (to assuage his insomnia, naturally), so we see him acting even more ridiculous and unconventional than normal, when a standard sort of police force would just say, “Alright, let’s bench this guy for the night.”

This uneven craziness is framed around a murdered youth pastor—a murdered female youth pastor, in fact—with the suspicion of a cult being involved. As a result, the episode takes religion under its offensive gaze of scrutiny, and I suppose it’s about time with it being three episodes in. Broad, big statements are made here on faith as Backstrom complains about all organized religion. He says that they all just keep secrets and that he hates secrets. He actually makes a point of saying that.

But maybe Backstrom deserves to be given some slack this week. After all, he’s been suffering from nightmares and facing severe sleep problems, which helps him fit into his “tortured soul” role all the better. Don’t worry though; Backstrom doesn’t let this affect his usual, ornery behavior. We see him calling people “granny” and “chubbo,” but ain’t he so darn cute as he does it? There’s literally a scene where someone says, “That’s not in the book,” as Backstrom responds with, “Well, it’s in the Backstrom book,” as he goes ahead and marches towards ignoring policy. It might also be time to start a drinking game for how often Backstrom says his own name. You’ll be wasted by the end of this ep (which might help, honestly) if you get a start on it now.

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The religion that the murdered youth pastor, Emma, was a part of, talks of things like rays reflecting edification to the semesters of followers (not “clusters” of followers, as Backstrom may lead you to believe, and I actually chuckled the fifth time he made the mistake/”joke”). As Backstrom and crew get deeper into this wacky congregation/cult, they seem more and more like the main suspect here. This is the typical twisted religion stuff you always see too, with the religion on display here being a surrogate for Scientology as people buy their way up through levels. A little more original of a take on all of this would have been nice. The specifics of the case aren’t what are so interesting this week, with Backstrom himself proving to be the more fascinating subject.

Amidst all of these tonal misfires there’s some nice, cute self-awareness that goes down with Backstrom insisting that someone else shoot a suspect because he “shot somebody last week.” Perfect. That’s the atmosphere and tone that this show works in best. Backstrom needs more of that.

Moments too, like where a ribbon with “I am loyal” written on it is pulled out of a murder victim, surprisingly work. If this show is going to be super dreary, it might as well take these crazy swings and try to disturb us. It’s like that hung bird from last week, only less ridiculous. There’s an unnecessarily gruesome rendition of Emma’s stabbing that plays up this angle, too.

The thing that this episode is most likely going to be remembered for is that it introduces the always-reliable Sarah Chalke, as Amy Gazanian, in a recurring role. Chalke’s Gazanian is an immediately good addition to the cast, as her and Backstrom analyze and break each other down within moments of reuniting. Gazanian is apparently a former love interest of Backstrom (“We met over corpses,” he tells us), which probably isn’t a necessary detail and throws a lot of clunky baggage into what would be an otherwise stronger character.

Gazanian gets marginalized just like every other female on the show, but she’s the strongest, most capable woman, so of course Backstrom was engaged to her. She literally kisses him only scenes in, as the direction their relationship is heading down becomes more than cleat. What’s worse is the rest of the team actively discusses how great she is, and how much sex appeal Backstrom has (which is “some,” in spite of the constant behavior of his that says otherwise). Every episode we’ve seen the show idolize and put Backstrom on a pedestal, which is not that big of an offense in a show that is named after him, but it’s how sloppy and hollow these gestures of praise come off that’s the problem.

PS: Backstrom is calling Gravely things like “a lump” as she does the heavy lifting of the police work between them. That being said, their chemistry and dynamic is working better and becoming kind of fun in a Booth-and-Bones-sort-of-way (I haven’t seen any of the 200 episodes on Bones), if it wasn’t so misogynistic.

The most encouraging part of the episode is the reveal that Backstrom’s sleep problems are maybe because he’s deeply haunted by the man he killed in the pilot. And granted, Wilson’s performance is at its best in this scene. It’s just a shame that these pangs of guilt are only present when it’s convenient.

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Eventually we find out that Emma had doubts and was a traitor to the religion, which is why she was killed, and that works just fine. It works. But it’s pretty standard stuff. The final leg, which involves figuring out who has programmed these people, is also predictable. It lands on virtually the only remaining suspect it could be, and things wrap up as per us (and some statutory rape is thrown in for good measure). It’s another piece in establishing what this show is, and at the moment, that’s a pretty messy, cynical procedural. But it’s getting better at it, and I’m hopeful this show figures out how to balance all of this more effectively so it’s actually a ridiculously good show rather than just a ridiculous one.

Now go feed your soul some short ribs.


2 out of 5