Fox’s Backstrom: Series Premiere Review

Rainn Wilson is Everett Backstrom, the latest rude, brash, unbelievable detective to hit your television screen!

“Make a friend?” 

Remember House, you guys? That belligerent but brilliant doctor who solved medical mysteries week in and week out? For a long time people everywhere loved House. They loved it to the point that this curmudgeon-savant sort of series set-up became a sub-genre in itself. In the time that House has been absent from FOX’s lineup, the network has finally found a new heir apparent in the form of police procedural, Backstrom

Created by Bones mastermind Hart Hanson (and with Bones now in its tenth season, Backstrom might end up sticking around for a while…), the detective series stars Rainn Wilson as Everett Backstrom. Hanson’s Backstrom was originally developed for CBS before being dropped. FOX snatched it up and a lot of the time it feels like a failed pilot. We learn that Backstrom was demoted to traffic duty for five years over a slip-up on a conviction and his behavior at a press conference. However, Backstrom is finally back on the “Special Crimes” beat, baby, and he’s practically bragging about the behavior that got him in trouble.

Let’s talk about Backstrom himself for a minute. Gambling? Check. Cigars? Check. Prostitutes? Check. What an against-the-rules protagonist! Nearly every character has some seedy sub-trait acting as depth, as this show tries to convince us that it really is dark. Backstrom is almost never not talking about how condemned humanity is and how broken we are as a people. He’s constantly sneering out cliché pieces of cynicism like, “I don’t see the worst in everyone. I see the everyone in everyone.” 

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We even get the obligatory sad backstory drenched in daddy issues, as the beloved “Old Sheriff Backstrom” actually made Everett’s childhood a living hell, as he pistol whipped him before he hit his teen years, among other things. 

This opening episode’s case deals with a dead boy—a dead senator’s boy—so you know that it’s serious. The shot of the dead boy is actually pretty jarring and disturbing. It’s probably something this show fought for and prides itself in. The body hangs gratuitously in the background of a lot of accompanying shots, if only to remind you of the grimness that is everywhere. In spite of the challenge of the murder case, Backstrom’s biggest struggle in the episode is his prescribed order to make a friend. The sort of struggle that shows like this pride themselves in as Backstrom tries to juggle a murder case and this personal piece of improvement. If this man could just open up!

It’s kind of ridiculous how hard this show pushes Backstrom to be unconventional and incorrigible. He almost seems to be doing it just for the sake of it. At the crime scene he immediately blames the African American that’s nearby, simply because of his race, accusing him of being, “A lone raisin in a bowl of buttered popcorn.” Later on he yells at the boy’s corpse and accuses him of personally trying to embarrass him and make him look foolish. This is insane, unhinged, egomaniacal behavior and it’s nice to see the show pushing Wilson and Backstrom in this direction. They just need to be careful to not go too far. It’s appreciated that this pilot doesn’t waste a lot of time introducing this cast or giving messy exposition, but Backstrom absolutely feels like a caricature with this acting as our introduction.

What’s even worse is how the show nearly bends over backwards to prove that Backstrom is right. That random African American he’s suspicious of and accused earlier? He ends up being dirty.  And if all of these close-minded statements end up helping in the end, then they’re therefore okay, right? That’s the biggest idea that Backstrom is pushing here. This bigoted behavior is also passed off as some sort of special power that Backstrom has. People even go so far as to say that, “He listens to the universe speak.” Which, come on. Listen to that statement. 

Backstrom is a good detective, sure. He has good hunches and he follows the identifiable heroin trail well, but he’s hardly some sort of Messiah. Especially with his behavior. Half of the things he says to his co-workers while on the job would easily get him fired, as he flippantly calls females “horny” and fails to take anyone seriously. Why would anyone want to work with him? Characters around him highlight his problems and quirks, but the show acts as if simply acknowledging these faults is the same thing as fixing them. It only ends up drawing more attention to them. It’s really too much when Backstrom finds himself at a strip club and starts spouting wild generalizations on the entire gender as a whole. At one point a woman calls Backstrom “Satan” and he bursts with delight, looking the most alive that he has all episode and you almost feel like he’s going to confess to being the Fallen Angel. This show is so broad and big, Backstrom might as well be the Devil in human form. 

Speaking of the rest of the cast, no one else really manages to chisel out much of a personality here in the first episode, but there is good chemistry amongst everyone. It even feels like we’re jumping maybe five or ten episodes into the first season with how comfortable everyone is and the rapport that’s established. If anyone stands out here though it’s Dennis Haysbert as Sgt. John Almond, who finds himself opposite Rainn Wilson the most. There’s a nice back-and-forth between them as they obviously feed off of their opposing energies. 

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As a procedural, there’s nothing special here. It feels like something you could see on any of the other wealth of crime shows out there. Even worse, with Backstrom’s department conveniently being the vague “Special Crimes,” essentially everything is fair game. It seems impossible for this show to distinguish itself amongst everything else out there. House was certainly a similar case, but the medical drama market was certainly less saturated, and there was a real mystery element to the episodes too. Here the case moves along pretty much how you’d expect it to, with Backstrom’s personality being the most interesting/perplexing thing about it.

To be fair, Wilson is really doing the most with what he has. The script is the source of all of this broadness and shoddy scripting and Wilson shouldn’t exactly be blamed for the faults here. He’s channeling much of the same energy he had in James Gunn’s Super, which is always something I’m in support of (why couldn’t this have just been a Super TV series?). That being said, the performance is also very one-note and often shifts into feeling like a Michael Scott-less Dwight Schrute run amok.

Unfortunately the episode also feels slow and lacks the addictive, kinetic energy that a pilot should have. The show fails to highlight that it’s capable of flashy action sequences (foregoing one stylistic shoot out in a strip club) and kind of sloughs through it all, just like Backstrom himself seems tired and over all of this.

The most exciting sequence in the episode sees Backstrom needlessly killing a criminal, but when it’s misconstrued as self-defense he runs with it and accepts his “hero” status. It’s a chilling idea that Backstrom might be comfortable killing someone and just moving on from it all and accepting the glory. It makes you wonder what else he’s done and it’s a fascinating idea, but one that doesn’t exactly feel appropriate in this show. Tone remains a looming issue with the series, and if it can figure out what it should be and where it belongs, it could end up being a big success. 

In the meantime, get those cigars ready. Because every Thursday you and Backstrom are hitting them hard. 

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

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