TV’s newest antihero is both a “House” and a Holmes.
Boasting the all-too-familiar presence of a tortured genius at its helm, Fox’s upcoming crime procedural “Backstrom” is faced with the formidable challenge of setting its prickly lead character apart from other primetime misfits – not to mention the literary icon at their collective core. Luckily, thanks to an affable ensemble, nimble pacing and wisely self-aware dialogue, the promising “Backstrom” does have other tricks up its sleeve.
Rainn Wilson (“The Office”) is top billed as grouchy, yet gifted homicide detective Everett Backstrom in the one-hour drama, airing Thursday nights at 9 p.m. EST starting Jan. 22. The series’ eponymous star character has already generated a host of comparison to similarly flawed leading men, especially Hugh Laurie’s brilliant and boorish diagnostician Dr. Gregory House and other contemporary Sherlock Holmes mutations. However, it’s Wilson’s own breakout “Office” alter ego, no-nonsense eccentric Dwight Schrute, who will likely give audiences the hardest memory to shake. Wilson himself can understandably relate.
The actor has admitted he wasn’t planning to tackle another TV commitment so soon after his nine-season “Office” job, but Wilson explained at this month’s Television Critics Association press tour that once his agents convinced him to give the “Backstrom” script a serious look, “it really hooked me in.” After all, he joked, “[Roles like this] just don’t come along often for weird looking, 48-year-old pasty white dudes.”
Those familiar with “Backstrom’s” many predecessors might be inclined to disagree. Based upon Leif G. W. Persson’s popular Swedish book series, “Backstrom” was adapted for the small screen by “Bones” showrunner Hart Hanson, who’s no stranger to socially inept protagonists. While unconventional “Bones” heroine Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) has helped carve a vital onscreen niche for complex female characters, the slovenly, cigar-chomping Backstrom bears a much closer resemblance to past TV gumshoes lacking the surface-level sophistication of their more elite peers. Lovably disheveled Columbo (Peter Falk) comes to mind when Backstrom dons his signature blaze-orange poncho, but hearing him spit racial epithets and misogynistic one-liners with alarming bravado also conjures memories of Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) of “NYPD Blue.”
The new series may present an approachable, if overly obvious, composite of influences, but balancing Backstrom’s oafish personality tics with a welcome blend of deadpan humor and lighthearted quirk helps the show’s otherwise disparate pieces form a reasonably well-crafted whole. The most extreme examples of Backstrom’s offensive behavior could be interpreted as shameless, even rote, shock tactics, if it weren’t for the show’s supportive harmony.
“24” alum and Allstate spokesman Dennis Haysbert makes for a compelling wingman as Backstrom’s level-headed and compassionate colleague Det. John Almond, whose embellished fedora enables the man to wear a literal feather in his cap. Precinct ingénue Det. Nicole Gravely (Genevieve Angelson, “House of Lies”) is the exasperated, by-the-book yin to Backstrom’s laissez-faire yang, generating the bulk of necessary incredulity toward her boss’s palpable oddities. Rounding out Backstrom’s gang are Page Kennedy (“Weeds”) as Moto, the squad’s uniformed heavy, Kristoffer Polaha (“Life Unexpected”) as philosophical forensics expert Sgt. Peter Niedermayer, and Beatrice Rosen (“2012”) as Nadia Paquet, a civilian investigator with a mysterious past. Finally, Thomas Dekker (“The Secret Circle”) is on hand as Backstrom’s black-market informant and, yes, interior decorator. The pair’s offbeat father-son relationship belies some of Backstrom’s most glaring insensitivity, suggesting his homophobic jabs and other intolerant remarks are indeed a mere facade or defense mechanism. Surprise, surprise.
The emotional depth Backstrom might be hiding underneath his repugnant exterior begins to reveal itself early on, as the first four episodes successfully establish a narrative trajectory aimed beyond what the formulaic structure has to offer on its own. Impending guest arcs, namely from Sarah Chalke (“Scrubs”) as Backstrom’s ex-fiancée and Robert Forster (“The Descendants”) as his retired sheriff father, should provide further insight into a psyche primed for long-term examination.
Wilson and Hanson’s combined experience turning deceptively straightforward characters and premises into fully realized conceptual achievements should give “Backstrom” an edge among its midseason competitors. Between “The Office” and “Bones” alone, the duo has two decades of critically and commercially successful network television to their names. Although “Backstrom” endured a convoluted development process after CBS dropped the pilot it ordered in 2012, the unexpected extra time allowed Hanson and the production team to fine-tune the project and gave Wilson a much-needed breather after “The Office” wrapped. The overall results are undeniably winsome.
The enthusiasm with which “Backstrom” presents itself might seem to contradict its gravelly undercurrent. Upon a closer look, however, the show’s deft balance between drama and comedy aligns perfectly with its lead character’s struggle to coexist in both darkness and light. “Backstrom” certainly isn’t embarking upon uncharted territory, at least not yet, but its hopeful outlook juxtaposes nicely alongside its namesake’s tenacious, albeit permeable, disdain. Backstrom’s appropriately dreary living quarters are housed inside a Portland, Ore. barge, filled with peculiar artifacts that seem to pointedly illustrate the disjointed cacophony inside his own mind. The scene and its implications can’t be entirely macabre, and thankfully they aren’t. Both “Backstrom” the show and Backstrom the man are too smart to be that simple, and longtime Wilson fans should be adequately prepared. Although one beloved relic from Backstrom’s past does resurface by the end of the second episode, it’s hard not to keep looking for a stapler encased in jell-o.
Watch the full trailer for “Backstrom” below:
Will Rainn Wilson escape the ghost of Dwight Schrute? “Backstrom” premieres Thursday, Jan. 22 at 9/8c on FOX.
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