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Backstrom Review: Rainn Wilson's Mean-Spirited Detective Show Has Its Moments, But Still Needs Work

For nine seasons, Rainn Wilson played the epitome of self-approved authority Dwight Schrute on NBC’s The Office, a role that will likely define Wilson until the end of his career. But he’ll next make his mark on the acerbic detective dramedy Backstrom, and if Fox gives this show a shot, TV might just have its next great angry cop. Or it might just have its next overtly racist, misogynist, disagreeable asshole.

Everett Backstrom is a Portland detective whose point-of-view generally holds everyone to be guilty of one thing or another, whether he’s considering the criminals behind his cases or his uniformed squad of Nadia (Beatrice Rosen) and Moto (Page Kennedy). He’s always got a cigar hanging out of his mouth, making him one of the only smokers left on network TV, and he’s only willing to accept conversation with others assuming it leads to progress on his cases. To say he’s a dour guy is to say that outer space is “kinda dark.” If Backstrom is showing any kind of positivity, it’s because he’s found a bit of alcohol at a crime scene that he can guzzle while putting his smarter-than-yours brain to work. It leads to some amusing exchanges, particularly one with a child whose house just burned down, but it takes some getting used to.

He’s got a reason to impart his misery on the world, though, or at least he believes he does. Backstrom was demoted to working Traffic after one particular incident, and the way that the P.D. decides to bring him back to the forefront of coppery is to give him his own Special Crimes unit. (You’ll note that these “special” crimes are mostly just normal crimes with mildly complicated trajectories.) It gives Backstrom a variety of foul people and situations to extract sarcastic grimness from, using his signature tactic of putting himself in the criminals’ shoes with “I’m you…” spiels.

Backstrom’s hard living has put his health in jeopardy, and getting shit from people about his bad habits and pissed-upon attitude seems to be the main throughline keeping this series on course. It’s likely the writing will get more focused and will allow mini-arcs to guide Backstrom’s life, but these first episodes drive the twisty procedural approach home more than anything else. One hopes that we get to know more about Dennis Haysbert’s Det. Sgt. John Almond, a part time preacher, and Kristoffer Polaha’s Sgt. Peter Niedermayer, lest these four supporting actors continue to feel like just one fully-realized secondary character. Additionally, Thomas Dekker stars as Valentine, Backstrom’s houseboat-mate whose criminal ties make him a worthy informant.

Hart Hanson, whose creation Bones has made it through ten seasons on Fox, is clearly hovering over the void that House left when it ended after eight seasons. Only Backstrom takes it that much further, sometimes seeming less aggravated by people and more interested in aggravating them to begin with. He solves crimes by using his hunch-filled beer gut to make pinpoint-accurate assumptions, most of which end up being right by television default more than exquisite writing. Make of this what you will, but this feels like a Fox series that has already been on the air for five seasons. It's far too assured to be knocked for feeling "too new."

Backstrom is a funny show at times, if you’re okay with watching Wilson’s ungraceful offensiveness, but the humor rarely stretches past that. I can’t say it’s exciting, as these first cases are pretty by-the-book and the danger involved is all but absent. (The episode “Bogeyman” employs a particularly ludicrous arc involving a “hooded man.”) And when it comes to the characters themselves, only Moto and Almond are likeable and easy to watch. If I’m going to sit down with a police procedural, which is rare, I’m admittedly going to return to Backstrom at some point based mostly on my enjoyment of Rainn Wilson’s acting. See you in Season 3, because it'll get there.


Backstrom premieres tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. ET.

Nick Venable
Nick Venable

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.