Let me give you the elevator pitch for Fox’s new primetime series ‘Backstrom’. You’re gonna be totally blown away by this. First, it’s a cop procedural about a detective who solves murder mysteries! Awesome so far, huh? Stay with me. He also has quirky personality traits that make him difficult/annoying for other cops to work with, but allow him to solve the crimes in really unconventional ways. Yeah, let that sink in a moment. Your brain just went, like, “Ka-Pow!” in your head, am I right?
Rainn Wilson stars in this one as a guy named John Smith. Naw, I’m kidding. His name is Backstrom. ‘Cuz otherwise how could he be the main character in a show called ‘Backstrom’? Right? Logic.
Backstrom works for the Special Crimes Unit, which he has just returned to after a demotion to traffic duty. He’s a rude, crass, slovenly, antisocial, politically incorrect guy who never hesitates to speak his mind no matter how uncomfortable it makes anyone else feel. In other words, he’s an asshole. That’s his (and the show’s) gimmick.
Fortunately for him, Backstrom has the Sherlock Holmes power of being able to notice the tiniest of details that everyone else misses at crime scenes and leaping to unexpected connections and deductions. He also has an annoying habit (among many) of putting himself in the mindset of other people by referring to them in the first person. As in: “I’m a paranoid psychopath. The only way I know for sure that a gun won’t fire is if I sabotage it myself.” He usually does this right in front of that person.
Assisting our hero are a whole team of partners that swap in and out with each other interchangeably from scene to scene. Each has a distinct personality quirk, from the uptight girl who does everything by-the-book and can’t stand Backstrom, to the slutty French doctor who’s attracted to him for completely inexplicable reasons, to Dennis Haysbert, who mostly just stands around being awesome and not giving a shit.
In the pilot episode, Backstrom investigates the apparent suicide of a politician’s college-age son, and quickly determines that the death was a homicide. A convoluted trail of clues that I won’t belabor here leads him to the conclusion that the victim’s stripper girlfriend conspired with a drug dealer to con, rob and murder the kid. This culminates in a shoot-out during which Backstrom shoots and kills the (unarmed) drug dealer under the dubious pretense that the guy was going to run and dive for a gun on the ground. Feeling like it’s not worth making a fuss over a dead drug dealer, the other cops support him in this, and Backstrom is granted a provisional reprieve to stay in the unit.
Based on a Swedish book series, the show was originally developed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (‘Traffic’), but eventually wound up in the hands of Hart Hanson, creator of ‘Bones’. Even in its first episode, it already feels like a show that’s been on for eight or nine seasons and has long since lost its spark.
I appreciate that Rainn Wilson is trying to play something different than Dwight Schrute. I’ve seen him in other roles where he’s demonstrated more range than that. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the best vehicle for his talents. Now watch me get proven wrong when this thing turns out to be a big hit and runs for a decade.