‘Backstrom’ react: The Fox anti-hero trend continues

23 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Backstrom’ is one sorry character.

You’ve likely heard this one before: Brilliant but antisocial ____________ is called back on the job for his expertise in ____________ field, even though he’s made enemies throughout his career as a result of his standoffish nature. Substitute “man” for “detective,” and you’ve got Fox’s actual description of “Backstrom,” a semi-comic (and I’m being generous) police procedural set in rainy Portland, Ore., about Everett Backstrom (Rainn Wilson, forever Dwight from “The Office”), an unlikable investigator with daddy issues whose all-purpose misanthropy may hide a wounded soul.From the sarcastic, antagonic Private Gar in the Guthrie’s 1996 production of “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” to the power-hungry Dwight Schrute on NBC’s “The Office,” the actor has specialized in characters you wouldn’t want to sit next to on a plane. “I have no interest in playing someone well-liked or balanced,” he said this week in a hotel bar, placing his trademark nerdy spectacles on a glass table. “Misfits.

Detective Everett Backstrom is an offensive guy who really wants you to know it, forever making loud, insensitive jokes about gays, Indians, hookers, you name it. House was a cornerstone of Fox for years, with smaller hits like Lie to Me lasting only a few seasons, and duds like Rake… well, even Fox has forgotten about Rake. Maybe. (Can’t wait for the inevitable stunt-casting of Backstrom’s father, a legendary sheriff who was less than saintly to his own son.) Like another recent “quirky cop” show “The Mysteries of Laura,” “Backstrom” struggles to balance comedy, a touch of pathos and a compelling mystery, and mostly fails (although not as spectacularly as “Laura”). He plays the title role, a brilliant detective with horrendous social skills who appears to hate everyone, including himself. “The big difference is that House had coping mechanisms, where Backstrom is falling apart. And if a network says a new show is not a clone of something, it’s–well, starting Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox, it’s Backstrom, with Rainn Wilson as a cranky, insult-spewing cop imitating the House formula with diminishing results.

Everett Backstrom in “Backstrom,” premiering Thursday on Fox.(Photo: Sergei Bachlakov, Fox) Backstrom (Thursday, 9 ET/PT, * * out of four) is not the first — and won’t be the last — TV series to embrace the template that gave Fox a breakthrough hit in House: The arrogant, irascible, self-and-other-loathing, personally flawed but professionally brilliant protagonist. The doc thinks it has something to do with Backstrom’s drinking and misanthropic personality, but the desperate cop assures him it’s because he sang “Three Little Indians” at a press conference after arresting a white supremacist who killed six American Indians (well, “Indians,” he says. “Not Tandoori Indians.”) Whatever the reason, the new chief wants him back in Major Crimes, and this physical is part of the process.

Detective Everett Backstrom, played by Rainn Wilson, is a Portland detective in the Special Crimes Unit who makes wild leaps based on intuition, has an attitude more prickly than a hedgehog’s back, and shows as much concern for his health as he does for whether he’s offending those around him—almost none. In House he was a doctor; in the deservedly short-lived Rake, he was a lawyer; and in Backstrom, he’s a detective — but they’re all variations on the same theme. In “Dragon Slayer’s” opening minutes, Backstrom insults Hindus, all of India, Native Americans, disregards the evidence at a crime scene, and declares a suicide a homicide just so he can earn a free lunch.

During the course of shooting, Wilson, who just turned 49 Tuesday, packed on 15 pounds and gave his razor a holiday. “It’s a really dangerous thing when you play a character where the fatter you are the better it is for the character,” he said, waving off a waitress. “Your mind does all these gymnastics to justify stuff. ‘Oh, maybe I’ll have that extra doughnut, you know, or I’ll have the French fries with the sandwich instead of the salad.’ I just needed to be out of shape and weird looking.” Wilson’s all-out devotion comes partly from his background working for Guthrie director Joe Dowling, who gave the actor prominent roles in “The Venetian Twins” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The two reunited in 2011 with a sold-out Q&A on the theater’s thrust stage. “Joe always worked on us as actors to make as bold a choice as we possibly could, to really go for it,” he said. “You only get to play the role once, so why not dive in and bring all of yourself to the role as truthfully and as theatrically as possible? The episode’s crime — the apparent suicide/possible homicide of a senator’s son — pulls Backstrom from the doctor visit and kicks off the procedural in which the gifted detective manages to put clues together (often without having the actual clues!) through perception alone. There’s the patient veteran detective played by Dennis Haysbert, stuck providing clunky exposition such as “I’m saying we find out why the Senator’s son committed suicide, maybe our next catch is a real homicide.” There’s the nagging young unit head (Genevieve Angelson in unapologetic Cuddy mode), stuck providing clunky exposition such as “What you do is you see the worst in yourself and apply it to everyone else.” There’s the Buddha-quoting forensic specialist (Kristoffer Polaha) whose faux-insightful lines are just clunky. In the case of House M.D., what made that work was not just Hugh Laurie’s brilliant performance but the show’s theme and idea: that its doctor approached diagnosis using not just medical but forensic principles, beginning with the dictum that “all patients lie.” House took a cop formula and applied it to medicine, and for a long time it made that formula feel fresh again.

There’s nothing wrong with the cast — I’m always happy to the ever-elegant Haysbert in particular — but their roles are derivative and sloppily written. I wanted to see how far we could push the envelope.” “The show eventually ended up where it needed to be,” Wilson said, referring to Fox. “CBS shows are very slick and the characters don’t have much personality.

As rendered by Fox, Wilson and showrunner Hart Hanson (Bones), Backstrom simply takes that formula and applies it right back to a cop show, where it’s therefore not nearly as interesting. To be fair, this series from Bones’ Hart Hanson, adapted from a series of Swedish mysteries, is asking a lot of Wilson.Backstrom has all of House’s flaws without any of his wounded-warrior saving graces: He’s a conceited, misanthropic, homophobic, racist, rude, overweight, alcoholic slob. While unfair to judge one show on another using the it-has-the-same-actor thin twine of logic, it’s also what most viewers will be doing as they power through Portland’s rainy alleyways. But not as sloppy as the cigar-puffing, poncho-wearing Backstrom himself, who is supposed to be an investigative ace with keen insight into human behavior but comes off as little more than a particularly lucky guesser. House, he’s Sherlock Holmes, he’s the guy in “Lie to Me” and the guy in “Eleventh Hour” and the guy in “Rake.” We know his type extremely well at this point; stop shouting at us.

Laurie brought a boyish charm to House, when he chose to display it, and a sexual magnetism that helped explain why people would at least initially choose to be around him despite his problems; Backstrom is just one off-putting characteristic on top of another. And in Backstrom’s equal-opportunity insults, it seems creator Hart Hanson (whose “Bones” has been chugging along for nearly a decade) is trying to be edgy. He had a perfect role model, though, in “Office” star Steve Carell. “I have a newfound appreciation for what he had to do, because he worked a hell of a lot harder than any of us,” Wilson said. “He had lot a more pages of dialogue and most importantly, when you’re No. 1 on the call sheet, you’ve got to drive the scenes.” “Backstrom” is far from a guaranteed hit.

And the series rationalizes this character choice by gradually making it clear that Backstrom, as they say, “hates everyone,” not least himself–he’s happily eating and drinking himself into an early grave–and has a troubled history. Not only is “Backstrom” hackneyed for giving us another TV misanthrope who’s forgiven for his sociopathic impulses, but it’s a bad example of that genre. The final shootout between Backstrom’s team and a club full of drug dealers leads to Backstrom twisting himself into a lie that may cause trouble down the road.

Its competition includes water-cooler favorite “Scandal” and the final episodes of “Two and a Half Men.” “Put my name in the hat,” he joked before seriously mulling the question. “I’d love to come back to doing theater, and running a theater would be fantastic. Still, given the police-news events of recent months, you have to wonder if it’s the most opportune time to premiere a show about a hilariously bigoted cop. And just to make matters worse, in the early going anyway, he’s saddled with this intuitive “I’m you” approach to crime solving in which he puts himself in someone else’s place.

In the grand scheme of crime procedurals, there’s nothing truly shocking or intriguing about the case, but more so in how Backstrom and his team go about their investigation. Wilson’s a strong dramatic actor; he was quirkily poignant as uptight Arthur on Six Feet Under, and he could give Dwight Schrute real pathos on The Office when called on. And none of the nasty lines that Backstrom mutters fly; they just lie there, like this one: “I don’t see the bad in everybody,” he says at one point. “I see the everybody in everybody.” If a show is going to be subversive, and join the challenge to political correctness that has been popular in recent decades, it needs to be written with a whole lot more bite and intelligence. He seems most like a character when he’s inhabiting the mind of other characters–something he does repeatedly in the show’s gimmick, which has him role-play suspects in the first person: “I’m a senator burying my son the dope dealer…” Whether this show means to remind you of House or not, here’s where it fails: it was interesting, and revelatory of character, to build a show around a doctor who is able to help people by assuming the worst of them.

There’s a fresh-faced newbie who has generational spars with Backstrom, a part-time pastor detective (played with silly positivity by Dennis Haysbert), a forensics specialist, and a technical expert with a rather peculiar accent. But we do have to be interested enough to invest our weekly time, and odds are that only Wilson’s most devoted fans will survive that make-or-break point. To do the same in Backstrom, no matter how hard everyone works to pour quirk into its title character, is nothing more than returning to the scene of the crime drama.

Gregory Valentine (Thomas Dekker) is a young gay man who shares an apartment with Backstrom and who may be his son with a hooker; he, of course, lusts after every good-looking guy he sees and tucks a sexual reference into so much of what he says. The cop structure is flexible enough to handle a wide variety of cases (in the first three outings, you get murder, arson and kidnapping), and the supporting characters are distinctive and well-cast enough to handle their own stories. Any show with Dennis Haysbert as a preacher and on-the-side detective starts out on the plus side in my TV ledger, and this one adds good work from Genevieve Angelson, Kristoffer Polaha and, as Backstrom’s gay roommate, Thomas Dekker.

Gravely and Frank Moto (Page Kennedy) are played relatively straight, though Gravely can’t stand Backstrom and Moto isn’t the sharpest tool in Backstrom’s shed. I don’t believe that because he’s 30 lb overweight and smokes, he’s really in such poor health that he’d need to be sidelined in his early forties. Here’s a hint: Keep an eye on the first person you meet during the investigations, the one who seems innocent but harbors a secret darker than the bottom of Backstrom’s ashtray. Haysbert steals the show as Almond when he tells a suspect, who left college after his rugby teammates painted his groin black, that “I got black balls son, not any kind of handicap.” When it comes to the titular character, though, the first episode relentlessly demonstrates how offensive and generally despicable Backstrom can be. His strokes of genius are as circumstantial as the flimsy evidence the Pacific Northwest apparently requires for an arrest, and his conclusions are as easy as the confessions Portland’s weak-willed criminals so casually give up.

The setup of the pilot implies there may be some softening of his personality to come, at least to the extent that other real human beings would be willing to spend time with him. The way the episode approaches the idea is novel enough, but it feels like an unsure step in regards to the show’s purpose of following someone as cruel as Backstrom.

If the audience can’t believe he’s good at his job, then they can’t believe that anyone would put up with him drinking at work, showing up at noon, falsifying arrest warrants or sacrificing a case so that he can settle a personal score. Add on that he’s the television version of an alcoholic i.e. he drinks constantly, even from crime-scene-borrowed vodka bottles, yet his intellect is never compromised. His doctor prescribes Backstrom to find at least one friend by the end of the week or he won’t clear him for duty, and the doctor promises he’ll be allowed to work on a week-by-week basis as they chip away at his unappealing demeanor.

Thankfully, as the show figures out just where Backstrom’s personality should land, he’s surrounded by an equally peculiar—and much more likable—supporting cast. Though Thomas Dekker is slighted with too-brief appearances as Backstrom’s “underworld connection,” Backstrom is at its best when it focuses on the interplay of its cast. Hopefully by leaning on them and less on an overly familiar structure, the show’s writers can find the right balance of a hate-to-love protagonist and a love-to-love ensemble. Backstrom‘s first episode is hindered by structures and well-trodden characterizations, which is a shame when the assembled cast is filled with so many great actors. The show may be worth revisiting just to see the actors collaborate, but the material desperately needs something fresh and to decide what it wants out of its lead so that Backstrom avoids the missteps of rakish lawyer Keegan Deane and instead goes the way of Dr.

The dreary weather of Portland is chronicled quite well here, and the show’s dour look does work toward making the show a bit better, or at least visually interesting.

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