Rainn Wilson trades ‘Office’ for detective job on FOX’s ‘Backstrom’

21 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Backstrom’ Team Talks Tackling Another Adaptation, Finding a Second Life at Fox.

It’s not really fair to judge a TV series by its first episode, since pilots have to cross off several items on a to-do list, which may include, but not be limited to, such necessities as: “Backstrom,” the Fox series that premieres Thursday, has to clear an even higher bar than most new shows – namely, a protagonist who comes off as an unrepentant jerk. If your entertainment lineup is — somehow — missing a deadpan snark machine with more talent than tact, Rainn Wilson’s new cop comedy-drama will fit the bill nicely. “Backstrom” also comes with all the crime show staples: an African-American partner to chase and tackle suspects, an earnest newbie with supermodel looks, a forensics guy with a room full of gadgets.That good-at-work, bad-at-life dynamic is a fairly common one on TV these days; Hart Hanson has used it, with great success, on his long-running mystery Bones.

Detective Everett Backstrom (Rainn Wilson) is presented as a brilliant crime-solver with the Portland Police “Special Crimes Unit.” But his social skills are so lousy he makes Dr. First a pilot for CBS to air during the 2013-14 season, it never got enough traction at the network — despite most thinking it would land a series order, well into the 13th hour. “I was very shocked,” said creator and executive producer Hart Hanson, addressing reporters, Fox and 20th TV brass at the Television Critics Association press tour on Saturday. “There were even people in this room who were saying at the upfronts, ‘Don’t worry, they’re going to announce [a pickup] in five minutes.’ But I wasn’t there, so that was a pretty good indicator.” Eventually finding a home with a straight-to-series order at Fox, the show is now being pushed out by Fox TV Group’s Dana Walden and Gary Newman.

And as of Jan. 22 he’ll be using it again on Backstrom, a new Fox series starring Rainn Wilson as an over-weight, under-socialized, incredibly intuitive cop. Backstrom makes offensive comments about women and minorities, he has a drinking problem, his health is lousy, and he’s so isolated his doctor orders him to make a friend.

Television has given us plenty of antiheroes who aren’t easy to like, going all the way back to Tony Soprano, and continuing with such examples as Don Draper in “Mad Men” and Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” Unfortunately, in the first episode, the show overdoes Backstrom’s unlikability to the point where it’s an open question whether viewers will return to see subsequent episodes, where he becomes less hard to take, and we learn more about why he is the way he is. Actually, Wilson didn’t want to do another series so soon after The Office — so when his agents sent him the Backstrom script, he says, “I almost fired him on the spot.” Then he read it and was hooked, in part, he says, because there aren’t a lot of interesting parts out there “for weird looking, 48-year-old pasty white dudes. Descriptors “racist,” “homophobic” and “misogynist” were mentioned several times when regarding the titular character played by Office alum Rainn Wilson. It was really exciting to read and I knew I wanted to do it.” The show sums up its main character as “arrogant but brilliant,” with a strong dose of “difficult.” But, says Wilson, the arrogance and the issues are what drew him to the character. “It’s human, it’s frail, it’s interesting.” It’s also a bit of a switch, says Hanson, from the character Leif GW Persson created in the books. “In the books, Backstrom has no redeeming values. Similarly, the characters surrounding Wilson’s Backstrom all suffer from pilot-itis, declaring who they are and what they do, and their individual quirks are laid on with a heavy hand.

Which means Portlanders aren’t likely to be fooled by scenes that take place in the rain, and tossed-off references to fancy coffee shops on Lovejoy, or a bar on Hawthorne, or a scene in a TriMet bus stop. The more encouraging news is that judging from two additional episodes made available for preview, “Backstrom” -– which is based on a series of novels written by Swedish criminologist Leif G.W. The change we made for network TV was to make him very good at his job and make him empathetic.” The books also go inside Backstrom’s head, allowing the character to keep his worst racist, sexist and homophobic thoughts to himself — thoughts the show has him express out loud.

Wilson, who will forever be remembered as workplace twerp Dwight Schrute on NBC’s “The Office,” manages to shed that iconic role for the most part. It also helps that while the show isn’t really a comedy, Wilson’s talent for dark humor helps keep us interested in Backstrom, even when he’s irritating. Like “Bones,” another of creator Hart Hanson’s shows, “Backstrom” has a solid supporting cast, notably Dennis Haysbert (“24″), who lends his easy authority to a role that should be bigger, as Sgt. Unlike “The Office,” “Backstrom” hasn’t yet fleshed out the supporting characters to water down Wilson’s well-oiled obnoxiousness generator.

Once it stops explaining everyone’s backstory — why is he so bitter? why is she so naive? why are the firefighters evil? — “Backstrom” might turn into a decent chase for the bad guy of the week. Early standouts also include Genevieve Angelson as a youthful detective running the S.C.U., whose generational sparring with Backstrom is a welcome note, and Thomas Dekker as a young man who’s a tenant on Backstrom’s barge, and a fence for stolen items (mainly gaudy antiques, judging by the décor Chez Backstrom.) The makers of “Backstrom” emphasize that it’s not just another “CSI”-style crime-show procedural, and will focus more on the characters.

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