He chews cigars. Not scenery.
‘House as a detective’ was the descriptor/pejorative tossed around most in advance of the Backstrom premiere. ‘In Portland’ was a oft-added qualifier. Neither tells you as much as you might think it should about this show, an hour-long sort-of procedural, sort-of comedy, often-dark mix that is still finding its feet but could have great legs.
Rainn Wilson (nee Dwight from The Office) is Lt. Backstrom, a Portland police detective with a Hindu doctor telling him he’s headed for an early grave, a gay tenant/fence/possibly his son passing him info, a single, female, up-and-coming fellow detective with a self-destructive streak of her own trying to keep him from getting busted back to traffic and herself from the same, a young black cop and an older black detective who bemusedly give him space while he stomps about solving things, and a few other (foreign, metrosexual, etc.) characters in there as well.
I include all these descriptors because the show clearly intended to use them – and any other element humans use to define themselves as different from the Other – as either targets or tools for targeting. To House, everyone was a liar. To Backstrom, everyone is a too-thinly-veiled flaw, stereotypes all having depth, that he can pick apart to prove he knows things. Sometimes he even learns something of value to his investigation.
That may make it sound like Backstrom is a terrible person, and Backstrom is a hard show to watch, but neither (the latter, especially) is the case. Wilson is sketching an interesting path with Backstrom, somewhere between gruff teddy bear and incorrigible jackass. It’s not quite there, though – the insults and prejudice don’t land the way they’ll need to if Backstrom wants to sustain its conceit.1 It’s not always believable in its meanness, and it seems clear that Fox demanded the bite and the slips into darkness be scaled back after the pilot. That’s a shame in some ways – where it was going in the pilot was different enough from House or Bones to warrant some attention.
Attention split many a way. The large cast is actually a rather enjoyable way to keep things moving, with nary a sore thumb apparent in the acting department. The characters are varied enough that there’s always a new facet to be presented, people can be paired and re-paired endlessly, and the story might never have to spend too much time with a character such that you become bored or irritated. Except for Backstrom himself, of course – it is his name on the marquee. This is another tricky balancing act Backstrom needs to figure out tout de suite; no matter how well Wilson plays Backstrom, too much focus on him pretty much ensures the show becomes House as a detective.
Backstrom had a piloty pilot and a lighter (but not light), too-Backstrom-centric second episode. While the actors are still settling into the characters, the characters into their roles, the show is still (too) tentatively stepping around its predecessors and towards an audience. I hope it manages to pull together in a direction something like the one Grimm took, balancing the procedural and the tropes with a legitimately interesting and varied ensemble.
If history is any guide, though, Fox is going to screw this up royally. They’ll either make all the wrong changes, or they’ll demand the show try and thread too fine a needle and wind up with solid mediocrity. With the occasional slur.
- I honestly wonder if Wilson’s faith and stated philosophies make it damn hard for him to mouth slurs with any convincing authority. ↵