Friday, January 23, 2015

Pilot Review: Backstrom

Backstrom (Thursdays at 9:00 on Fox)

Stop me if you've heard this one before: an unlikeable narcissist storms around his workplace insulting people and making a fool of himself, but he gets to keep his job because he's also something of a genius. The anti-hero trend is still in full force, especially on Fox; Backstrom is just the latest, following last year's epic failure Rake. The show's title character is yet another quirky, somewhat obnoxious leading player a la Bones, House, The Finder, and others. There are probably about a dozen shows you could compare Backstrom to, and I guarantee they're all better than it is.

The Office's Rainn Wilson is Everett Backstrom, a detective who is, according to Fox's official descriptions, "overweight, offensive, irascible" and "self-destructive." That's the extent of plot that Backstrom has going on; Wilson leads a cast of "eccentric criminologists," only one of whom is all that eccentric, as they solve really boring crimes you've seen on every cop show before. Genevieve Angelson (House of Lies) is Det. Nicole Gravely, Backstrom's second-in-command and the character with the most accurate surname, one that matches her deathly dull performance. Golden Globe nominee Dennis Haysbert (24) is the deeply religious and underutilized Det. John Almond; and, in the show's most bizarre subplot, Thomas Dekker (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) plays Gregory Valentine (are you as over the stupid last names as I am?), Backstrom's personal decorator (?!) and "underworld" connection. It's a really random assortment of characters that the creators, working from a short series of Swedish novels by Leif G.W. Persson, tried to make weird and quirky but just ended up making awkward.

One of the two central problem is the casting of Wilson. Whenever he's on screen, all the energy and sanity is sucked out and replaced with an infuriating stupidity. Wilson has always ridden the line between annoying and entertaining, but he fully falls on the wrong side of that line this time around. When he's not performing some confusing blend of black comedy, slapstick, and drama, he's lumbering about and gruffly mumbling in a bad Christian Bale-as-Batman grumble. It makes the moments where Backstrom is written like a modern day Archie Bunker even more confusing. Granted, I suppose he would be better if the material were better, but he's just not the type of actor that can elevate a weak script of a tired, beaten-to-death concept.

The pilot is the episode that is supposed to hook viewers, to make them want to spend however many more weeks abandoning their other shows (or, in the age of DVR viewing, at least clear time in their schedules to add a new show to their rotation), so you want to present your best version of your show. That doesn't always happen, and Backstrom is a perfect example of that. The title character is a cliche at this point, and even the procedural element in the crime-of-the-week is a bore. How often do we see cop shows use the "murder made to look like suicide" trope? Too often. But at least other shows typically have the decency to save those storylines for filler episodes airing somewhere in the middle of the season. Backstrom makes it the show's introduction to the world... which would be fine, if you wanted the world to think that you were nothing more than a cheap knockoff of other, better, much older shows. Creator Hart Hanson (who also shepherded the failed The Finder after striking gold with Bones) has written a charmless, trite exercise in banality. Alongside Wilson, that's the show's biggest issue: it's so mediocre, so commonplace, so offensively old hat that it's anger-inducing. Apparently Fox doesn't realize that just because you make a character overweight and politically incorrect does not make your show unique. Trying to mix disparate tones does not make your show interesting. (I swear, there are moments when Backstrom feels like the cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine were given a script to Law & Order: SVU and told to use what they can and improvise the rest.) A perfect example is a late-episode scene where Backstrom accidentally shoots himself while following a murder suspect into a rain storm. The visuals and the scene are at odds, and not in a way that is enlightening for the story or character.

This is all really a shame, because there are parts of the pilot that worked really well for me. The visuals are all around great, and the saturated darkness hints that with a more dramatic actor and a less ridiculous script, Backstrom could have been a decent show had it embraced that darkness. (Even the Backstrom novels say right on the cover, "If you liked The Killing, you'll love this." But the tones of that show and this show could not be more dissimilar.) Kristoffer Polaha, a veteran of short-lived series (Ringer, Valentine, North Shore, Tru Calling, Made in Jersey... poor guy), is a truly funny presence and his character is humorously written; he speaks in elevated, passe speech like he's in a Victorian detective novel written by Percy Bysshe Shelley or something. If the show were about him, I might be more on board; his quirks are tolerable, whereas Backstrom's are obnoxious. Actually... making this particular show about anyone other than Backstrom would have improved it. The show probably still wouldn't be very good (after all, the police case is still paint-by-numbers and the supporting cast still mostly dead fish), but at least would be watchable. As is, Backstrom isn't even good enough to serve as background noise.

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