BACKSTROM Premiere Debriefing: Absolutely not your grandpa’s procedural

Courtesy Fox

Backstrom, the man, is absolutely unlikeable.

Backstrom, the show, won’t be, if the pilot is any indication.

Yes, it’s rough around the edges, much like the titular character, but FOX’s newest police procedural from Bones creator Hart Hanson has enough redeeming qualities, namely its stellar cast, that I think it’ll rise beyond its deliberately offensive opening to grow into its own.

Besides, there probably weren’t any other pilots on network TV with as many testicle jokes in an hour this season, so if nothing else it’s got that going for it.

Much like Hanson’s other shows, it mixes straight-up crime-solving with sarcasm and quirky characters, but unlike some of his past efforts, Backstrom is decidedly more cynical, and doesn’t deliver the heartfelt moments early on that have marked his other creations. And you know what? That’s okay, because solving murders doesn’t necessarily bring the warm fuzzies every time, especially not in rain-soaked Vancouver, er, Portland.

I must confess right off the bat that I’ve been eagerly awaiting this show for what feels like years: it seemed right up my alley when the pilot was produced for CBS back in 2013, and I was disappointed when the network ultimately passed on it. When FOX all of a sudden revived it a year later, I was shocked and delighted, because I thought it deserved a chance to air for real. Backstrom 2.0 isn’t quite what I was expecting, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, either.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Everett Backstrom (Rainn Wilson) is a racist, misogynistic, self-destructive alcoholic, who also happens to apparently be brilliant at his job, though you’d be hard-pressed to believe that after his initial lazy and jaded approach to his work. He’s been languishing in the traffic division for years after working homicide, ostensibly for health reasons but according to him really because he convicted a well-known white supremacist — then uttered completely despicable racist remarks himself at the press conference announcing the arrest. That demonstrates what we have to contend with: a bored jerk with no filter, and not in the “ha ha” kind of way, but in the “someone really should punch him soon” kind of way. His doctor gives him an ultimatum: make a friend and shape up, or write speeding tickets for the rest of his life.

It seems that “antihero” character has become a trope in itself, at least in recent years in television dramas. It’s difficult to blink without finding one on your dial — think Walter White on Breaking Bad, Don Draper on Mad Men, or Gregory House on House, to whom Backstrom’s been compared quite a lot. The obviously-flawed-yet-genius protagonist is compelling precisely because we know he won’t behave in the ways we’ve been taught our heroes should, and we want to know why. So Backstrom joins those ranks, but what remains to be seen is how the writers strive to redeem him, or conversely have everyone else call him on his crap, because everyone being in on his problematic nature is the only way this game works in the long-term.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Right now, the first indication we’ve seen is that despite his grumpiness, he is a good detective. Sure, his initial homicide ruling on a supposed suicide victim is actually all a meal ticket, but once Sgt. Niedermayer (Kristoffer Polaha) confirms it is a murder, he’s a man obsessed. His methods are unconventional and unprofessional, but they get results. We are repeatedly told that he has little left to live for, but solving crimes is his saving grace, because it gives him purpose. He takes a hands-on approach, even if that means drinking with a suspect to earn his trust, or riling up another to rattle her into confessing. He takes the “bad cop” edict to heart, undeniably.

If there’s one aspect that did wear a little thin on me, it’s Backstrom’s blatant prejudice against everything and everyone. It’s not that I was unprepared; I’d seen the trailer online for the first version of this pilot back when it was still being shopped around CBS in 2013, and I even found it amusing, because it was so ridiculous. Yet, what struck me in its FOX debut is that his remarks weren’t scoffed at so much as ignored. There are only so many “Hindu” jokes (read: none) I can take before I want someone to tell the guy to stuff a cork in it. Maybe his colleagues are accustomed to it already, but we the audience are not, and to me, the conceit only works if it’s treated as yet another blemish against his character, instead of him being laughed off as being an ornery scamp, if not outright condoned. (Like your 80 year old grandpa who’s racist, but “it’s okay, it’s just how he was raised!”)

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Moreover, the sheer number of times he uttered such comments eventually felt more like an attempt to provoke ire, rather than a natural speech pattern. I know, I know, different strokes for different folks, but I’d hope that as the show progresses, those are going to be toned down some — and particularly that he is called out for being the racist misogynistic pig that even this episode’s accessory-to-murder pins him as. I’m all for flaws, but we have to know they’re supposed to be flaws. (I do wonder if it’s something he does to deliberately keep his distance.)

Similarly, Backstrom’s method of gaining insight into his targets, by “pretending” to be them, is definitely an interesting technique, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that the constant “I’m X and I’m doing Y, why?” got to be a little tiresome in the end, too. However, knowing that this is a pilot, I’m also optimistic it was used more to establish his character, rather than necessarily define all future scripts. (And if it is going to be used so often, what do I know? I’m not a writer.) That being said, I enjoy that this is how we see him succeed at his work: he gets into his opponents’ minds, and picks up on details his rookie sidekicks miss. Yet, it’s also what alienates him from the world, because he uses it to cut through people who try to get close to him, such as Dr. Deb (Rizwan Manji). Is it because he really does hate the world, as he claims? Or is there more to that story?

As of now, all indications are that yes, there is a deep well underneath that crusty exterior. The specter of his father looms large, but his sudden revelation to Niedermayer that his saintly sheriff of a father also beat him at home was shocking enough to start peeling back some of those layers. It’s not enough to excuse his often-deplorable conduct, but it does give us more to ponder. (Though I had to laugh a little too, because until that point I kept waiting the requisite tragic backstory, since, for instance, everyone seems to have suffered abuse or early abandonment on Bones.) On the other hand, given how easily he reads people, for all I know Backstrom lied about his dad to get Niedermayer off his back.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Even more intriguing to me is the moment in which Backstrom confronts suspected murderer Visser (Evan Jones) outside of his bar after a police shootout. Firstly, because the till-then confident Backstrom proves to be pretty useless with his firearm, resulting in his shooting himself in the arm while fumbling for his weapon. More importantly, though, is because of his decision to shoot his suspect, ultimately leading to his death. Visser is armed only with sarcasm, but he makes eyes for his abandoned gun on the ground, and Backstrom maims him before he has a chance to grab it. It’s self-defense, but it’s not a slam-dunk. A distraught Backstrom babbles about having no choice as his deputy Frank Moto (Page Kennedy) comes to his aid, but Moto dismisses the stream of consciousness, obviously assuming Backstrom was assaulted by Vicker (hence the gunshot wound on his arm), and backing his claim of self-defense. Backstrom is rattled at first, but convinces himself that Moto’s account is correct, and keeps his mouth shut. That is the scene in which the show really clicked for me, because beyond all the outright provocation and exposition necessary in a pilot, it unearths the shades of gray in both the man and the series. He’s clearly not convinced what he did was right, but he doesn’t have much choice to accept it if he wants to save his case and his job. I’d love to see more of Backstrom wrestling with issues like this, because that gives us viewers so much fodder to chew on. The real stories lie in the nuances.

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

Of course, so much of what brings Backstrom to life, beyond the writing, are the actors, and one of the best things the show has going for it is its cast. Wilson is leagues away from The Office’s Dwight Schrute (admittedly what I know and love him best from), and he is purposefully loathsome as the detective, yet he is clearly tortured as well, if the alcohol, abrasiveness and self-loathing are any indication. Dennis Haysbert as Detective Almond is a cool, collected presence to temper Backstrom’s insanity, though right now he feels a little underused. (Again, it’s the pilot, so I’m reserving judgment — because you can’t have Dennis Haysbert on your show and not give him something meaty to do.) Kennedy as Moto was a surprise to me; I’ve seen him in bit roles here and there on other shows, so to watch him as a sort of loveable doofus (with guns of steel apparently) was a bit of comic relief I wasn’t expecting. I’ve enjoyed Polaha for years as a frequent guest star on other shows (and I’m probably one of a dozen people who watched Life Unexpected years ago), so his turn as a platitude-spouting forensics expert made me chuckle, though I did find myself thinking more than once that a line of his could have been uttered by the dearly-departed Dr. Sweets on Bones. (But that’s not really the show’s fault.)

Courtesy FOX

Courtesy FOX

On the other hand, I’m not completely sold on Genevieve Angelson’s earnest Sgt. Gravely yet, if only because she often seemed to be written as an annoying kid sister and I wanted her to give the attitude a rest for a second. (Let me repeat: just my preference.) That being said, seeing her break Visser’s finger for threatening Backstrom was pretty badass, as was her punching Backstrom in turn for being so heinous to her, and both instances demonstrate she’s not to be messed with in her own right, so I want to learn more about her, too. Similarly, Nadia Paquette (Béatrice Rosen) is obviously intelligent and highly respected (as a forensic accountant? I missed her title), but I’m not buying the sexual tension between her and Backstrom now, either, and I hope the show shelves that for a little while at least. Also curious to me is that the heretofore-unseen Chief Cervantes is also a woman (and perhaps another minority?), which I would welcome as another potential strong female role in a position of power on TV.

As I mentioned early on, Backstrom on the whole is darker than I was anticipating — which again isn’t the show’s fault, but rather comes from my familiarity with Hanson’s other shows. Gone here are the best-friend bonding moments on Bones, or the soothing wisdom of Leo on The Finder. (Sniff. Still not over that loss.) Backstrom, show and man, are hardened and disillusioned, which is quite the change of pace. I did laugh a few times here, but they were for reasons I wasn’t expecting, which is probably good in terms of the writers’ creativity, but the tone overall takes some getting used to. Nonetheless, I’m willing to stick with the show despite the initial outrageousness, at least for a few more episodes, because I can see how the writers might be able to untangle this web. It doesn’t excuse Backstrom’s actions, but maybe we’ll see some gravitas (or comeuppance) mixed with his brilliance, too.

But Backstrom doesn’t care what I think. Because he absolutely doesn’t need a friend.

Other odds and ends:

  • Loved seeing Vancouver in all its glory, even if it stood in for Portland, OR. It’s always fun seeing familiar haunts as locations, like a game of Where’s Waldo.
  • Nadia: “Shoot it at me.” Gravely: “It’s just ‘shoot,’ Nadia.” — I can’t help it, I was getting Brennan/Angela vibes, here.
  • Speaking of Bones, anyone else catch the Royal Diner as Backstrom and Niedermayer’s favorite greasy spoon?
  • … or Tiffany Hines (Michelle) as this show’s stripper/blackmailer?
  • “When a person says ‘absolutely not,’ they’re absolutely lying.” – I see what you did there at the end of the episode, Show. Again: more layers to the Backstrom onion?
  • In the “so wrong I can’t help chuckling” category: “I’ve got black balls. Ain’t any kind of handicap.”
  • “I don’t see the worst in everyone. I see the everyone in everyone.” He was certainly proven right here: by seeing the best in drug-dealing-victim Toby, or the worst in scheming-stripper Cassidy. Anyone else wondering how that will play out in the future?
  • Is Backstrom merely Valentine’s (Thomas Dekker) benefactor as he claims, or is Deb’s comment about their resemblance implying he might be the young thief’s father, too?

What did you think of Backstrom? Amusing misanthrope or irredeemable bastard?

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

5 Responses to BACKSTROM Premiere Debriefing: Absolutely not your grandpa’s procedural

  1. Sandra Holl says:

    Backstrom didn’t do it for me! Sorry Hart I want Bones season 11 and many more seasons INSTEAD!!!!!

  2. […] Maybe it’s a bought of professional guilt, but to me, it’s most definitely a side effect of the shooting from the pilot. (*Withholds comments about how we deserved to see this explored in season 2, FOX.*) On the other […]

  3. […] recent productions in full swing in Canada include Once Upon A Time, Supernatural, Arrow, Backstrom (Sniff!), Fringe, hmm… Seems like there’s a theme here. Bring on the foggy […]

  4. […] Maybe it’s a bought of professional guilt, but to me, it’s most definitely a side effect of the shooting from the pilot. (*Withholds comments about how we deserved to see this explored in season 2, FOX.*) On the other […]

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