The series premiere of Backstrom opens on a chalk-pale, flabby, middle-aged torso, nominally hairy and dotted by two tiny nipples. This is “the full Backstrom package” in all of its off-putting glory; that it’s provided to us so early is a dependable gauge on whether or not you’re on board to endure another “genius, white, aging male asshole” antihero-type television protagonist.
The torso belongs to Detective Lt. Everett Backstrom (Rainn Wilson), a thorn in the side of the Portland Police Department—as well as in the side of pretty much everyone in his life. Coupled with his unhealthy, shapeless body are all kinds of quirky goodies like antagonistic homophobia, predictable misogyny and casual racism. In other words, Wilson does not look good.
And so, within 30 seconds of the pilot episode, Backstrom makes two racist comments, one aimed at his Indian doctor, a poor sap unfortunately named Deb, and one which, like your 90 year-old grandfather’s favorite holiday banter, distinguishes between Asian Indians and North American “Indians.” This, accompanied by Deb’s listing of such maladies as “hypertension” and “enlarged heart” (ironic symbolism: check), means that our protagonist is one hot, cantankerous jerkwad of a mess. When Backstrom leaves the room (after insulting Dr. Deb’s name, of course), he declares that none of this matters: Everett Backstrom is not afraid of death. Thus begins our character’s narrative arc. Will Backstrom ever respect life enough to fear death? Let’s find out!
If you’re able to overlook how, given everything that’s happened in America in the past six months, the presentation of a police officer as a tolerated bigot is somehow funny—and really, there’s no reason you should be able to—then there’s also the point of Backstrom’s brilliance as a homicide detective, a characteristic we’re just expected to believe. As the episode opens, we learn that Backstrom’s been relegated to traffic duty due to some previously unsavory behavior, but that he’s set to get back into the homicide game. Unlike House—FOX’s other popular, episodic procedural about a genius, white, aging male asshole—Backstrom isn’t really concerned with trotting out its lead’s impressive deductive skills. Instead, this ability is just a given, shown cursorily through Backstrom’s gimmicky pseudo-empathic monologues in which he dons the “personality” of whomever he’s questioning in order to figure out a suspect’s motivations. Basically, it’s a “I’m a stripper who’s in love with a rich college student” or “I’m a drug dealer taking over Cambodian turf” kind of thing.
What Backstrom really wants to investigate is what’s behind such a hot, cantankerous jerkwad of a mess. What made him like this? An initial explanation is proffered: that Backstrom’s dad, a celebrated Portland police officer, was abusive. In one scene, Backstrom unveils to Sgt. Niedermayer (Kristoffer Polaha) a scar on his scalp from when, as a young boy, his father pistol-whipped him. The reveal is more to throw off Niedermayer, a member of Backstrom’s newly reconstituted team of investigators given to quoting philosophers and armchair psychoanalysis (though, to the character’s credit, he’s a relentlessly friendly fellow, which means that Backstrom hates him)—but this confession of physical abuse lends some explanation to the fact that, despite years of police duty, Backstrom still barely knows how to operate a firearm, let alone ably aim one.
Next to Niederman, the rest of Backstrom’s team is populated by fiercely intelligent archetypes who, should the show find an audience—and I think it will, given our collective propensity for shows about genius, white, aging male assholes—will develop some depth outside of being people who either accept Backstrom’s assholishness or regularly and openly chastise him. There’s Detective Gravely (Genevieve Angelson), Backstrom’s moral compass, her face almost always set in a grimace, and who, more than once, is proven to be a tad too idealistic for her trade. There’s the smoothly-named Detective Sergeant John Almond (Dennis Haysbert), who seems to have a long enough history with Backstrom to pretty much just overlook all of his terrible behavior. If, in future episodes, Almond starts talking about how little he cares about Backstrom’s crappy attitude because, hell, he’s too close to retirement—well, that would make perfect sense; that’s just the role he fills.
Which is how the rest of the show reads at first glance: Backstrom’s character is a bottomless well of pain, and suffering, and unacceptable jokes and bad habits, and into that well we can toss whatever terrible things we want or whatever reasons we can come up with for his behavior, just as long as Backstrom gets the job done. Every other officer on this show is Backstrom’s foil, which is an easy enough dynamic to understand, but one that doesn’t really flesh out a world in which Backstrom eventually finds any sort of redemption. We need deeply felt characters with which to engage outside of Backstrom’s nihilism, in order to believe that he’ll ever change.
There’s hope, though, especially because creator Hart Hanson has already successfully dealt with a character that badly needed to change in order to function in society. His previous creation, Bones’s Dr. Brennan, eventually found love and became a mother without sacrificing her particularly special set of skills. It was a narrative arc pushed along by the scientists and cohorts who, through 10+ seasons, became well-rounded characters in their own rights, and not just blank slates reflecting Bones’s sociopathy back at her.
The pilot episode follows a by-the-numbers case centering around a rich college student who turns up dead at the hands of a local heroin dealer, a circumstance that circuitously shakes loose a number of Portlandian characters, like the gorgeous hipster stripper, the pretentious barista, or the sleazy dive bar manager. There’s really not much to say about Backstrom’s attempt to provide a glimpse at its Portland-ish setting, besides that, shot in Vancouver, BC, one wonders why it’s even set in Portland at all. Granted, the bleakness of the main character’s purview is emphasized by the oversaturated gray of its Pacific Northwest locale, but there isn’t anything singularly Oregonian about the show’s plot. Even the college to which the murder victim belongs is a nameless knock-off amidst an oversaturated range of institutional choices in the Portland area.
Unless Hanson is somehow claiming that Backstrom’s character is an indelibly American one? Which would actually be pretty refreshing since we’ve so many antiheroes of Backstrom’s stripe populating our zeitgeist. Otherwise, this has a slight chance to be a witty show with a darkly pessimistic mean streak—a sometimes-smart, well-paced, and sometimes handsome cop dramedy that has a lot of good stuff to work with.
But the real testament to its inevitable longevity is Rainn Wilson, who carries Backstrom with an effortless balance of gravitas and bottom-feeding despair. When he offers the only real reason why he’s a detective (“…I like catching murderers”), an otherwise throwaway line cuts to the core of a difficult character that, in other actors’ hands, maybe wouldn’t be so difficult: this isn’t about justice or helping people—it’s about indulgence. Even Dr. House, who was basically motivated by both being right and by the challenge of his weirdo medical mysteries, was never so completely given to his basest urges.
It’s an intriguing question Backstrom poses: Can someone so self-serving ever really do any good? Like all the best series about genius, white, aging male assholes, every week is a new hope that the answer, despite most evidence to the contrary, is still a very traditional, all-American “yes.”
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based culture writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.