Dwight Schrute ain't cute. That is, in essence, the point of the opening shot of Backstrom, the police procedural that debuted on Fox last Thursday with a shot of actor Rainn Wilson's flabby, pasty, unhealthy torso. If you are worried that this show isn't going to be offensive enough, the shot screams, get a load of this!
Muzak is playing. Wilson, aka, Schrute, aka Lieutenant Everett Backstrom of the Portland Police Bureau, is in a doctor's office. He's getting checked out by a man named Deb. When the camera pans from Backstrom's gut to his face we see that he has not shaven in days, nor has he likely slept. We knew this already; we saw it on the posters, on House, anywhere there's a frumpled genius. There's not even an attempt to portray the image as new: this is a pre-fab character who exists in your memory before he even exists in your present.
To that end, he smokes (cigars). And drinks (too much.) He has been told to stop both, but when Deb asks if he's stopped drinking, you know what's about to come next. You've been down this road; you know the mile markers.
"Absolutely not," Backstrom says, in order to say the opposite.
Deb's not playing, though. He may not be as smart as us, but he's a doctor. He's still a little smart. "Whenever anyone says they're absolutely not doing something," he says, "they're absolutely lying."
BOOM! Roasted. And we're only about 45 seconds in. It's a struggle to go much further.
Backstrom is based on a Swedish book series, which, in today's diversified, eclectic TV landscape, is another way of saying "Who fucking cares?" In the real world, it's a run-of-the-mill detective show headlined by someone far too established as a television character actor to make it work. Grantland's Andy Greenwald compared Backstrom to Bones, in that they have the same creator, but Hugh Laurie isn't around to save this one. David Boreanaz is no beet farmer. His jawline alone can hold down a television show. Dwight Schrute cannot.
We know this, because we tried. As The Office plodded to its merciful, uninspired end (the exact opposite of what Parks and Recreation is doing now in its inspired final run, FWIW), one of is final episodes was a de facto pilot for a Schrute family spinoff. It didn't work, at all, and the show was tossed aside like a heap of rotting beets, or just beets on a plate you don't want to eat because you know, beets.
That wasn't Wilson's fault, and neither is this. Then and now, there is an earnestness in his work that's hard to deny. If Wilson, the actor, has transcended Schrute, he has done so only to become Michael Scott: a mid-level salesman who has been conspicuously promoted one level too high. There is no shortage of people calling Backstrom a knock-off version of House, and there's plenty to that, but Wilson is no Laurie. He was made paper move in Scranton. It's tough to see him doing it here.
Back in the office, Deb tells Backstrom that if he keeps smoking cigars and drinking beer he'll die; he also says that Backstrom has failed his physical and will have to report back to desk duty. This does not sit well. Backstrom's position in the department is already iffy because he has previously been sent to desk duty after singing a racist kids' song at a press conference (at an event at which he was hailed for solving a major citywide crime spree, the victims of which were all Native Americans). This is his last chance, or it's not, or something, but it's a pilot episode, so we know there's no real threat here.
Backstrom tries to pay Deb off, but Deb says he'll give Backstrom one week to complete a specific assignment, which he calls a prescription (because it's written on a prescription pad). He tells Backstrom to make a friend.
Really, this is what happens. Faced with no other choice, Backstrom accepts the assignment, and heads for the door. On his way out, he stops to deliver the show's thesis statement, so everyone watching at home can follow along.
"Knowing I'm don't have long to live gives me the courage to do what's right," he says. And then: "Deb is a girl's name."
There were Hindu jokes in there too; there will be so many jokes about several other non-white-male groups that it takes me two pages to chronicle the first five minutes of them. I don't know why I'm fascinated with some of the paint-by-numbers dialogue, but I am, and "There's a dead body at the college!," which whisks us off a crime scene which appears to be in the middle of a rainforest, made me laugh out loud.
Backstrom is set in Portland, Oregon, and is shot in Vancouver, Canada. Wilson is a Seattle native, and one has to suspect that the creators think there's very something Pacific Northwest about him that seeps (get it) through the performance. If it's true, and it may be, it might not be a good thing. If the flip side of Portlandia's occasional genius is a spin on the townie wheel-o-racism, give me the hipsters.
We go to the college, or what looks like a rainforest centralized between the science and Divinity School buildings at Generic University. The dead kid — I'm not kidding — is Tobias Percival III, and has jumped off second-floor balcony, allegedly hanging himself, but you know from the start that he was murdered, because why else are we here? This make you feel smart, you get a dopamine rush, and blao, Backstrom wins. Or something. The truth is that it's far sillier than that.
The kid's father is Tobias Percival II — that's Senator Percival to you, because of course he's a Senator, this is network TV, dammit, and we need a politician's kid to be dead. Detective Almond, played by Dennis Haysbert, isn't as smart as Backstrom, which we know because he says the death is being investigated as a suicide when Backstrom shows up, and Backstrom is about to set him straight. By first by a dick. "Det. Almond, you're a religious man," he asks. "Is it true that if you commit suicide, you go straight to hell?"
Almond is having none of it. "Is it true those cigars turn your lungs into Chernobyl?" he retorts.
Backstrom shrugs it off. Almond is black, clean-cut, clean-shaven, wears a fedora, and is generally Backstrom's opposite in every way, but you can see here that they have Mutual Professional Respect and have Learned to Tolerate One Another. This is to show the audience that despite everything that we've seen, Backstrom is Not All Bad. Plus, Almond and Backstrom share a wish: they want some real action "We figure out why the senator's son committed suicide," Almond says, "maybe we catch ourselves a homicide."
When Detective Gravely (get it?), the serious, pretty, diminutive female detective played by Genevieve Angelson shows up, she gets expository, speaking in stage directions. "'How was your physical?' She asked, as she watched him puff on a stogie," Gravely says. Backstrom explains that he has been forced to make a friend, which is obviously silly, so silliness = a chance for racism. "My doctor's a Hindu," Backstrom says. "I'm lucky he didn't have me make friends with a cow." He really emphasizes "cow." It is driven home.
But seriously, get it, a cow? Because Deb is Hindu? Classic Backstrom!
This is a show that wants you to think "Classic Backstrom!" the first time he says something stupid or racist, and in that is its obvious undoing. Meanness is not endearing in itself. It wasn't for Dr. Gregory House, it isn't for Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes, but it is for this show, because it has run out of ideas before it starts.
The best it can do is take an early shot Sherlock's schizoid brilliance, the TV equivalent of beating up the biggest motherfucker in the yard on one's first day in jail. A cop (still in the pouring rain) asks Backstrom if he came a conclusion based on a smudge of the shoe and the time of day or something but whatever, the point is that it was a clear allusion to Sherlock's omniscience, where Cumberbatch will pull details out of both his ass and thin air and make it into origami. Backstrom isn't a tinkerer, though; he's a liar. "Yeah, that's what I saw," he says, in a way that shows he hasn't, because why be smart, right?
The talk turns back to the 'suicide,' and theories as to why Thurston Howell III or whoever offed himself. To Backstrom's credit — the credit writers, not the character/detective — things then get wonderfully weird for a hot second. "You know what's big with kids today?" another cop asks. "Getting bullied." It is actually presented like getting bullied is a teenage fad like doing drugs, something kids do for fun. It is not presented like, Troy Percival III-or-whoever "may have died from bullying." It's insane and immediately papered over, but at least it was interesting. I have no idea what they meant, but it was the only line that seemed like it wasn't part of an introduction-to-television kit. It was weird, and short lived.
Gravely takes over next, returning us to the scene at hand, and throws out a long list of reasons the Senator's kid may have killed himself. Most of these are ailments, and most of the ailments are various forms of cancer, but "gay sex tape" is thrown in there just to be conspicuous. Since we, the audience, already know that this is a homicide, Gravely comes off as stupid. Stupid woman! Whatever she says now is bound to be wrong, because of how... I dunno, seriously she's taking the situation. So Backstrom makes us feel smart by not listening to a word she says.
"I am declaring this suicide a homicide!" he declares, when she finishes. OH DIP. This gets him some strange looks. "On what evidence?" an astounded Gravely, or maybe someone else (Poochie?) responds, but before we Get Crazy, Almond provides a key detail: the homicide squad provides meals, whereas the suicide squad does not. Backstrom wants free food, see, because that's how he rolls. It doesn't matter that we still all know this actually will be a homicide. He just wanted that free pizza. Classic Backstrom? You bet.
Literally before we go a single step further, the dude checking out the body basically pulls a record scratch and catches all the idiots up. "It's not a suicide!," he screams. "He OD'd on heroin!" That was quick! I was actually sort of relieved by this, but you know what would actually be a funny show? One on which the star really only worked cases where he got free food. Alas, this is typical American content-gore, and we know it was homicide because "the heroin was jammed into his face so forcefully to [sic] scratch his his cornea and make his gums bleed."
Backstrom genuflects. Someone asks him who the suspects ought to be. Despite the fact it's literally raining as hard as possible, there is a large group of people behind a police line and Backstrom points over there and says — about a security officer helping keep people out — "That black African-American there. He stands out like a raisin in a bowl of buttered popcorn." CLASSIC MOTHERFUCKING BACKSTROM! Nevermind that people who would punch a dude out for saying something like that; the writers are throwing elbows, creating space to be similarly stupid in the future. Because what's the problem with a little casual ignorance, baby? This is FOX.
On his way out, Backstrom drops part two of the series' thesis statement, so you all Know What He's About and Forgive Him For What He Just Said About That Black Guy And All The People He Will Offend In The Future. "There's a bad man out there," he crows, "and he is trying to get me to look like a fool, and I'm gonna get revenge. This is called justice." "That's what's called paranoia!," one of his co-workers yells, but Backstrom is Audi 5000. "We'll talk to Senator Percival about what he did to get his son killed," he says, and makes for the police line.
"I wouldn't start the interview that way!" someone says, and it's supposed to be funny. It's not.
After that, he talks to the Senator, who admits he was having an affair and that his son found out. After that, Bill Belichick was talking about deflated footballs on ESPN and I switched over to cable. By the time I finished my wife was home. I'm not watching Backstrom around my wife. I'm not gonna subject her to that; I'd rather make friends with a cow. I lived through six minutes of it, and I promise you don't have to do the same for its second episode, airing tonight. It may be Classic Backstrom, but it's already too old to work.