January 23, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Backstrom”


BACKSTROM:  Thursday 9PM on FOX – Change the Channel

BACKSTROM is literally FOX’s try at being CBS:  the project, based on a series of Swedish mystery novels, was originally developed for the silver-haired network and a pilot was ordered, but CBS ultimately passed.  FOX’s in-house studio was the show’s production company, and its creator is Hart Hanson, the man behind Bones, FOX’s rock of 1-hour stability over the past decade (and is its most CBS-ish drama), so it made sense, at least on paper, to take the project over when CBS moved on.

That, unfortunately, is the only interesting thing to be said about Backstrom.  In all other respects, it’s a dully familiar procedural of the “He’s annoying but brilliant” school of investigators that has given us everything from Monk to Scorpion to both the versions of Sherlock Holmes currently airing (and both versions of David Tennant in Broadchurch/Gracepoint), not to mention non-crimesolvers like House and Harvey Specter on Suits.  Hanson seems to have intended Backstrom for the same intersection of mystery and light comedy that’s fueled Bones, but the charm is missing this time around.

Occupying the center of the show is Everett Backstrom (Rainn Wilson), a complete mess as a human being, both physically and in his interactions with other people, yet unerring as a detective in Portland’s (in other words, Canada’s) Special Crimes Unit.  Backstrom is an equal opportunity offender, insulting to all of his colleagues:  resentful second-ranking Gravely (Genevieve Angelson), forensics guy Niedermayer (Kristoffer Polaha), deeply religious Almond (Dennis Haysbert), muscle Moto (Page Kennedy), and French-born department liaison Nadia (Beatrice Rosen), who has a soft spot for Backstrom for no reason that’s readily apparent.  Backstrom’s only quasi-friend is the gay decorator/informant who shares his home, Valentine (Thomas Dekker), and he gets treated no better.  Backstrom is an arrogant slob who crosses all lines and gets on everyone’s nerves, but boy can he solve crimes.

Pulling likability out of obnoxiousness is no easy task, and Hanson has the wrong man for the job in Wilson.  As an Office mainstay, he could safely go over the top, because that was his designated position among the large ensemble; promoted to leading man, he’s just grating.  It doesn’t help that Hanson, who wrote the pilot (directed by Mark Mylod), has saddled Backstrom with a gimmick that feels repetitive by the back half of the pilot:  he delivers a monologue as though he were the killer, ending with “What do I do?” or something like it.  By the pilot’s end, you may want to shout back “Try shutting up!”

The crimes themselves, if the pilot is any guide, are none too fascinating, which is true on Bones, too, but at least that show has its high-tech toys and scientific revelations to liven things up.  More important, Bones has a well-matched cast, and lead characters who are strong-willed and contentious but also pleasant to be around.  Backstrom is about as much fun to watch as he would be to work with.

The mega-success of Empire has given FOX some breathing room, and the network would be delighted if Backstrom could work, particularly because Bones is getting elderly and expensive (both Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz are due for new deals at the end of this season), and the ratings are increasingly marginal.  If Backstrom could perform as well at a cheaper price, it would be worth keeping around.  There isn’t much about the pilot, however, to make one optimistic.  It’s easy to dismiss what CBS does as old-fashioned hackwork, but pulling off an effective new procedural with regularity is a lot harder than it looks.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."