Imitation is the sincerest form of television, and the biggest hits will be imitated over and over and over again – sometime well after they've gone off the air. “House” was one of the defining hits of the last decade on FOX, and it inspired clones in various traditional TV fields, with lawyers (James Woods in “Shark”), and even other doctors (Stanley Tucci in “3 Lbs”) playing the part of the misanthropic, sarcastic rule-breaker who's too good at the job to fire.
FOX's “Bones” has never exactly been a “House” clone – Temperance insults people not because she's a jerk, but because (it's implied) she has Asperger's – but it debuted in the wake of “House” and was tagged early on as “House, FBI.” Now, though, longtime “Bones” showrunner Hart Hanson has a new series – “Backstrom,” which debuts tonight at 9 on FOX – that's impossible to view as anything but “House, P.D.,” even though its origins lie on another continent.
Hanson is again adapting a literary property, transplanting Leif GW Persson's Swedish cop Backstrom to Portland, Oregon (or the best that Vancouver can imitate it). Our first glimpse of the American Everett Backstrom is of his pale, doughy torso, as a doctor runs down the many ailments our hero suffers, including hepatitis, anemia and an enlarged heart. A wider glimpse reveals Backstrom to be played by Rainn Wilson, shedding Dwight's glasses and mannerisms from “The Office” in favor of a more gregarious but still loathsome new alter ego, and we find out that Backstrom has been understandably kept off active duty for years due to his health problems. Now, though, he's not only back working cases but has his own squad of cops and scientists to order around and gratuitously insult, because he's just too good at putting bad guys in jail.
As Detective Gravely (Genevieve Angelson), who endures various Backstrom barbs about her gender, age and diminutive size, puts it, “He hates everybody, but he really hates people who try to get away with murder.”
The crusty but benign investigative genius archetype long predated House (who was essentially a medical homage to Sherlock Holmes), but “House” certainly perfected the template “Backstrom” is using, of the genius surrounded by underlings who are alternately repelled by his personality and impressed by his intuition.
Those disgusted-yet-awestruck underlings are the strongest part of Backstrom. It's a good and deep supporting cast, which besides Angelson includes Dennis Haysbert as a veteran cop and part-time preacher at peace with Backstrom's many quirks, Kristoffer Polaha as the medical examiner who favors Eastern philosophy(*), Thomas Dekker as a flamboyant fence who crashes with Backstrom in exchange for being his snitch, Page Kennedy as a cop with an MMA background who serves as Backstrom's bodyguard, and Beatrice Rosen as a civilian aide with a wide swath of expertise. The show has fun with them in various combinations, both with and without Backstrom around.
(*) Polaha's character's defense of Backstrom: “I believe Backstrom lives intensely in the moment, on a higher plane of existence, from which he's able to hear the universe.” Alrighty, then.
It's the title character who's the show's big problem.
The talented a-hole archetype needs several factors to work. First, he has to come across as good enough at his job that he will be tolerated for everything else. Second, he has to be charming, or at least clever, in his bad behavior so the audience will go along with it.
As a network crime procedural, “Backstrom” makes sure its hero is shown to be good at solving crimes, early and often, but with a gimmick that winds up being more annoying than amusing: as he figures out the motivations of his killer, or a witness, or even a colleague he wants to take down a peg, he begins monologuing in the first person as if he was this individual. Trying to figure out the doctor who holds the keys to his professional future, Backstrom suggests, “I'm a Hindu. I believe after we die, I come back to life. So why am I a doctor?” At various points in the early episodes, he suggests, “I'm a stripper,” “I'm on a jury,” etc.
But it's ultimately his personality that's harder to take than his catchphrase. House was not only witty with his insults, but more often than not was accurate in how he described his colleagues, even if it was in the least polite manner possible. Backstrom's more in the Archie Bunker mold: crude, reactionary, and often wrong in his assumptions about the people he works with. It's a take on this kind of character with a high degree of difficulty in the year 2015, that might not work even with the perfect actor in the role. And Wilson, though he's capable of playing a much wider variety of roles than Dwight Schrute, never convincingly sells Backstrom as a person who exists even in this heightened, darkly comic universe. He's clearly amused by his props (a stogie he keeps lit even in a downpour, an orange slicker) and the nasty things he gets to say to his co-stars, but the performance never quite settles in as a character, rather than a collection of tics.
Hanson's been doing this a while, and he knows how to build the infrastructure for a show like this. There are times when “Backstrom” comes very close to feeling like a functional light-hearted mystery series. (Not coincidentally, the weakest of the four episodes FOX sent to critics is a dark and brooding episode about a kidnapping case that stirs up bad memories for Backstrom, though the subplot in that one about Haysbert's character made me wish the show was centered around him.) But then Backstrom wanders into frame, puffing on his cigar and tossing around some creaky insult, and the fun goes away in a hurry.
Alan Sepinwall may be firstname.lastname@example.org