You’ve got to have a gimmick if you’re going to have a successful cop show. If you got a gimmick, you got it made. Of course, here I’m paraphrasing a famous song from a 1959 musical about a young burlesque stripper named Gypsy Lee Rose, but the principal is the same. You need an idea. Something fresh and exciting to get the audience tuned in and watching. Monk has OCD, Castle is a novelist, Hart Hanson’s idea for Backstrom’s is that he is an arsehole.
Yeah, that’s right. He’s a genius with a nihilistic attitude towards his fellow man. A racist, misogynist homophobe, whose bigotry we are told to tolerate because he is an equal opportunities offender. A man who’s immature and short-sighted view of the world is essential because it helps him solve crimes and put the bad guys away.
Blame the internet if you like, but I am all out of patience with arseholes. And I am especially out of patience with programs that enable their arsehole behaviour by pretending that they are renegade visionaries; a rare breed of maverick who sees through lies of society that regular people fall for every day. In reality these people are losers with an arrested development complex and an inability to learn lessons from social situations. In other words, TV writers.
This concept isn’t as fresh as the characters seem to think it is. All of their reactions to the title character come in two, equally infuriating varieties. They are in shock with disgust at him, or they hero worship his out-of-the-box thinking. One even thinks his classless act has “sex appeal”. Fucking writers. Characters like this aren’t special little snowflakes. They have been done several times before and in many cases better. Look at Gregory House for example. The plots constructed around that character’s misanthropic outlook actually felt like they were making revelations about the human condition. Backstrom has no such excuse for his bullshit.
In fact, all of the excuses for Backstrom’s chauvinism are weak thanks rickety plotting. The mechanics of the cases rely on Backstrom being an expert reader of human behaviour. But he isn’t. He just assumes the worst in people, often without any satisfying reason. His catchphrase is “I’m you.” It is said whenever he’s looking his suspect in the eye, trying to suss out his or her impetus for committing an awful crime. But, ultimately, you know when he says it, it’s time for the writer to start moving the plot along. It was used so much in the opening episode the support was already making fun of it by the second. That’s far too quick a time for your show to devolve into to self-parody.
It’s not too big a problem in a procedural like this if the culprit’s motivation doesn’t provide a satisfying answer to the crime. The fun is in the solving. Unfortunately for Backstrom, the entire show is built around motivation. It presents itself as a cold, cynical (as well as cheekily humorous) look at the self-serving side of the human soul. But it offers no truth in that presentation, and that weakens the central premise making you feel that the show lacks purpose. It’s tone deaf too. Appently when it comes to cynic lowlifes, what they have to say about women and minorities is gospel. But they need to open their minds when it comes to psychics and religion. Groan.
Rainn Wilson’s acting doesn’t help either. He’s made Backstrom a comic grotesque, not a million miles away from his iconic American Office role. He chews the scenery like he chews his cigars. Big, loud, drawling speech patterns constantly give more syllables to his words than they can possibly need. His team are a rag tag group of junior detective, every single one of whom belong to a different series. On top of that, they all have backstories and narrative arcs, all in the debut series. This leaves series one a convoluted mess and leaves series two without much room to grow.
Overall Backstrom is a series that relies on the element of surprise, shock factor and a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee style sermon from a truth-saying evangelist who wants us to face up to the real world we’ve been all been dosing through. Too bad there have been dozens of better preachers that came before him.