Backstrom is so similar to House that comparisons between them are unavoidable. Both Fox shows revolve around an obnoxious and irascible male protagonist prone to making racist and sexist remarks, who get off on being offensive for the sake of being offensive, and who often alienate those who are dumb enough to try to help them. Dr. House and Detective Backstrom are characters who we are supposed to love to hate, and who we must root for simply because they are good at their jobs. Yes, they are assholes but they are brilliant assholes. They solve unsolvable cases — police cases, medical cases — and that makes up for them being terrible people. But what was once fun about House became tired toward the end of the medical drama’s run. With Backstrom, it is exhausting before the series even gets going.
There are a number of reasons why House, which ran for eight seasons, worked in a way that Backstrom doesn’t. For once, Hugh Laurie is a bit more talented than Rainn Wilson and better suited for the role. Wilson was undeniably great on The Office, but he doesn’t quite work here (though his Dwight Schrute character helps to explain why he was cast). House was also subtle, slowly hinting at the reasons behind its protagonist’s personality, whereas Backstrom is too overt, varying wildly from the scene, with distracting tonal inconsistencies. One moment, Backstrom is his typical, asshole self. In the next, he is gleefully flying a kite — a scene that is meant to humanize him but instead comes off as totally jarring and laughable (and to his credit, Wilson tries, but he can’t exactly land the emotional beat).
More than anything else, Backstrom (at least in the four episodes provided to critics) is plagued by lazy writing. The writers seem to have confused “irascible” with “racist,” as the pilot episode introduces us to Backstrom during a required medical checkup with a doctor who orders Backstrom to “make a friend.” Later, Backstrom jokes, “My doctor is a Hindu, so I’m lucky he didn’t have me make friends with a cow.” He makes disparaging remarks about blacks and Mexicans, and then, later, as he returns to the same doctor, mentions reincarnation (because that is basically all most Americans know about Hinduism: reincarnation and cows). None of this adds to the plot or the case — it’s just the easiest and laziest way for the writers to show that a character is an Unlikeable Antihero. He is racist, but it’s OK, because he’ll solve the case by the end of the hour!
That’s not Backstrom’s only flaw, of course. He also — shockingly! — has a problem with women, as we learn over and over. It’s as if the writers believe that if other characters constantly bring up Backstrom’s sexism (particularly his second-in-command, Genevieve Angelson’s Nicole, who is disgusted by Backstrom’s actions but more than willing to turn a blind eye), then that makes it acceptable.
But if casual racism and sexism don’t quite kill a show for you, have no worries: There is so much more to loathe about Backstrom. It follows a procedural format, with a series of case-of-the-week scenarios we’ve seen done better on other crime shows: arson, teen vampire wannabes, murder, etc. The side characters aren’t memorable either. There is the forensics guy, Niedermayer (Kristoffer Polaha), who spouts poetic New Age nonsense, a tendency that exists less to build his character than to annoy Backstrom. There’s also a young, gay, and goth-y criminal informant (Thomas Dekker) who lives with Backstrom. This is supposed to add emotional nuance and show off Backstrom’s softer side, but instead it gives him an excuse to say things like, “Stop gaying it up.”
The series lets us know why Backstrom is so obnoxious — an abusive childhood and loads of bullying, as we learn in the second episode, “Bella,” when Backstrom targets two firefighters who used to torment him as a child. But the backstory doesn’t work well enough to make us feel for (or care about) him. The show also regularly brings up his health issues, as he’s required to see a doctor weekly and characters constantly mention his smoking and drinking. I suppose we’re meant to believe that he is quickly inching toward death, but even that seems shrug-worthy in a character we’re given so little reason to root for.
Backstrom’s schtick is that he “becomes” the criminal and puts himself into their head while interrogating them. He begins a long (and often boring) soliloquy with the phrase, “I’m you,” before launching into who they are as a person, what their motivations are: “I’m a stripper, but what I really want to be is a beautician,” he says during the strip club scene that is required of all crime dramas. It gets old by the second episode.
In fact, almost everything in Backstrom is old by the second episode — if not by the second time you’ve viewed the trailer or seen the poster. It’s a bland CBS procedural that ended up on Fox, a cheap blend of everything similar but better, with drama that isn’t thrilling and humor that isn’t funny.