The new FOX series Backstrom (Thursdays, 9 p.m. Eastern), which premiered last week and offered up its second episode last night, gives every evidence of having been designed to include every current pseudo-clever cliche of the crime-drama genre. Let us count just some of the ways:
- Eccentric, somewhat annoying detective as central character: Backstrom (Rainn Wilson). He is obnoxious, politically incorrect, unhealthy, shabbily dressed, ill-groomed, and highly self-destructive through alcohol, cigar-smoking, and overeating. He has just been returned to leadership of the Special Crimes Unit after a demotion to the traffic division for a public instance of racial insensitivity. He continually breaks rules and flouts procedures during his investigations.
- Attractive, idealistic sidekick whom protagonist continually picks on: Detective Nicole Gravely (Genevieve Angelson). She keeps his procedure violations from jeopardizing the cases..
- Mildly trendy or unusual setting: Portland, Oregon
- A preternaturally dignified or high-status black person: Detective John Almond (Dennis Haysbert)
- Divorced central character: Backstrom again
- Quirky characters in detective team: Officer Frank Mitto, a former MMA fighter; Sgt. Peter Neidermeyer, who interprets all of Backstrom’s errors and insults as manifestations of genius; Nadia Paquet, a pleasant but perplexing immigrant, presumably from Eastern Europe
- Dreary weather: rain, rain, rain
- Unconventional family angle: Backstrom’s decorator, housemate, and underworld contact, Gregory Valentine, who, the pilot episode suggests, is his long-lost son by way of a prostitute.
- Overly clever element that is repeated far too much and drives you nuts: Backstrom continually muses aloud in terms putting himself in the position of some other person; e.g., “I’m a murderer and I just realized I left something behind at the scene of the crime. What do I do? Do I go right back there and risk being seen? Or do I wait it out and try later?” This habit quickly becomes quite maddening.
- Complex mystery that the detective solved almost instantaneously at the climax, with few if any decent clues for the viewer to ponder.
This approach to TV crime dramas seems calculated to create a perfect balance of the familiar and the unusual, by making a convention out of combining various types of mildly unconventional characters and situations. Pioneered by CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and brought to its apogee by the NCIS franchise, this format has had immense audience appeal and resulted in many highly-rated, long-running series. Unfortunately, after more than a decade of this sort of show, the conventionality of unconventionality has become boring.
Based on a series of novels by Swedish criminologist Leif G. W. Persson, Backstrom is clearly designed also to be a vehicle for Wilson (The Office), with his character directing numerous one-liners, insults, and rather bracingly politically-incorrect statements at the hapless individuals unlucky enough to be caught in his presence.
These lines are so funny, on average, that they nearly make the show worth watching. And no doubt about it, Wilson is a superb comedian. Unfortunately, everything else about Backstrom is so predictably pseudo-unconventional that it’s just too tough to sit through it while awaiting the jokes. You can get what’s best about Backstrom, without the annoying elements, from a Jim Gaffigan stand-up comedy video.