“Backstrom,” it turns out, is just 2015-ese for “House,” with Rainn Wilson’s Dwight Schrute elevated to the leading-man role the character always thought he deserved in “The Office.” A mildly defective detective (sorry, Monk) with a bad attitude, Wilson’s title player is prone to offensive and outlandish utterances, while going about the business of deciphering quirky yet banal crimes in the tree-lined, rainy environs of Portland (actually Vancouver). Shepherded along by “Bones’” Hart Hanson, this is the sort of meat-and-potatoes drama that doesn’t feel distinctive enough to do much more than tread water on Fox, even with “American Idol’s” kick-start.
Granted, there’s symmetry in putting this series (adapted from a Swedish book series, with almost nothing except the name to suggest those literary origins) in “The Office’s” old timeslot; and something very specific about the gloomy Northwest setting, where Backstrom is introduced at a crime scene, chomping on a cigar and wearing a rain poncho.
Politically incorrect and prone to insulting those around him, the lead character is a recovering alcoholic and has health issues — his doctor’s advice: “Make a friend.” And presumably he’s tolerated by his low-key colleague (Dennis Haysbert, underused in the early going) because he’s so brilliant and driven, working for the special-crimes unit. So make that law & order, S.C.U.
“I don’t care about the truth,” Backstrom snarls at one point. “I care about a conviction.”
Inevitably, the misanthropic sleuth is surrounded by a team of fellow detectives who don’t quite know what to make of him and harbor their own idiosyncrasies, from the fresh-faced newbie (Genevieve Angelson) to the new-agey forensics liaison Neidermeyer (Kristoffer Polaha), who forever seems to be trying to psychoanalyze him.
The crimes in the first three episodes, meanwhile, are “special” in the sense they’re unusual, but they’re also completely forgettable — to the point where the how, in terms of Backstrom’s process in deciphering clues, overwhelms the who.
The show actually began life at CBS, which ultimately cut it loose, and might explain why it feels decidedly deficient in terms of what its current network used to call “Fox attitude.”
“House,” obviously, enjoyed a good long run by following a similar antisocial-savant prescription, and Hanson’s other “crimedy,” “Bones,” has been equally durable. But Wilson’s pugnacious take doesn’t initially offer any of the gradations Hugh Laurie found, while the series is so eager to establish the formula that any exposition about not-so-good detective himself comes out in drips.
On the bright side, Fox was able to launch “Empire” to big numbers, suggesting even a highly diluted “Idol” lead-in coupled with a torrent of football promos remains a viable way to introduce a series. And it’s not like “Gracepoint” raised time-period expectations ratings-wise.
Yet while Backstrom might be another troubled crime-solver in a TV landscape that churns them out in abundance, he’ll likely have a hard time following his doctor’s orders when it comes to making, and keeping, friends.