'Backstrom' a welcome return for 'The Office's' Rainn Wilson

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
New Fox series 'Backstrom' is a welcome return for 'The Office's' Rainn Wilson, says @latimestvlloyd

"Backstrom," which premieres Thursday on Fox, is Rainn Wilson's way back to television, some 16 months after the end of "The Office." It is good to see him, and all in all, good to see him here.

In some ways, Wilson hasn't fallen far from the tree where last he sat. Fans, relax: He's not playing some suburban dad or warmhearted high school teacher — though he could.

Like Dwight Schrute did, the eponymous Portland, Ore., police detective Wilson plays in "Backstrom" views the world as if from a bunker he carries around with him. Both are intense, irascible, angry, antisocial (yet somehow needy) characters who see the world with reflexive suspicion.

"There's a very bad man out there who killed this boy and is trying to make me look like a fool," Backstrom says at one point in the pilot. "We are going to get revenge, and that is called justice." Barring the criminal details, it's something Dwight might have said.

But where Dwight was concrete-stiff and full of plans and energy, Backstrom is a slovenly, flabby lump softened by alcohol and illness, who will sleep (that is, be unconscious) until a call wakes him at noon. And where Dwight was ruled by rules, Backstrom has no trouble forging a warrant or planting evidence.

And he has a fence, Gregory (Thomas Dekker, delightful), for a roommate. Their place is full of loot on its way to some other place. ("I deal in collectibles," is all Gregory will say about it.)

The character, borrowed from a series of books by Swedish writer Leif G.W. Persson, is a mix of things we've seen before: the self-destructive detective, the unkempt detective, the unhealthy ill detective, the weirdo detective, the alcoholic detective, the uncannily intuitive detective who imagines himself into the scene of a crime, the shoes of the perp. Wilson is a big enough presence, in body and spirit, to hold them all.

As with the pill-popping Dr. House, a fellow Fox television character Backstrom favors a bit, we are meant to be something less than actually concerned by his behavior. When he chugs two boilermakers in rapid succession, it is played mostly for laughs — nervous laughs, but laughs.

Because he is his own worst enemy, and the sole victim of his behavior, we can side with the good Backstrom against the bad. (He is not entirely without warmth.) And we trust that he will survive, because, whatever happens on screen, the series bears his name and is just beginning.

Although people will be murdered and whatever, what matters here most of all and is the case with most TV procedurals ("Backstrom" creator Hart Hanson's "Bones" among them) is the family the regular characters make. And this has been handled well, in conception and casting.

These include a detective who runs a church on the side (Dennis Haysbert), a uniformed officer with a background in Mixed Martial Arts (Page Kennedy), and a "wacky civilian French chick" (Beatrice Rosen) who handles tech and analysis. Kristoffer Polaha plays a dandified, Buddha-quoting "forensic liaison" who believes that "Backstrom lives intensely in the moment, on a higher plane of existence from which he's able to hear the universe speak." His main foil is a freshly minted youngster (Genevieve Angelson) who can't help calling attention to the differences in their attitude and age.

"You see the worst in yourself, and you apply it to everybody else," she says.

"I don't see the worst in everyone," he responds. "I see the everyone in everyone."

The mechanics of the cases (again, par for the genre) might squeak or grind here or there, but "Backstrom" really stumbles only when it strains too hard for seriousness — and it is not a fatal fall, in any case.

It's a comedy at heart; tonally, it falls somewhere between "Brooklyn Nine Nine" and "Justified," though in purely meteorological terms, it is completely of a piece with "The Killing," with which it shares Canadian locations (and a Scandinavian source). There is rain, and when there is not rain, it looks like rain.



Where: Fox

When: 9 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)

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