Your fondness for Backstrom will depend on how eager you are to watch yet another TV series about a miserable asshole who’s so great at his job that people forgive him for walking all over them. The title character, played with commitment if no special insight by The Office’s Rainn Wilson, is a Portland police detective who seems hell-bent on destroying himself and driving his co-workers crazy. He’s an alcoholic, racist, sexist misanthrope who’s addicted to gambling and prostitutes, and who’s got several worrisome medical conditions, none of which stop him from casually insulting the Indian doctor who warns him that if he doesn’t find at least one friend in the next week, he’ll fail his physical and be barred from street duty. “If you Hindus are so smart, how come 98 percent of you live at the dump?” he asks, while the soundtrack offers pizzicato violin music — network TV’s official aural signal for, “Don’t worry, folks, he’s good at heart, and this show is a comedy.” A comedy about a grumpy cop who has to make a friend. Who can resist it?
Then we move to a crime scene where a “rich, white senator’s pretty-boy son” (Backstrom’s words) has apparently committed suicide. Backstrom works his craaaaaaazy hunches, one of which is to interview an African-American standing on the other side of the police tape because the color of his skin makes him an anomaly in this otherwise lily-white crowd. “He stands out like a raisin in a bowl of buttered popcorn,” Backstrom declares. He disparages his second in command, Nicole Gravely (Genevieve Angelson), for being a know-nothing youngster who gets all her ideas from fancy book learning (as if he’s a 96-year old Mennonite farmer), and for being female. At one point, he refers to her as a “horny little minx” for no apparent reason.
I could continue listing all the ways in which this character is insufferable, in that distinctively white-guy way that seems to please untold numbers of network executives, but I won’t, because you’re all familiar with this particular brand of character, an asshole whose assholism is excused by his success record and by his tragic backstory (we learn that Backstrom was abused as a child). I guess the go-to comparison is another Fox hit, House, but really, this kind of hateful-S.O.B.-who’s-great-at-his-job is a very old pop-culture archetype, one that could be traced to at least the ‘80s (Michael Douglas and Sylvester Stallone played plenty of variations — and before them, Clint Eastwood and George C. Scott). Are we done with it yet? Watch the ratings and see, I guess.
In the meantime, if you must watch Backstrom, at least you can take solace in the main character’s chief foil, detective John Almond (Dennis Haysbert), a devout Christian who’s been happily married for 30 years and rarely raises his voice or loses his cool. Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I used to joke with my friends that somebody should counter-program all the Dirty Harry– and Lethal Weapon– and Die Hard–type films about tough cops who don’t play by the rules by making a film about a nice cop who does play by the rules. Almond is that character. He’s infinitely more interesting than Backstrom, not because of his moral values (which could be tedious and preachy in a different context) but because you almost never see characters like him on network TV, on cop shows or any other kind of show. His faith is taken at face value, not set up as a hypocritical pose for the hero to puncture, and his serenity isn’t presented as evidence of brainwashing or delusion, but rather as evidence of a personally more evolved state than the hero can imagine at this point. There’s a deeper, more original series hiding inside the predictable melange that is Backstrom, and John Almond might be the way into it.