FOX’S NEW MID-SEASON DRAMA: BACKSTROM
Raine Wilson stars in a detective procedural that’s part HOUSE M.D., part ARCHIE BUNKER
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I think I’ve always kind of liked Raine Wilson. The first time I saw him on screen was as the fourth Thermian attempting to contact Jason Nesmith at the convention center in Galaxy Quest. Though the other three Therians in the group would have substantial roles in the film, Wilson was resigned to the background and only uttered a single line of dialogue: “Mum”. His performance didn’t particularly stick out but it must have left the slightest of an impression because I started to recognize him in every little role he appeared in over the course of following decade. I’d keep seeing him, playing eccentric but amiable oddballs, in everything from Almost Famous to a memorable role on Six Feet Under. I genuinely warmed to the guy and wondered if there wasn’t something bigger for him on the horizon.
In 2005, Wilson would appear in his most famous role as the idiosyncratic Dwight Schute, on the wildly successful U.S. adaptation of The Office. And while this would be the character that would become Raine’s claim to fame, it wasn’t until Super, director James Gunn’s superhero, black-comedy, that I realized Wilson had the talent to imbue depth in the weirdos he plays. This ability to balance comedy with pathos is probably what inspired Bones producer Hart Hanson to cast Raine in the lead for his new, hour-long, crime procedural Backstrom.
Based on the books by renowned Swedish criminologist and author Leif G.W. Persson, Wilson plays the eponymous Backstrom; an eccentric, offensive, belligerent and brilliant police detective who struggles to change his self-destructive indulgences while investigating crimes in the Pacific Northwest. The set-up goes: after a five-year banishment to the traffic division for his offensive and slobbish behavior, Everett Backstrom is placed in charge of Portland Oregon’s new Serious Crimes Unit. When he isn’t stuffing his face, chomping on a cigar, drinking liquor or offending anyone within earshot, Backstrom uses his superior intellect to unravel mysteries and beguile confessions.
Genevieve Angelson costars as Detective Nicole Gravely, Backstrom’s second in command tasked with keeping her boss’s erratic behavior in check. She is the antithesis of Backstrom: young, optimistic, ambitious and hygienic. Gravely struggles to ensure that Backstrom’s unorthodox methods and politically incorrect rhetoric don’t prevent killers from being brought to justice . . . or provoke his fellow officers into killing Backstrom. Joining Wilson and Angelson are French actress Beatrice Rosen, Thomas Dekker (Sarah Connor Chronicals), Kristoffer Polaha (Ringer), Page Kennedy (Weeds), (and my favorite) 24’s Dennis Haysbert.
The adaptation of Backstrom had been a strange and troubled development. In 2011, a bidding war erupted between all four major networks over the rights to adapt the Backstrom novels into a series. 20th Century Fox TV won the fight but failed to go to pilot after developing a script. By 2012, the project bounced to CBS with screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana) set to adapt. After a lengthy casting process, Raine Wilson was chosen as the lead and a pilot episode went into production. However, in a surprise move, CBS passed on the pilot for their 2013 Fall lineup. By January of 2014, FOX regained the rights and—with a curious change of heart—immediately gave the series a 13-episode order with Hart Hanson as producer and series veteran Mark Mylod (Entourage, Shameless) in the directors chair. The pilot was reshot by the new network showrunners with the same script and most of the original cast but with one major exception: Wilson’s main costar (the original Detective Gravely) Mamie Gummer (The Good Wife), was replaced.
Backstrom is set for release as a FOX midseason replacement, with new episodes currently being shot for the spring. Recent casting reports from Deadline.com indicated that Hollywood legend Robert Forster will appear in two episodes as Backstrom’s curt but admirable father. Also, Scrubs’ Sarah Chalke will show up as the ex-fiance to the titular detective.
The premise of Backstrom could be easy to dismiss, but like its atypical lead, I feel there is potential for something great. At the very least, in a television era saturated with unconventional anti-heroes bucking the system and fighting the forces of darkness there’s always room for a brilliant and likeable curmudgeon. FOX has posted an official trailer for the show on their Youtube channel and some sarcastic commenters point out that Backstrom is nothing more than House M.D. solving murders or Dwight Schute as Sherlock Holmes. These are fair observations and I myself couldn’t help but notice the parallels. There is something very familiar about the trailer for Backstrom that could either be perceived as cliche or comforting. I for one chose the latter. Most people only know Raine Wilson as Dwight but when you look back on his past roles there are nuances to his performances that hint at a performer has the range and talent to be dark as well as funny. And while the the self-destructive but genius investigator premise isn’t blazing any new trails the the source material is popular, the cast is charismatic, and the show runners pedigree is sound. We’ll have to wait until next year to see if Backstrom is more than just a bizarro Monk or the anti Castle but like Tony Shalhoub and Nathan Fillion, talented character actors who got there chance to shine as TV detectives, Raine Wilson has a charm to elevate even the most familiar procedural.
- There are 2 trailers for Backstrom on Youtube. One is from the original CBS pilot and one is from the Fox pilot. It’s fascinating to watch the subtle changes in performance from Wilson or the directors staging of scenes. Most of the differences are very subtle—The Fox version looks a little more vibrant and polished—but the most interesting improvement is the recasting of Genevieve Angelson. Perhaps Mamie Gummer is an accomplished actress but there’s something really unappealing about her deadpan line delivery and Resting Witch Face.
- Since Major League I’ve always enjoyed Dennis Haysbert. It’ll be nice to hear his cool and collected baritone voice in something other than an insurance commercial.
- There could probably be a Backstrom drinking game. Anytime Backstrom says something racist, sexist, or inappropriate take a drink. Whenever Backstrom puts something in his mouth (pizza, beer, cigar) take a shot.
- The rainy Vancover shooting locations offer a refreshing crime-scene look that any X-Files fan would be nostalgic for.