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Appointment Viewing: Backing Out of Backstrom

Appointment viewing… is a regular column which features a Spinoff writer watching one or more episodes of a current show and attempting to decode its appeal. This week: Alex Casey watches TV3’s new crime-comedy-drama Backstrom. //

What’s it about?

It’s a tale as old as time – a crime show that opens with a dead body, followed by 45 minutes of trying to figure out how he/she died. But this time, there’s a twist: the guy in charge is a BEGRUDGING SASSY GENIUS. Rainn Wilson stars as Detective Everett Backstrom in his first big TV role since The Office (US). Leading the Serious Crimes Unit, Backstrom and his band of merry misfits (a flame-haired young woman and an affable African American guy) handle some of the city’s toughest cases.

Backstrom himself is a deeply angry man who takes every opportunity possible to say something grumpy, racist, or both. Alongside each episodic crime scene are insights into his bleak home life – subplots of which include a rendezvous with a friendly prostitute and his struggle with his ever-expanding heart (literally, not emotionally). He’s an alcoholic, a drug addict and a gross-breakfast-eater, but that won’t stop him both hating and succeeding in his line of work on the regular. He’s just a genius, and that’s what geniuses are allowed to do.

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Who’s it for?

Fans of crime shows, I suppose. What roped me in was the connection to The Office, I guess part of me was hoping for a show about Dwight Schrute – but this time he’s got a notepad. It’s not that. That would be better.

What’s working?

The deep dark humour of Backstrom works for the first 15 minutes or so, introducing the easily-recognisable character type of “gruff jaded smartypants” in a whole new and slightly problematic setting of “highly sensitive crime scenes”. Rainn Wilson as Backstrom brings all the cynicism and specialist knowledge as Dwight from The Office – except this time it’s bodies, not beets. He’s wonderfully good at portraying a man who has absolutely given up on life, to the extenet that it  sort of makes the audience feel exactly the same by the end of it.

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What’s not?

Halfway through the episode I realised that Backstrom is just a bad House, with a few more dead bodies. It’s easy to buy into the cynicism and spewing insults of the titular character for a little while but, once we get deeper into the case, it’s hard to watch a bunch of characters who don’t want to be there (or even near each other). Where House looked for the worst in his patients, Backstrom looks for the worst in his victims – which is a massive downbuzz. His mantra “there are no victims”, along with his ongoing racist schtick, wears a little thin. Especially after he asks to interview a “suspicious looking African American” for no reason at all.

The twists in the case come even faster than Backstrom’s empty jibes at the world, but I can’t help but feel like we’ve seen it all before. I lost interest in the episode and had to return to it later – so I would hardly describe it as a gripping watch. Backstrom’s rain man-style of case solving makes the ultimate resolution a lot less satisfying, as he just plucks suspects and motives correctly out of the air like something out of Minority Report.

Should I get amongst it?

Maybe just watch House instead.

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Backstrom airs Thursday 8.40pm on TV3

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