Review: Backstrom

Catch Backstrom while you can, because the Fox series about a misanthropic and irascible police detective isn’t likely to last long in the US television landscape. The show is a delight to watch, but the complicated social politics and nuanced storylines are combining to make it a bit of a ratings drag, and many reviewers aren’t big fans either; the show’s currently scoring 34% on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.

I’m not entirely convinced that the harsh reception is fair, though; because the dislike of the show seems to be buried in certain expectations of cop shows in the United States, and this one doesn’t quite fit the mold. Based on the Swedish book series of the same name by Leif G.W. Persson, the show stars Rainn Wilson as Detective Backstrom, a slightly bitter man who isn’t afraid to resort to unconventional methods in his work.

If you’re expecting a regular, US-style police show, you won’t get it from this one, despite the fact that it’s developed by Hart Hanson of Bones fame. The show has mysteries of the week and the usual assortment of side characters — a queer roommate, an ex-MMA fighter turned police officer, an idealistic deputy, a sexy foreign-accented tech-savvy civilian. But the show, ostensibly set in Portland, isn’t quite as formulaic as police shows in the United States. Police shows in the US are generally unremarkable and tend to blend into each other, with nothing terribly new or innovative between programmes, which makes them equally formulaic to review — going through the motions is relatively easy for not just the show, but the reviewer.

It’s also not quite what viewers might expect of shows adapted from Scandinavian crime series, which might be where the problem comes for reviewers facing down against it. It’s not dark and mysterious, with complex arcs that span across an entire season. It’s not quite as dark and cynical, although it does have the classic Nordic Noir police officer anchoring the drama. It doesn’t have quite as much embedded social commentary. It’s difficult for critics to engage with because it feels at times so elusive.

In that setting, it seems to be difficult for people to know how to respond to it and to accept it as it is. It’s a dark comedy, something rare and delightful in US television, and Backstrom is a brilliant anchor, just as the other characters are his foils. This is perhaps why it doesn’t fit in to the US television landscape at all, because dark comedies seem to make people in the US uncomfortable. Traditional police comedies along the lines of Brooklyn Nine-Nine are comfortable and easy to understand, with comfortable humour and familiar character archetypes. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad — Brooklyn Nine-Nine, for example, is an entertaining programme with a loyal following.

But that’s not what Backstrom is about. The goal is a sly, wry, snarky sort of humour, a throwback to the series that originated the show, and that’s something audiences seem to struggle with, unsure if they should be laughing or not. It’s not a surprise that many US critics don’t know how to deal with it, because while they may be accustomed to macabre humour and dark comedy, they’re not used to encountering it in this setting. It might seem inappropriate for police shows, and, moreover, they’re used to seeing it in small doses within the context of larger series; comic relief is popular in the US, but straight dark comedy across an entire programme is something alien to many reviewers.

Yet, that’s what makes Backstrom so delightful. The sardonic and curmudgeonly titular character has a sharp, dark sense of humour that carries well on screen within the constantly rainy and murky setting (though it should be noted that the programme is filmed in Canada). The characters who interact with him share his humour, in their own way, even when they’re earnest and forthright people. As a collective, the cast work extremely well together and have a fantastic chemistry that plays out brilliantly on set.

Backstrom isn’t likely to last beyond the first season because it confuses viewers and critics alike. It’s not what they expect, or what they want, and thus it’s being received with hostility. One might argue that such is the way of television and Hollywood, and that programmes that aren’t meeting with positive receptions are facing an inevitable death, but there’s still something sad about the inevitable non-renewal of the series. We’ll likely see the remaining episodes burned off in a rush of late-night airings in the next few weeks, allowing the cast members to move on to other projects, and I for one will be sad to see Backstrom go.

The programme isn’t perfect and it’s still growing into itself, but I feel that it never really had a chance to fully develop. Making television is hard, and making it work for all audiences is difficult. The show doesn’t have mass appeal, and probably wouldn’t have developed it even if the creators had focused on making it more in line with US television traditions and norms, so it’s understandable to see Fox sharpening the axe, but I’ll still take a moment to mourn it anyway.

It’s a rough time in US television for shows that don’t catch on immediately and those that step outside the bounds a bit. Backstrom could have represented a shift in US television and a chance to explore, but it probably won’t.

Photo by Connor Tarter, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license