9 p.m. Thursday, on Fox
Detective Everett Backstrom is a grumpy genius, a bigot with a badge, a cowboy cop with a heart of gold. Try to stay awake.
If your entertainment lineup is – somehow – missing a deadpan snark machine with more talent than tact, Rainn Wilson’s new cop comedy-drama will fit the bill nicely. “Backstrom” also comes with all the crime show staples: an African-American partner to chase and tackle suspects, an earnest newbie with supermodel looks, a forensics guy with a room full of gadgets.
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The Portland Police Department puts up with Backstrom because he sniffs out the city’s worst murderers, kind of like Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital put up with Dr. Gregory House because he could diagnose bubonic plague over the phone. As the head of the Special Crimes Unit, Backstrom is getting a second chance to solve high-profile cases after racist remarks derailed his career.
“I arrested a white supremacist for killing six Indians,” our antihero explains. “Not tandoori Indians but, you know, Geronimos.”
Like other TV misanthropes based on the self-destructive Sherlock Holmes model, Wilson plays Backstrom as an equal-opportunity offender. He isn’t picking on his co-workers because of their race, creed, religion or sexual orientation. He just wants everyone to get out of his way so that he can pound booze, solve the case and fall asleep over a pizza.
“I don’t see the bad in everybody,” he snarls after his cynicism gets results. “I see the everybody in everybody.”
And “everybody” on this show, with the exception of Wilson, seems to be a great-looking, just-quirky-enough crime fighter you can get behind. The villains are smart and despicable. Portland is a terrible place to smoke cigars outside, because it rains every time a homicide victim is discovered.
Wilson, who will forever be remembered as workplace twerp Dwight Schrute on NBC’s “The Office,” manages to shed that iconic role for the most part. But every once in a while, when Backstrom berates someone over the precinct’s fax machine, Dunder-Mifflin creeps in. Unlike “The Office,” “Backstrom” hasn’t yet fleshed out the supporting characters to water down Wilson’s well-oiled obnoxiousness generator.
Once it stops explaining everyone’s backstory – why is he so bitter? why is she so naive? why are the firefighters evil? – “Backstrom” might turn into a decent chase for the bad guy of the week. As long as it remembers that a hangover is no substitute for charisma.