I don’t much care for procedural television. Procedurals are incredibly repetitive, like listening to the same song over and over. Until they’re worn out by relentless overplay, however, those songs can often be catchy and enjoyable, which is why I allot myself one procedural each year. For many seasons, that was Castle, until they wore a groove into their formula by featuring the same six scenes in the beginning of every episode. I checked into Longmire for a while because it was creaky comfort TV (and also because of Katee Sackhoff). For a few years, it was Elementary because they at least broke up their formula with the occasionally engrossing multi-episode arc. However, even Elementary eventually fell into a procedural funk where even the arcs were wrapped around stand-alone episodes.
This year’s procedural may very well end up being Backstrom, which — through the first two episodes — is as predictable as one might expect from a show designed to solve a murder case each week. Built into that formula, however, is a cantankerous, overweight drunk (Rainn Wilson) whose ill health and prickliness are his most defining characteristics.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because it is: Backstrom is the House M.D. of procedurals, and while it’s not original to anchor a show around an anti-social malcontent, Wilson does make for a remarkably good asshole. He’s Dwight without the dimwittedness, and unlike Dwight, he’s arrogant and sure of himself for a reason. There is also a lighter tone to Backstrom than most bleak procedurals: He may be an asshole, but at least Backstrom has a sense of humor.
Wilson plays a cynical jackass suspicious of everyone, including the victims of murder, who he suggests are never innocent. That is to say, they always do something to warrant being killed. The conceit here is that Backstrom works his cases backwards from there: Find out what the murder victim did to get him or herself killed, and you can figure out the murderer (or you can just figure it out by how the show is edited. Like most procedurals, the murderer so far has been the second or third suspect, the one who is quickly dismissed).
The supporting characters are also predictably offbeat: Dennis Haysbert plays his superior officer, who is forgiving and even understanding of Backstrom’s assholery; Beatrice Rosen plays his naive, by-the-books partner (because a by-the-books partner is a requirement). He’s also surrounded by a beat cop (Page Kennedy) who essentially doubles as his bodyguard; Kristoffer Polaha plays the New Age, zen-like forensic pathologist; and Thomas Dekker plays his gay roommate/slash confidential informant.
Backstrom breaks no new ground, and there is very little exemplary about it, but as passive television watching goes, it makes for comfortable background noise. It’s also a suitable lead-out for Bones, which comes from the same creator, Hart Hanson. Even better, it’s only a 10-episode first season, which is just enough to keep it from wearing out its welcome.