House was long a fixture on FOX as a show that reveled in the “unlikable genius protagonist” motif that began all the way back when Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes to life back in 1887. It’s something that’s been copied, emulated, and reworked over and over again. Shows like The Mentalist, Lie to Me, Sherlock, and, to some extent, even Doctor Who have enjoyed long, successful runs capitalizing on this motif. But when it comes to the show that came to define that character device, House took the crown.
Hugh Laurie’s depiction had the mercurial doctor come off as the perfect balance of cranky yet sympathetic. For the most part, you as an audience member never struggled to root for him, despite his brushes with authority and controversial methods of doctoring. The success of this one FOX show makes the network’s newest procedural dramedy all that more baffling in Backstrom.
Rainn Wilson plays the title character, a detective that constantly runs into trouble with the higher ups in the department for his abrasive attitude, but who continues to get by unscathed thanks to his exceptional ability as a crime-solver. Think House, only with the Portland Police Department instead of the nicest East Coast teaching hospital ever. The biggest difference though, according to an almost unanimous critical opinion, is the overt racism of Backstrom himself. AV Club elaborates.
What’s most obnoxious about Backstrom’s racist rejoinders is that they aren’t even rooted in genuine racial animus, merely a desire to be obnoxious in the most efficient manner possible. But he’s acquitted again and again, because for the show’s hook to work, Backstrom has to make up in competency what he lacks in agreeableness.
Flavorwire makes a similar observation, noting that “the writers seem to have confused ‘irascible’ with ‘racist'” in Wilson’s portrayal. In a seeming effort to make their lead come off as edgy, they’ve stumbled onto one that instead is just as unlikable for its audience as it is the other characters around him. After being advised by his doctor to make friends, Backstrom quips, “my doctor is a Hindu, so I’m lucky he didn’t have me make friends with a cow.” He says similarly derogatory things to women, making for a protagonist that virtually nobody is rooting for.
Therein seems to lie the problem with Backstrom. Shows like House and Sherlock, while featuring abrasive personalities in their lead characters, still humanize them at the same time. There are reasons a viewer can sympathize with that make Sherlock Holmes and Dr. House the way they are. Self-destruction is something to root against, not for. With Backstrom, we see a cranky detective who’s just straight up mean to everyone. His only personal journey is to alienate everyone around him because that’s what the writers want him to do, not necessarily what makes sense for anything that resembles character development.
The trend of shows like House seems to have officially reached a breaking point with Backstrom. Efforts to recreate the success of a long since cancelled hit appear to have fallen well short of expectations, giving us a pale imitator rather than a worthy successor. Now the only question is how long it’ll be before it gets taken off the air.