By Jonathon Dornbush
January 22, 2015 at 12:00 PM EST
Sergei Bachlakov/Fox
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Fox loves protagonists who audiences hate to love, and at times, the prickly but brilliant anti-hero motif has been a huge hit for the network. House was a cornerstone of Fox for years, with smaller hits like Lie to Me lasting only a few seasons, and duds like Rake… well, even Fox has forgotten about Rake.

Backstrom follows in that mold with another surly but brilliant mind at the forefront. Detective Everett Backstrom, played by Rainn Wilson, is a Portland detective in the Special Crimes Unit who makes wild leaps based on intuition, has an attitude more prickly than a hedgehog’s back, and shows as much concern for his health as he does for whether he’s offending those around him—almost none.

In “Dragon Slayer’s” opening minutes, Backstrom insults Hindus, all of India, Native Americans, disregards the evidence at a crime scene, and declares a suicide a homicide just so he can earn a free lunch. Well, not just for the food. He’s actually correct about the victim, a college student who appears to have died from a forced heroin overdose.

What follows is a disappointingly familiar case-of-the-week investigation for anyone who has seen a crime procedural. Backstrom and his team, in a series of standard interrogation sequences, investigate the deceased student Toby’s classmates, his girlfriend, and the stripper Toby had a crush on and gave money to for junior college.

The case includes the requisite beats that feel more like obligations than they do opportunities to define the show. Thankfully, the resolution of the case is, if not revelatory, at least energetic in a way the episode hasn’t yet been. The final shootout between Backstrom’s team and a club full of drug dealers leads to Backstrom twisting himself into a lie that may cause trouble down the road. And the way Backstrom and his fellow detective Nicole Gravely (Genevieve Angelson) capture the colluding stripper in a lie is a fun example of the team using their individual strengths on the job.

In the grand scheme of crime procedurals, there’s nothing truly shocking or intriguing about the case, but more so in how Backstrom and his team go about their investigation. In that aspect, the show finds much more success.

Almost every member of Backstrom’s unit has a trademark trait that is given at least a moment or two to shine. Forensics liaison Peter Niedermayer (Kristoffer Polaha) is a spiritual man who would do just fine at a Grateful Dead concert. John Almond (Dennis Haysbert) has the best conviction rate in the division but the faithful husband also spends his weekends as a devout preacher. Nadia Paquet (Beatrice Rosen), a civilian helping the unit, approaches even the darkest cases with some levity. Gravely and Frank Moto (Page Kennedy) are played relatively straight, though Gravely can’t stand Backstrom and Moto isn’t the sharpest tool in Backstrom’s shed.

Every one of them scores at least one entertaining moment, though. Paquet and Backstrom discuss being his medicinally prescribed friend. Polaha plays Nidermeyer with just the right level of mellow charm without becoming too insufferable. Haysbert steals the show as Almond when he tells a suspect, who left college after his rugby teammates painted his groin black, that “I got black balls son, not any kind of handicap.”

When it comes to the titular character, though, the first episode relentlessly demonstrates how offensive and generally despicable Backstrom can be. While the extent to which he degrades and insults everyone around him can verge on the cartoonish, Rainn Wilson is fun to watch, and the actor brings enough likability to a role that is otherwise unsurprising.

The setup of the pilot implies there may be some softening of his personality to come, at least to the extent that other real human beings would be willing to spend time with him. The way the episode approaches the idea is novel enough, but it feels like an unsure step in regards to the show’s purpose of following someone as cruel as Backstrom.

His doctor prescribes Backstrom to find at least one friend by the end of the week or he won’t clear him for duty, and the doctor promises he’ll be allowed to work on a week-by-week basis as they chip away at his unappealing demeanor.

One of Backstrom’s most reasonable beliefs is that anyone who says they are “absolutely not” lying absolutely is lying, a rule he breaks when he tells his doctor he is absolutely not afraid of dying. It’s a small but important hint that his angry temperament isn’t a one-dimensional personality trait.

Thankfully, as the show figures out just where Backstrom’s personality should land, he’s surrounded by an equally peculiar—and much more likable—supporting cast. Though Thomas Dekker is slighted with too-brief appearances as Backstrom’s “underworld connection,” Backstrom is at its best when it focuses on the interplay of its cast. Hopefully by leaning on them and less on an overly familiar structure, the show’s writers can find the right balance of a hate-to-love protagonist and a love-to-love ensemble.

Backstrom‘s first episode is hindered by structures and well-trodden characterizations, which is a shame when the assembled cast is filled with so many great actors. The show may be worth revisiting just to see the actors collaborate, but the material desperately needs something fresh and to decide what it wants out of its lead so that Backstrom avoids the missteps of rakish lawyer Keegan Deane and instead goes the way of Dr. Gregory House.

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