Backstrom Review: “Bella”

(Episode 1.02)

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<i>Backstrom</i> Review: &#8220;Bella&#8221;

In what I’m guessing will continue to be a tradition for Backstrom, its second episode begins with an unflattering close-up of Lt. Det. Everett Backstrom’s (Rainn Wilson) dumpy physicality. He stands in front of a smoldering home—a type of domicile later referred to as a “McMansion,” which, to be honest, is not that common in Portland proper—chomping on a stogie and generally wasting space, the camera in close-up. As was the case with the show’s series premiere, the direction this time (handled by long-time veteran Alex Chapple) wants so badly for the audience to cringe at Backstrom’s visage. We get it: he’s gross.

From there, “Bella” proceeds in much the same manner as its predecessor, wherein Backstrom’s recently re-formed team of homicide detective “misfits” attempt to extinguish the case of a serial arsonist with a penchant for “green” flames. Their investigation once again leads them through a small variety of Portland-lite characters: the lascivious “fire artist,” who mistakes sexual confidence for creativity, and hits on the attractively unreal uber-human, Sgt. Niedermayer (Kristoffer Polaha); the slippery, effeminate antique/pawn store owner, who also hits on Niedermayer; and Backstrom’s roommate/ward/possible son Gregory Valentine (Thomas Dekker), who makes a bet with Backstrom that he can easily “turn” Niedermayer—by shamelessly hitting on him. In other words, a lot of people want to sleep with Niedermayer this week.

It’s odd that the episode has so many people wanting to get into Niedermayer’s pants, and not because he isn’t obviously smart and good-looking, but because Niedermayer’s most salient qualities are only that he’s smart and good-looking. Niedermayer actually says, as if this totally explains why anyone would think he’s gay, “I’m metrosexual.” Like…who says that?!

As I implied last week, the characters that orbit Backstrom are, almost totally, one-dimensional archetypes of the exact kind of cop show Backstrom squarely falls into. Instead of developing these characters by offering less easily-definable character motivations or inner-worlds of their own, Backstrom just further reinforces the initial aspects of these characters that seemed so obvious in the first place. Detective Gravely (Genevieve Angelson) is much too idealistic for her job, and secretly wants Backstrom’s validation, which is why she spends so much time lashing out at him. Detective Almond (Dennis Haysbert) is “a 32-year veteran in this department,” and so is both most likely to not care about how much of an asshole Backstrom is, and most likely to be the one person Backstrom respects. And Valentine, who in the premiere mostly took up screen space by chiding Backstrom and putting on makeup, in this episode continues to have conversations with Backstrom while putting on makeup, convinced that, like every one of network TV’s fiercely sassy “magic homosexual”s, he can bring out the gay in Niedermayer.

Again, Backstrom isn’t interested in sussing out the mechanics of Backstrom’s procedural brilliance, just in guaranteeing that, no matter how disgustingly Backstrom acts, he’s still a good detective. Yet, that brilliance is barely on display this week, and since this is only the series’ second episode, one wonders how such a useless, offensive, barely tolerable presence is still allowed to have a job. Even when, during an interrogation, Backstrom’s weirdly empathic monologues are questioned, the ridiculousness of that technique is laid bare: how exactly does Backstrom’s whole “I am you and I want this” mumblings contribute to actual police work? (“No, you idiot, I’m being you.”) Seriously: throughout all of “Bella,” little investigative work is actually accomplished (save Niedermayer, with Valentine’s help, finding a stolen watch at the aforementioned pawn shop). Backstrom’s sole tactic is to intimidate suspects and witnesses into either confirming his hunches, or losing their patience so much that they validate his prejudices. Backstrom doesn’t so much solve cases, as he just shoves them in the direction he feels they should go.

In fact, there are strangely long stretches of “Bella” in which Backstrom plays little part, though the episode’s main conflict (apart from the rather boring arsonist plot) deals with two Portland firefighters who picked on Backstrom when they were growing up in “Couch County” (not a real Oregon county). Throughout the course of the episode, it becomes more and more obvious that little Backstrom probably had it coming when it came to being the target for bullying, but the real source of sympathy for the detective arises in the mysterious, titular “Bella,” a special something that Backstrom cherished as a kid, stolen from him by the two future firefighting D’Agostino brothers. When, in the episode’s final minutes, Backstrom takes Valentine on a roadtrip to retrieve Bella, having finally been clued in to its location by the brothers, the reveal of what Bella actually is feels rather anticlimactic. Actually, it’s almost too Welles-ian that Backstrom’s Rosebud is a mundane token of his childhood, even if the show’s writers intend Backstrom’s connection to his childhood to be surprisingly touching and mundane.

A lot happens in those final moments: Backstrom is, for once, content, and he shares this moment with probably the closest person he has to a family member. A Bill Callahan song—and a thankfully bare one at that—serenades the reunion. These glimpses into Backstrom’s childhood, while sad and sometimes touching in their bleakness, do little to explain why Backstrom is the way that he is. They’re too safe as root causes, and too vague as dysfunctional origins. Plus, we shouldn’t have to cling to these moments of emotional humanness in order to be able to find a reason to follow our protagonist from case to case; we shouldn’t have to watch Backstrom have a cardiac episode to care about him at all.

And so, early in the series, the audience is left with little reason to continue to tolerate the series’ main character. Which is a dark truth, should creator Hart Hanson’s intent be to dissect such all-American values as casual racism and institutionalized misogyny. Because, were he to dig deeper into Backstrom’s pain and continue to fill Backstrom’s world with sympathetically flawed characters (rather than pitch-perfect cardboard cut-outs), he’d be on to something. Even Backstrom thinks so: “Truth is always dark…that’s how you know it’s the truth.”

Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based culture writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.