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Can Backstrom Make Viewers Love Rainn Wilson's Jerky Detective?

Creator Hart Hanson and Rainn Wilson weigh in on creating unlikable character that works

Adam Bryant

When Bones creator Hart Hanson began developing his new Fox drama Backstrom, he was keen to remember a lesson he learned while making his previous one-and-done series The Finder.

"The Bones fans did not like Finder because they never shook the idea that it was somehow replacing Bones," Hanson tells TVGuide.com. "That came out during the year when Emily [Deschanel] was having her first child, and there was no way to dissuade people from thinking that somehow Finder was elbowing Bones out of the way and they resented it. Maybe it was the planted pilot -- Walter first appeared in a Bones episode, and they were angry and irked. So, it was live and learn. I hope they all tune in to Backstrom, but it's not such a bloody-minded effort to try and drag them along. It's a different universe."

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And a different protagonist. Backstrom stars The Office's Rainn Wilson as the title character, a boorish, irascible detective who, despite his self-destructive tendencies, is the best crime-solver in Portland. A different universe it may be, but on paper, Backstrom sounds like another long-running Fox character.

"I can only be flattered by anyone comparing this to House," Hanson says. "That being said, I was not thinking about House when I madeBackstrom. When I was a kid, there were so many shows that had the prickly, difficult protagonist. These were all guys who were cranky and difficult, and it was just fun to watch them. And so I would say the creation of this show harkens back to a long line of network shows that have difficult, prickly and self-destructive leads. We're going to be compared to [House] -- I'd be a fool not to know that -- but Backstrom does not have House's coping mechanisms. He's much more of an open wound than House was. House was a scarred-over wound and was very self-aware and had this coping mechanism that Backstrom doesn't have."
Yet , Wilson believes it's because of House's existence that Fox picked up the series, which was originally developed at CBS. "CBS doesn't have a single show that has edgy or unlikable characters. It really is completely about the procedural elements of the show," Wilson says. "They have a successful formula, and, God bless them, they are the most successful network on TV, but it's not Backstromterritory. We knew we could push the envelope a lot more at Fox. This is not a show for everyone. There's going to be a lot of people who tune in and say, 'Oh, this guy's an ass----, I'm not going to watch this show.' And that's fine. Another reason I think Fox is the right home for it is because I think they understand that."
After a long run as Dwight Schrute on The Office, Wilson is no stranger to playing unlikable characters. And although the actor says he doesn't consciously try to give the audience moments to sympathize with Backstrom, he does believe the character can win over viewers despite his abrasive behavior.

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"I don't go to a scene like, 'OK, in this scene I need to bring in a little charm and a little twinkle in my eye, or I need to have a little smile to show that he's kidding.' My job is to play the truth of this very real character, who reminds me of other very real people that I've met in my life," Wilson says. " It's the same thing with Dwight, who was a very unlikable character in a secondary role. [He] grew to have a much larger role over the course of the show and grew to become very beloved on the show. I believe that if you make a character specific and you give him an internal life, it doesn't matter what he's doing. The audience will come along for the ride because he is human. It's not about likable or unlikable -- it's human versus unbelievable. If you make him a very specific human being with specific hopes and fears and desires and vulnerabilities and strengths and weaknesses, then a discerning audience will be ready for that."

Fortunately, all of those bad character traits -- and a painful past with his father -- are exactly the reason Backstrom is the great detective he is. "He's vain and conceited. He believes himself to be unfoolable," Hanson says. "And his upbringing is full of secrets and darkness, and he doesn't like that. He may not be self-aware of this, but he cannot stand the thought of things happening in the dark that no one knows about. He would never say it this way, but he is driven subconsciously by the need to shed light on bad things because he's got so many."

But Backstrom's dark view of the world has other consequences. As the show begins, Backstrom is returning to work after a medical leave, and his doctor isn't thrilled about putting the schlubby detective back on the beat for fear that he might croak while pursuing a suspect.

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"It's a very important component for us that this guy could drop dead at any time, especially if he doesn't change his ways," Hanson says. "There is movement on that story. He is trying to the best of his ability to stay alive. He hates life but he's scared to death of dying, and it puts him between a rock and a hard place. As this series progresses, there are more and more things that come down on the side of living that make him more and more determined to live longer, despite his own self-sabotaging ways. He sets up some relationships that come to mean more to him than he ever expected in his life."

Enter the Special Crimes Unit. Backstrom's colleagues include second-in-command (and Backstrom watchdog) Nicole Gravely (Genevieve Engelson), big-thinking forensics specialist Sgt. Peter Niedermayer (Kristoffer Polaha), religious veteran detective John Almond (Dennis Haysbert) and wannabe detective someday Officer Frank Moto (Page Kennedy). At home, Backstrom shares a roof with his gay tenant/"underworld connection" Gregory Valentine (Thomas Dekker).

"In the broadest view, I would say that every one of the characters who surrounds Backstrom, in their own way are life-enhancing," Hanson says. "They are pro-living on this planet, and they appreciate life in different ways -- in spiritual ways, emotional ways, intelligent ways, in ambition. He is the opposite, so he's bouncing off of these people and he cannot help as he solves crimes with them that they all rub off on each other. "

Adds Wilson: "I think all TV shows are essentially about family. He needs these people with these other skills to help him out. And for the first time in his life, he feels like he has a group of people that ultimately have his back and that he can trust. The Special Crimes Unit forms a kind of family, and each family member has their role, and he is the grumpy father at the center of it all."

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But why do these people put up with Backstrom's annoying habits? "Honestly, their jobs are a stake," Wilson says. "It's not a sentimental thing -- this is kind of the end of the line. They're misfits, all of them. Almond is about to retire. Gravely botched a job she had worked previously in a big way, so this is her only chance to prove herself. Niedermayer's hated by all the forensics people. And this is Moto's only chance to become a detective. [Backstrom] is brilliant at solving crimes, so as the Special Crimes Unit is becoming more and more successful, they need to keep that run going to save their jobs."
So between having a prickly detective like Kojak and Columbo and the crime-solving family of shows such as NCIS or Bones, how does this series ultimately set itself apart? "These are real, flesh-and-blood characters, and you get that wonderful drama element of getting to know this misfit family at the same time as you're solving crimes every week," Wilson says. "And throw on top of that the fact that it's really funny. It's a big risk. There's not anything else like it. Backstrom is more grounded in the real world. You believe these people could be dealing with these very real issues. We're asking a good deal from the audience, but I think the payoff is really great."

Backstrom premieres Thursday at 9/8c on Fox.