Rainn Wilson doesn’t particularly like crime dramas and police procedurals.
The actor — formerly of The Office, in which he played oddball paper salesman Dwight Schrute — finds it hard to care whodunit.
So what was Wilson thinking when he signed up to star in a crime drama of his very own?
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“I was thinking, damn it, this is too good, too rich and too interesting to pass up,” he says of the title character in Backstrom, which premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday on Fox. “This is a character I can spend a lot of time trying to figure out.”
Wilson might be willing to spend a lifetime working on it, but viewers will need only a few minutes to get a handle on Everett Backstrom of Portland’s Special Crimes Unit.
The guy is a human train wreck. You don’t want to look, but you find it hard to turn away. Backstrom is abrasive, misogynistic, self-destructive, even racist. He can be counted on to say the most inappropriate things, because he has no self-edit button in his head.
His only saving grace is that he has a unique talent for solving crimes.
“I couldn’t say no,” says Wilson, who wasn’t really ready to jump back into series TV so soon after The Office (2005-13). “These kinds of roles don’t come along very often, at least not for weird-looking, middle-aged character actors like myself.”
It is worth noting that Backstrom feels a little different from most contemporary crime dramas.
The show, created and executive produced by Hart Hanson of Fox’s Bones, is very 2015 in many ways — the gritty nature of the crimes, the state-of-the-art forensics — but when it comes to character, it’s a throwback to the golden era of 1970s detective shows.
“It reminded me of growing up watching Columbo and The Rockford Files,” Wilson says. “I was really excited about the old-school nature of the show. Aside from a few little montages here and there, there’s nothing slick about the show.
“I mean, here’s a quirky character who is not a leading-man type, struggling to get by in the world, kind of an antihero, with some really major flaws, but who happens to be pretty brilliant at solving crimes.”
Wilson says it’s fun having permission, at least while in character, to be a poor excuse for a human being.
“We all have those moments when we wish we could say exactly what’s on our minds,” he says. “But we’ve kind of had those impulses pounded out of us over the years. We’re told we have to be politically correct. We know there are things we shouldn’t say.
“So it’s great being the person who can say whatever’s on his mind, even if it’s just pretend.”
But this next comment isn’t make-believe. Wilson really does take a shot at CBS, the network that initially green-lighted the pilot, then declined to pick up the series.
“We always knew it was going to be very tricky at CBS,” Wilson says. “CBS is not really known for it’s unlikable characters. It’s known for its ensemble procedurals. Character is not as important in CBS shows — and this show is all about character.
“Everyone in the ensemble has a very strong point of view and is very quirky. So our adjustment when going to Fox was, ‘Goodie! Yippee! We’re on Fox! Now we can do something a lot more interesting!’
“It’s still network television. But for network television, I think we’re trying to push the envelope in some really interesting ways.”
▪ 8 p.m. Thursday
▪ KDFW/Channel 4