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Television REview

All bark, no bite on ‘Backstrom’

Rainn Wilson plays an insensitive cop.
Rainn Wilson plays an insensitive cop. Sergei Bachlakov/fox/FOX

Detective Everett Backstrom is an offensive guy who really wants you to know it, forever making loud, insensitive jokes about gays, Indians, hookers, you name it.

The actor who plays Backstrom, Rainn Wilson from “The Office,” also really wants you to know that his character is offensive, spewing Backstrom’s insults with the kind of overacting that might leave Al Pacino a little envious.

And creator Hart Hanson (of “Bones”) really wants you to know that Backstrom is offensive, too, serving up the kind of lines — about “tandoori Indians” versus “Geronimos,” for example — that the trolls who lurk in online comments sections live for.

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OK, we get it everybody. Backstrom’s a creep, but he’s good at what he does. Backstrom is another in a growing list of TV characters who are socially challenged but brilliant. He’s Dr. House, he’s Sherlock Holmes, he’s the guy in “Lie to Me” and the guy in “Eleventh Hour” and the guy in “Rake.” We know his type extremely well at this point; stop shouting at us. In “Backstrom,” the toxic genius lives in Portland, Ore., so there is plenty of rain for Rainn; but otherwise, this is a tired story poorly told.

It’s a strange intersection of negative qualities, when a show is a cliché — and then it’s a poorly done cliché as well. Not only is “Backstrom” hackneyed for giving us another TV misanthrope who’s forgiven for his sociopathic impulses, but it’s a bad example of that genre. The tone jumps all over the place, from slapstick to black comedy to drama to dramedy, in a way that often seems accidental and usually is awkward. The cases of the week are flat-out lame. And none of the nasty lines that Backstrom mutters fly; they just lie there, like this one: “I don’t see the bad in everybody,” he says at one point. “I see the everybody in everybody.”

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If a show is going to be subversive, and join the challenge to political correctness that has been popular in recent decades, it needs to be written with a whole lot more bite and intelligence.

As on the other similar shows, Backstrom is surrounded by half-baked supporting characters who tend to treat him like a guru. There’s a fresh-faced newbie who has generational spars with Backstrom, a part-time pastor detective (played with silly positivity by Dennis Haysbert), a forensics specialist, and a technical expert with a rather peculiar accent. Gregory Valentine (Thomas Dekker) is a young gay man who shares an apartment with Backstrom and who may be his son with a hooker; he, of course, lusts after every good-looking guy he sees and tucks a sexual reference into so much of what he says.

Rainn Wilson stars as Detective Everett Backstrom, who is offensive but brilliant at his job.
Rainn Wilson stars as Detective Everett Backstrom, who is offensive but brilliant at his job.Sergei Bachlakov/FOX

But the real problem with the show is Backstrom himself, who chugs from bottles of liquor that he picks up at crime scenes and whose doctor keeps warning him about his bad health. His trademark crime-solving approach is a kind of method-acting move, where he puts himself in the mind of a suspect and then imagines that suspect’s motives. It’s not a particularly impressive trick, and it doesn’t really seem to justify his bad behavior.

If we’re going to be backed into one of TV’s moral corners, where an awful person is helping mankind, then he and his show ought to be a little more dazzling.

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Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.