Backstrom “I Am a Bird Now” Review Season 1 Episode 4

Backstrom I Am A Bird Now Season 1 Episode 4 04

The latest episode of “Backstrom” is a tricky one to review, just as the subject matter is a tricky one to tackle in comedic form, or even in semi-comedic form, which is probably a better description of the show’s overall approach. (I hesitate to use the dreaded term “dramedy,” which I hate, so I’ll go with “black comedy” instead.) In “I Am a Bird Now,” Backstrom’s latest case revolved around the death of a drag queen- or is the more politically correct term a transvestite? (See what I mean? Already we’re in thorny waters!)

Declaring it to be a hate crime, Backstrom plunges himself into the world of men who like to dress as women, and in his typically obtrusive, no-holds-barred way. On the one hand, over the course of the first three episodes, we’ve come to know Backstrom (Rainn Wilson) to be the sort of person with no filter, and that the show intends this to be funny in an ironic, in-on-the-joke sort of way. In short, we’re laughing at him, not with him, because the things he says and does are clearly inappropriate about 95% of the time, if not more.

At the same time, we are also supposed to acknowledge the fact that, despite his oft-offensive approach, his overall goal is to, after all, catch the bad guys (or girls- or guys dressed as girls, as the case may be), and that’s ultimately a good thing, despite his methods. So, all of that said, when is it appropriate to make fun of people and when isn’t it? Have we become too politically correct as a society, or not politically correct enough? There are no easy answers to these questions, and when all is said and done, it likely comes down to one’s own personal barometer for this sort of humor.

In terms of my own, I find the likes of “South Park” to be humorous more often than not, especially since, more often than not, there is a method to the madness. It’s satire that’s often smart, despite the preponderance of raunchy humor. I do think “Backstrom” is aiming for that sort of tongue-in-cheek comedy, where what the main character says isn’t necessarily what he means. After all, one of the main characters is Valentine, implied to be Backstrom’s son, who is an out-and-proud gay man who isn’t afraid to crack wise about Backstrom or anyone else. Nor does he take the often horrific things that come out of Backstrom’s mouth too seriously. Nor should he, when you come down to it.

At one point in the story, Valentine himself is listed as a potential suspect. The show- wisely, IMHO- doesn’t go for the obvious treacle-filled approach, the expected “I’m going to have your back and get you out of this, whatever it takes” slant. Instead, Backstrom simply does his job, and if the killer turns out to be Valentine, so be it. At the same time, Wilson does so in a nuanced, close-to-the-vest sort of way that allows you to see that, deep down- if perhaps way deep down- he does really care. We get that he doesn’t really think Valentine did it, without his having to come right out and say it, namely by his directly involving Valentine in the investigation, as nearly is always the case, and by the teasing-yet-loving way he tweaks Valentine about each development in the case.

There are any number of scenes which court controversy of course- this is Backstrom we’re talking about, after all, a man who never met a person he couldn’t find a way to offend. At one point, he does just that, needling a potential suspect to the point the man attacks him and ends up getting arrested for assaulting a police officer- and we don’t entirely blame the guy for doing it. (Or at least I didn’t, as I don’t want to be so presumptuous as to try and speak for everyone out there.)

Backstrom also repeatedly refers to homosexuals as “the gays” and clearly equates a guy wearing a dress with being gay, even though, as another character takes pains to point out, that may not necessarily be the case. Indeed, at one point, we do learn that the victim was, in fact, more of a bisexual (or at least what one character calls a “pansexual”), who has had relations with both men and women, even after “coming out,” as it were, as a transvestite. It is, in fact, precisely this quality that leads to his death, as the man responsible hired a hit man to dispatch the victim because he was having an affair with his wife.

That’s a clever twist in this particular case, as it goes directly against the grain of many of our expectations, which, like Backstrom, might well have been that the victim must be gay. The show teaches us a lesson about gender relations, in other words, without bashing us in the heads with it- a neat trick, to be sure. As such, I am going to choose to side with the show’s writers in this particular case, both literally and figuratively. I think, for the most part, they got it right.

Yes, admittedly, there are some iffy moments throughout, but they are also very much intentional ones, done to make a point, so I think the show deserves a pass for them. In short, there’s a difference between pointed satire and truly offensive humor, and I don’t think the show crossed that line. It may have danced up to it and jumped up and down on the borderline a bit, but it didn’t cross it, and that’s okay by me.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the LGBT crowd takes all of this, but I think, the occasionally iffy portrayal of Valentine by Thomas Dekker notwithstanding- who has a tendency to camp it up just this side of offensively- that they will be okay with it, though I certainly don’t claim to speak for all of them, any more than I claim to speak for what any given viewer might think of all this. I can only speak for me, obviously, and I don’t consider anything that went down in this episode to be truly offensive, even if it tread mighty close at times- witness the fervor over the Joan Crawford bottle, for instance (or the fact that the writers went for such a semi-obvious, if not completely on-the-nose poster person for gay people- or, if you prefer, the LGBT crowd).

That said, was it a good episode? It was alright, in the grand scheme of things, not one of the show’s better efforts, but not one of its worst, either. By my count, the show is about 50% successful overall, in its four show-span thus far. Not a great average, but not bad, either, for a new show still in the process of finding itself and its overall tone. I do give credit where credit’s due for tackling such a divisive subject matter this early on in its run, even if the end results were mixed. But I don’t think they were mixed because the show was insulting to the LGBT community, but because it just wasn’t that funny, and it was clearly aiming to be, at least in certain parts.

But that has more to do with nailing that elusive, tricky tone the show is going for, and that’s no easy task, to be sure. These things take time, but I am starting to get to the point where I hope the show gets that time. I can feel a certain attachment to the characters sinking in, and in my experience, it’s when the characters start to feel real that that sort of thing happens, and when it does, then you start to care, and caring about a show’s characters is the true key to a show’s lasting success. But will everyone connect to a show whose characters are often abrasive and determinedly unlikable- particularly in regards to the titular one? That remains to be seen, but it should be interesting to read the feedback on this one on the internet.

What did you think of the latest episode of “Backstrom”? Were you offended or entertained? Or were you more offended that you weren’t that entertained? Do you think the show has promise, or is it way too quirky for its own good? What do you think its chances for survival are? Do you hope the show lasts long enough to find its tone? Or do you think it’s dead in the water before its barely even begun? Sound off down below in the comments section and let me know what you think, and I’ll see you next episode!