'Backstrom's' Hart Hanson on Changes From CBS to Fox and Making an Offensive Lead Likable

"Do you have time in this world to have a character change in an episodic drama where people don't give up on him too soon? And we'll find out. I'm hoping we have the time. We're gambling on it."
FOX

Bones is the longest-running current drama on Fox's schedule, and the network is hoping to have similar success with creator Hart Hanson's newest series, the Rainn Wilson-led Backstrom.

Backstrom — loosely based off the Swedish book series by Leif G.W. Persson — follows the team at Portland Police Bureau’s Special Crimes Unit, led by Everett Backstrom (Wilson), an offensive (and unhealthy) detective who tends to rub people the wrong way.

Hanson spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the freedom that has come with making Backstrom on Fox — after it was developed for CBS — channeling his inner Backstrom and whether his lead character is redeemable.

All three of your projects that made it to air at Fox — Bones, 2012's spinoff The Finder and Backstrom — have been based on books. What is the appeal for you in adaptations?

There's two things that appeal about it: first, and mightiest, is that the studio is already on board with the idea because they gave me the book. That's a whole phalanx of people I don't have to convince. I'm not being glib. "Can you turn this into a series?" "Yes. Would you like me to?" "Yes, we're 100 percent behind it." That's weeks of efforts [saved] of having to get people to come on board.

The second is in the Bones books, they explained a job. The writer of the books [Kathy Reichs] is more like [the television] Temperance Brennan than the person in the books. In The Finder, it was this stolen notion from Richard [Greener]'s books, The Locator, that someone could find anything. In this one, it was completely atmospheric. The world that the Scandinavian Everett Backstrom lived in was immediately appealing as a series. And it's huge in Scandinavia. So obviously [Persson] is on to something. I just got excited within 10-15 pages about Everett Backstrom. Then comes the idea of how do you turn it into a series? But something tells you there is a series here. I've read plenty of books where I go, "I'm not the one to do this, I don't see a series in this."

Has there been a book you wanted to adapt more closely to the actual source material?

I don't do that. In order to turn something into a network show, it gets pummeled. If you go in with a completely original idea, it gets pummeled both by you, the writer, by the networks and the studio to a lesser degree, and then creatively by whomever comes in to direct and star. And then you no longer think, "Well, I have to stick to the book." The best adaptation I've ever seen is Game of Thrones, because I don't like the books at all, but I think the show is fantastic.

The show was originally made for CBS, they opted to not go forward with it, and then Fox picked it up months later. What kind of changes did you have to make for it to fit into the Fox lineup?

Part of it was you make a pilot that they buy or don't buy — you don't really have to pay attention to Standards and Practices at that point, depending on the network. People have rules, but the original Backstrom pilot for CBS was never going to go on air the way it was because of their Standards and Practices versus Fox's. So there were a whole bunch of things that we were able to keep.

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Such as?

Jokes, language. Standards and Practices said, "This is a racist comment." And the executives said, "Just ignore it, we'll deal with it." Standards and Practices does not answer to the president of the network; they are their own protected entity. My deal with Fox was one I was happy to make: Backstrom could say things, as long as it didn't look OK to say those things. Meaning, those reactions of the other characters couldn't be guffawing with laughter or something. The other was the other characters not join in. And that was never part of the idea. The idea was here is this guy, who is very singular, unique, and the others weren't going to be saying [anything to agree].

The CBS version had Mamie Gummer as Gravely, and that was a different character. She had the same name, but she was a melancholy, lower energy, broken-hearted gay [woman] — the love of her life had left her, and she was very depressed, very low energy, and that was not going to cut it on Fox. So that's where we said, "OK, we have to change it to an ingenue [played by Genevieve Angelson]; millennial, smart detective, brand new, newly minted to clash with him in a more sparky way than the old hand [she originally was]. There was also an element of "we have two of these"; two veteran cops in the CBS version: [Dennis Haysbert's] John Almond and Gravely. So we made that change with two things at once. And then the stories were [different]. I pitched a number of stories and Fox was less leery of offending, for example, the church or institutions. They embrace pushing the line.

In the books, Backstrom's offensive notions are often just his thoughts. Was there any debate about having a voiceover to express some of his more questionable feelings about the world?

I rejected the idea of a voiceover right away. I thought either do this, or don't do it. I felt — and we'll find out if I'm right or not — that trying to excuse his behavior with a voiceover was not the way to go. It's like having your cake and eating it, too. He behaves badly. He says terrible things. But there's a validity to what he's saying, separate to the nastiness of what he's saying. When he says, "I suspect that guy because he's black," well, that guy is guilty. But not because he's black, it's got nothing to do [with his skin color]. So he picks up on these things, and puts them through the worst possible lens. I was thinking, I'm a nice Canadian boy. When I am in traffic, alone in my car, I am Backstrom. If I get cut off by somebody, it doesn't matter what they are, I ascribe them to a group. That agent cut me off! That woman cut me off! Whatever it is. if it's a young man in a BMW, "That f—ing agent cut me off." I suspect that road rage is reductive, you just got for whatever that person is: an agent from CAA.

Do you view Backstrom as a "redeemable" character? As you were setting out to arc the season, how much did that notion play into the writing? And with at least a few episodes airing out of order, what kind of challenges did that pose for the writers in establishing a through line?

Yes [he's redeemable]. We're doing pretty well with episode order. There were lots of discussions about what order to play our episodes in. You want to put your [best] episodes up front so people will watch. But if you do that too much and [it changes things for] a through line, which exists; and I don't even mean serialization, but who the character is, what we learn about some of the relationships [which] change in the show. I think we only moved two episodes, and it didn't do too much damage to it. But there was a lot of talk about it.

The real question is do you have time in this world to have a character change in an episodic drama where people don't give up on him too soon? And we'll find out. I'm hoping we have the time. We're gambling on it. There's a definite through line to him. He is in a very different place in episode 13 than he is in the pilot. And we're careful about that. Please, God, if people are still watching it. Thank you, studio and network, which are now the same bosses, for taking that risk. It's a risk. Because people may give up on him and say, "I don't like that guy," and give up. And that would be a shame.

What can you share about the people who are surrounding Backstrom?

They have a separate relationship with him. They all have a different reason to take steps toward him being OK with them. They get insights into him. Sarah Chalke plays his ex-fiancée, and what can you get away with? I'm hoping the fact that she obviously really loved him at one time and wanted to marry him, and even now, has feelings for him, and is disappointed in the man he has stayed, [makes you go,] "What is it about him that this wonderful character loved?"

His interactions with [Thomas Dekker's] Valentine take on more [weight]. I was amazed in testing when the audience didn't think — no one in the audience thought, are those guys gay lovers? There's a lot of other theories about what holds them together, and we look at that. And I'll tell you, when they find out something they don't know, they both go, "Oh, that explains everything. Because neither one of them can explain why they are so copacetic with the other."

Backstrom airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Will you be tuning in?

Twitter: @MarisaRoffman

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