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‘Stumptown’: Messy, Confident, and Worth a Second Look

Great characters and a touch of noir elevate the more pedestrian elements of ABC’s new detective series.

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Don’t look now, but ABC is reigniting its lineup of female-led dramas; with How To Get Away With Murder heading into its final season, and Grey’s Anatomy nearing two decades on television, it only makes sense the network’s building up a new generation of iconic female protagonists with series like Emergence – and now, Stumptown, arguably the most buzzed-about drama pilot of the fall season. For good reason; though Stumptown certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel in its first hour, it’s a solid adaptation of a familiar format, one that leads with strong performances, rather than its well-worn premise – and is all the better for it, a show that, at least in theory, could be the next Jessica Jones (without all the unnecessary superhero underpinnings, of course).

Stumptown understands the secret to a successful procedural recipe is not in the shocking moments it can front load in a flashy premiere, but in finding balance in the space between those silly, attention-seeking moments.

The framework is certainly there; starring Cobie Smulders as downtrodden private investigator Dex Parios, Stumptown (named after the nickname of its Portland, Oregon setting) benefits from a simple premise – military veteran picks up the pieces of her lives, while following the broken trails of others – and a fantastic cast, led by Jake Johnson, Michael Ealy, Camryn Manheim, and Cole Sibus. Though definitively a show about Dex attempting to break through the traumas of her adult life (almost to a fault in “Pilot,” which is ostensibly an origin story for her new career), Stumptown establishes itself as an ensemble series from the get go – and thanks to some fantastic chemistry between its half-dozen lead roles, immediately feels lived-in and developed, with plenty of intriguing wrinkles to explore in the season to follow.

The parallels to Jessica Jones are impossible to ignore; both are adapted from comic books (well, graphic novels in Stumptown‘s case), and both follow strong women fighting against the internal unraveling recent traumas have inflicted on them. They investigate with fists and booze, shy away from committed relationships, and have a knack for taking punches to the face; the back bone of Stumptown is abundantly familiar, and “Forget It Dex, It’s Stumptown” knows this. So it fills the space with interesting layers around it: Dex lives with her younger brother Ansel, who has Down’s syndrome and works at their friend Grey’s bar (Jake Johnson is basically playing Nick Miller again, with a thicker beard – and that’s fine), paying to keep the lights on while Dex gamble away her disability checks at the local casino (whose owner is played by the fantastic character actress Tantoo Cardinal).

Stumptown

“Forget It Dex, It’s Stumptown ” mostly centers around the casino owner’s daughter getting tied up in an extortion plot: it is rather by-the-numbers and dry, only worth seeing to watch Cardinal chew up the few scenes she appears in. But it fills those spaces in between with more than enough flavor to carry a pedestrian plot; like the greats of the genre, from The Pretender (yeah, I said it) to Law & Order to Limitless, a network procedural’s ability to thrive lies in the moments between its ridiculous Plot Twist of the Week stories.

From Grey and Dex’s friendship, to her interesting dynamic with Ealy’s Detective Miles Hoffman, Stumptown understands the secret to a successful procedural recipe is not in the shocking moments it can front load in a flashy premiere, but in finding balance in the space between those silly, attention-seeking moments (though Stumptown isn’t completely innocent, what with its Guardians of the Galaxy-esque use of music, to the rather amusing in media res opening).

Where Emergence accomplished this with a strong family unit and sturdy central character, Stumptown contrasts its network partner with an unstable protagonist stumbling through her messy life. Where Alison Tolman lives in the stark, defining whites and pastels surrounded by family, Stumptown gives the moments of community and long stretches of isolation major visual dichotomy (beyond the rather ineffective use of flashbacks to recapture her traumatic moments of war) and lets Smulders really engage with the darkness of her surroundings.

Whenever Dex is alone, everything gets a bit desaturated and darker, and director James Griffiths’ camera inches closer and closer to her face; when she’s in audience with other characters, it’s wide shots and great lighting all day, baby – in a fun way, it modernizes the philosophies behind the techniques used in classic noir, fusing it to the more conventional stylings of modern broadcast dramas.

Stumptown

Noir always works best in the dust and the shadows, lurking in the gray spaces between good and evil; Stumptown uses that to rather strong effect in its best moments. It does come at a cost; at its worst, “Pilot” lets its cinematic influences bleed through a little too much, to the point most of Dex’s beats in the quieter moments are wildly predictable. There’s certainly no denying the “network noir-ness” of it all; one could imagine a much edgier, darker version of Stumptown existing on a cable or streaming network – but if we’re being honest, network television needs some shows like this, something able to generate a dramatic pulse beyond the parade of rape investigations and medical jargon that defines so much of the big four’s modern library.

That it exists on ABC doesn’t make the entire affair any less effective, or enjoyable: Smulders and Johnson’s versatility makes for a natural fit, and anything with Michael Ealy is going to be entertaining – I really can’t say how much I like his sleepy-eyed, cooled out detective vibe, and how it fits neatly into Stumptown‘s still-forming DNA. Plus, it’s just fun to watch Smulders deal with the various fuck-ups she faces in the first episode, be it unnecessarily stealing a valuable car, to the Deadpool-esque set piece that highlights her comedic sensibilities. While it remains to be seen whether Stumptown will be able to grow out of its common premise into something truly refreshing, there are some strong first steps taken in ” Forget It Dex, It’s Stumptown,” an intriguing mix of character and tone that could blossom if given room (and time) to fully form its voice.

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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