TV Review: Stumptown

You guys, Stumptown is pretty good

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ABC’s new private eye crime show is precisely the remedy that television needs right now. Based on the graphic novel by writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth, Stumptown is breezy, network television fun. Neither groundbreaking nor profound, what Stumptown lacks in depth is more than made up for in a likable cast and a captivating pace. Minor spoilers ahead…

Let me know if you’ve heard this one: A scuzzy, down-on-her-luck private investigator is very good at what she does, but not much else; haunted by her past, it’s hard for her to make friends, she bristles against local law enforcement, and she staves off her PTSD with booze, gambling, and casual sex. If this sounds like another generic network procedural centered around yet another jerk with a heart of gold, you wouldn’t be too far off with your assumption. ABC’s new crime drama Stumptown traffics in a lot of the familiar, but never seems to slip into the pedestrian. Buoyed by the charismatic Cobie Smulders (Avengers, How I Met Your Mother) and an equally likable supporting cast, Stumptown is light on its feet and immensely watchable.

Based on the graphic novel of the same name by writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth, Stumptown centers around the sharp-witted Dex Parios (Smulders), a self-destructive Afghanistan vet that specializes in finding people. Wracked with untreated PTSD, Dex drinks like a fish and gambles to pay the bills and support her brother Ansel (Cole Sibus), who has Down syndrome. Perhaps best known for her decade-spanning stint as Robin Scherbatsky on How I Met Your Mother, Cobie Smulders has always floated around the mainstream periphery, being cast in ensembles both small and large (Friends From College, Avengers), but never really given a part that she could sink her teeth into. With Stumptown, Smulders is finally given a leading role that showcases her talents and her secret weapon: her innate likability.

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“ABC’s new crime drama Stumptown traffics in a lot of the familiar, but never seems to slip into the pedestrian.”

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the show’s source material originates from legendary comics scribe Greg Rucka. One of my favorite comic book writers, Rucka is the rare white male writer that excels at writing women - whether he’s reinventing Batwoman, pulling a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with Gotham Central, or spinning a daring new yarn for Wonder Woman, strong female characters are at the center of Rucka’s oeuvre. In addition, many of the characters he writes also happen to be queer, Dex Parios included. Rucka oftentimes delves into the lives of these women through a lens not often seen in mainstream comics writing: Batwoman’s Kate Kane struggles as a gay woman in the military, Gotham Central’s Renee Montoya is a lesbian police detective maliciously outed by Two-Face, and Dex Parios is a bisexual private eye that copes with her PTSD through bad behavior and disposable relationships. These also happen to be some of the best detective stories in modern comics, written by an author who knows his way around crafting compelling mysteries and interesting characters.

Writer and showrunner Jason Richman deftly translates Rucka’s work from page to screen with Stumptown, giving us one of the most watchable television pilots this fall season: The dialogue is sharp without being showy, and the action - while not revolutionary per se - is clean and well-paced. And in addition to Cobie Smulders, the show employs a likable as well as diverse cast; the always-great Tantoo Cardinal heads up the Native American element in the series as Sue Lynn Cardinal, the casino owner that shares a complicated relationship with Dex, and rounding out the cast is the always reliable Jake Johnson as Dex’s confidante Grey McConnell, as well as Michel Ealy and Camryn Manheim as reluctant ally detectives. Stumptown’s first episode revolves around a kidnapping plot, kicked off when Dex is unable to pay her gambling debts to Sue Lynn and her casino. With her granddaughter missing, Sue Lynn tasks the hard-drinking private eye - who once was in a relationship with her now-dead son - in finding her, in exchange for clearing her ledger. The pilot doesn’t exactly break new ground, employing reliable tropes such as its in media res opening and its predictably twisty procedural-like narrative, but it proceeds in such a confident and enjoyable way that it’s easy to overlook its hammy structure.

In a fall television lineup light on memorable dramas or hourlongs, Stumptown easily floats to the surface as one of the most enjoyable new series to premiere this pilot season. I’ve only seen two episodes so far, so the wheels could easily fall off later down the line, but the adventures of Dex Parios are so far proving to be a fine remedy for the autumn TV doldrums. In a peak television landscape that seemingly demands lofty concepts and heavily serialized narratives, Stumptown is a breath of fresh air.

grade: B