It may still only be September, but here in Paste TV’s (admittedly comfy) editorial trenches, we’ve not only started to prep for our December’s tsunami of “Best of 2019” content, we’ve also begun the intense process of determining what should rank as The Best Television of the 2010s.
Stumptown, the Cobie Smulders-starring, Portland-set P.I. procedural hitting ABC primetime this Wednesday at 10 p.m., will miss out on our deadline. But if the series lives up to the standard set by its pilot, it could easily find its way onto at least a few “Best of” lists in the next decade.
That’s a lot to ask of a pilot, of course—which, for the record, is the only episode that was made available for review before the premiere—but man, what a pilot. Time is in short supply for anyone who loves television these days, and shorter still for those of us professionally obligated to keep up, but even so, I watched “Forget It, Dex, It’s Stumptown” three times before sitting down to write this review, and got more out of it each time. What’s more, each of those three times, the cold open gag plus action sequence plus Neil Diamond musical sting that sets up the series’ whole vibe absolutely killed, as did its callback at the end of the hour. (No spoilers but, sleep schedules/heart conditions notwithstanding, let’s just say you wouldn’t be wrong to brew up a cup of freshly roasted pour over Stumptown Coffee before sitting down to watch.)
But let’s back up. Created for television by Jason Richman and based on Greg Rucka’s comic book limited series of the same name (Rucka also writes for the show), Stumptown is a modern-day hardboiled detective drama that follows Dex Parios (Smulders), a former Marine investigator with a gambling problem, a drinking problem, and a monster-sized case of undiagnosed PTSD when she stumbles her way into a gig as Portland’s new favorite private investigator. In the pilot, Dex is jobless, aimless, and six-figures in the red at the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde’s Whispering Winds Casino. What’s worse is that Whispering Winds is owned by Sue Lynn Blackbird (Tantoo Cardinal), the mother of Dex’s (KIA) first love, who broke them up before they could get married. (Self-destruction, thy name is Dex.) What’s worse still is that Sue Lynn’s teenage granddaughter, Nina (Blu Hunt), has run off to elope with a white boyfriend Sue Lynn also disapproves of, and she’s decided that the way Dex is going to pay off her debt is by dredging up her old war skills and setting out to find them.
As a detective procedural on an alphabet network, the story that follows traces a fairly standard shape: A civilian (Dex) has a case land in her lap that parallels a formative tragedy/mystery from her past (her broken relationship with Nina’s dad), and her mixed success with that case sparks the idea that, hey, there might be some kind of career to be made out the whole detection game. The difference in this case is that “Forget it, Dex—it’s Stumptown” does all that with a handcrafted Pacific Northwest cedarwood scalpel. As Nina’s case unfolds, each twist compounds and deepens the well-considered complexities (and flaws) of both Dex’s character and the very specific Portland she lives in. The formulaic parallels aren’t the surgical part—it’s the finesse will which all the exposition and characterization necessary to introduce Dex’s world, including the tiny but sympathetic support system she has in her brother Ansel (a very charming Cole Sibus) and best friend Grey (Jake Johnson, who was born for a hipster-brewer beard and shearling denim jacket). This is especially true about Dex’s military background, which sets up both her exceptional hand-to-hand combat skills and her cynical loner attitude as natural consequences of the life she’s lived, rather than convenient coincidences for the hardboiled story the show wants to tell.
All that said, so much about Stumptown is still just potential. I called it a hardboiled detective series earlier, but broadcast has a bad habit of rubbing down the usefully rough edges of any show that doesn’t fit the standard network procedural mold (RIP, Limitless), and already at this point, while Dex is certainly as hard-nosed and self-sabotaging as any P.I. Chandler or Hammett or Connelly might have invented, the question as to whether her investigations will hinge on the kinds of social excess and institutional corruption that make hardboiled detective stories so vital is still wide open. “Forget it, Dex—it’s Stumptown” certainly hints at some legally gray cash-under-the-table business happening behind the curtain at Sue Lynn’s casino, but it also (fairly) nods to the many reasons why a woman in her position, wielding a tangible kind of power on sovereign Confederated Tribes land, might not trust what would happen if she ceded any of that power to the Portland PD; but really, that’s just one nod. There is nothing in the pilot that suggests Detective Miles Hoffman (Michael Ealy) and Lieutenant Cosgrove (Camryn Manheim) shouldn’t be trusted, or even that they might be beacons of hope in a corrupt system. They’re just your average charming potential love interest and his no-nonsense lady lieutenant.
As far as I’m concerned, though, all those open questions are just more reasons to keep tuning in to see if Stumptown can pull off the killer hardboiled story its pilot has set it up for. “Best of the 2020s” lists, Stumptown is (hopefully) coming for you.
Stumptown airs on ABC on Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.