TV: Stumptown (Season 1)

ABC’s Stumptown, one of the few shows I follow weekly in this era of season-long binging, recently concluded its terrific freshman year. While it jetted through an 18-episode run with little fanfare, it’s a series that deserves way more love than it’s getting. It’s a funny, action-packed serial mystery with a winning throwback feel. Based on the comic by Greg Rucka, Matthew Southworth, and Justin Greenwood, Stumptown follows the exploits of fledgling private investigator Dex Parios (Cobie Smulders), a former Army intelligence veteran struggling to make a life for herself in Portland, Oregon. Dex faces many challenges as she builds this new career: not only is she looking after her younger brother Ansel (Cole Sibus), who has Down syndrome, but she’s an impulsive, corner-cutting free spirit living in denial of an acute case of PTSD from her experiences in Afghanistan. Fortunately, she isn’t entirely in it alone. Her old flame and current best friend Grey McConnell (Jake Johnson) has taken an avuncular interest in Ansel, who works at Grey’s bar, the Bad Alibi. Dex also makes an important connection, professionally and emotionally, with Detective Miles Hoffman (Michael Ealy), who quickly becomes a key resource in Dex’s case-solving arsenal. Despite her impulse-control issues and the psychological turmoil fueling her behavior, Dex quickly finds meaning and purpose in her new career, helping clients with their problems. But even more meaningful is how the work helps her to negotiate the minefields of her troubled inner life, which gets trickier as her web of social entanglements grows more intense—and especially when her caseload points back into the formative tragedies of her own past.

This is delightful network TV, an entertaining blend of dark, twisty mystery and upbeat created-family comedy-drama. Like the comic books upon which it’s based, Stumptown is very much a modernized The Rockford Files: a hard-luck, blue-collar PI series about an army veteran getting mixed up in the gray areas between law enforcement and the crime world. It’s also rather reminiscent of the short-lived Terriers, with its shoestring heroes, shifty plots, and conspiracy arcs. (Terriers’ Donal Logue feels like a perfect fit here, incidentally, as Dex’s PI mentor Artie Banks.) But while Stumptown has a similar vibe to these PI ancestors, it has other assets that set it apart. For one, there’s Dex herself, who—like most Rucka heroines—is a formidable ass-kicker who could probably incapacitate Rockford, Hank Dalworth, and Britt Pollack simultaneously. But Dex’s combat prowess is just one of her many facets. She’s impulsive, funny, stubborn, reckless, self-destructive, loving, tortured, sarcastic, and resourceful. All these characteristics are brought masterfully to life by Smulders, who is next-level awesome in this role. I never connected with How I Met Your Mother, and the Maria Hill appearances in the MCU never made much of an impression on me, but I’m so impressed with Smulders here. She positively owns this one, delivering an exceptional performance in a juicy, complex role. If by some tragedy Stumptown isn’t renewed, Smulders’ work will likely still land Dex in the TV Private Investigator Hall of Fame.

She has no shortage of help. Stumptown sports an appealing supporting cast with spectacular chemistry. Johnson leads this charge as Grey, whose checkered past and complex attachment to Dex and Ansel create plenty of conflict and heart. There’s also plenty of team charisma from Ealy, Sibus, Tantoo Cardinal (as Sue Lynn Blackbird, Dex’s ex-mother-in-law), Adrian Martinez (as Tookie, a quirky food truck owner), and the great Camryn Manheim (as Hoffman’s sharp, cranky lieutenant).

The ratings aren’t great, but the reviews are solid, so hopefully ABC will take a chance on a second season for Stumptown. It lands right in the addictive sweet spot between high-profile prestige TV and old-school episodic comfort food. It would be a shame not to see its quirky, entertaining group dynamic develop further.

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