If you haven’t read any of Greg Rucka’s Stumptown graphic novels, then it’s okay. You don’t need to do so in order to understand the new ABC series. It’s a detective procedural–an admittedly stylish one, at that–and as such, the beats are pretty familiar. Through deft writing and inspired performances, though, the show manages to rise above. So let’s review the Stumptown series premiere.
Just the Facts, Ma’am: The Basics of Stumptown
Cobie Smulders, whom you probably know from the MCU or How I Met Your Mother, stars as Dex Parios, a private investigator. Like many a private investigator on TV or in books, Dex has problems. A former veteran, she copes with her PTSD by drinking too much, gambling too much, and sleeping around. She can’t get too far into the weeds, though. She supports a younger brother, Ansel (Cole Sibus), with Down syndrome, and as his guardian, she has to be responsible to a point.
But she’s not the world’s most responsible caregiver. When we meet her at the beginning of the series premiere, she’s in a casino bar. The bar would probably be bad enough for her, but she’s also trying to win enough money to pay her bills. Anyone who’s ever seen a hard-luck gambler can guess how that turns out.
Sue Lynn Blackbird (Tantoo Cardinal), the head of the casino and the mother of Dex’s late ex, makes her an offer she can’t refuse. Dex actually does refuse it, but goes back later because she really doesn’t have a choice. Sue Lynn wants Dex to locate her granddaughter and in exchange, her casino debts will be forgiven. Thus we have the pilot plotline.
The Review: What I Thought about the Stumptown Series Premiere
Image via ABC/Tony Rivetti
As I mentioned, this series isn’t exactly breaking new ground. The down-on-her-luck detective who gets involved with a case that’s a little more complicated than she expected? You’ve seen this before. You may not have seen as many female detectives in this storyline, but that’s hardly reinventing the wheel, either. So that, along with the hints of a burgeoning love triangle–between Dex, her friend Grey (Jake Johnson), and cop Hoffman (Michael Ealy)–feel familiar. Luckily, the execution of it all makes it exciting.
Like the graphic novels, the series begins in media res. Specifically, it begins with a brief dialogue exchange before Dex’s car goes sailing off an under-construction highway ramp as the Stumptown logo appears onscreen. It’s an unpredictable moment, and it bodes well for the series as a whole. That scene is a flash-forward, by the way, happening 3 days after we meet Dex. By the time we return to it, it’s still unclear how it’s going to end. And that makes it exciting.
Stumptown Buoyed by Strong Performances and Strong Writing
Image via ABC
Beyond excitement, the show offers a strong bench of performers. Smulders is the obvious standout, of course. She’s the heart of the show. Without her talent and her ability to make Dex feel fully fleshed-out, this could come off as just another procedural. It doesn’t, though, because of the spark with which she imbues Dex. And she’s not the only bright spot. Her chemistry with her costars feels real, but it’s not one-sided. Johnson and Ealy are more than capable of playing off her.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the great Tantoo Cardinal. Her Sue Lynn clearly has a rocky history with Dex, but Cardinal never plays her as a hard or unforgiving woman. She feels real, too. And personally, I can’t get enough of a modern-day Native character who’s not played as a mystic or wearing a bolo tie for some reason.
Further, these performances are thankfully not in the service of weak writing. Writer (and showrunner) Jason Richman has a lot of work cut out for him in the premiere, but never buries us in exposition. We’re able to glean the details of Dex’s life in an organic way, free of the awkward dialogue that often plagues pilots. That’s because the characters talk like real people, not like robots regurgitating biographies or plot points.
All of it adds up to a fun watch. Obviously, I can’t judge the whole series or season based on only one episode, but I can judge one thing. The job of a pilot is to set up the story and get viewers interested. And I’m interested. Are you?
Let us know in the comments below or on social media. Stumptown airs Wednesday nights at 9C/10E on ABC. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch the first 4 minutes below.
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.