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The formula for a good network drama series is pretty simple: compelling characters in a familiar but not overly familiar concept who seem different but not completely different from people you know or have seen, say, in other network dramas.
The problem with that simplicity is that writers (or the networks that buy the shows) see a low bar and think they can clear it with ease, thus tripping up on their own cliches.
AIR DATE Sep 25, 2019
Luckily, ABC’s Stumptown (based on a series of Portland-based graphic novels of the same name by Greg Rucka), about a damaged ex-military private detective, manages to avoid most of the pitfalls primarily because series star Cobie Smulders (The Avengers, How I Met Your Mother) carries the day as Dex Parios, the above-mentioned badass. Additionally, there are compelling contributions from Jake Johnson as bar owner Grey, her best friend, and Michael Ealy as Det. Miles Hoffman, who meets Dex under typically trying network circumstances.
Also in Dex’s world is her younger brother Ansel (Cole Sibus), who has Down syndrome. He and Grey are the two likable, softer representations of Dex’s social circle, allowing the series to portray Dex as more flawed (when we meet her she’s got a gambling problem, possibly a drinking problem and PTSD). In the graphic novels, Dex is bisexual but that’s not evident in the one and only episode ABC made available for review — though the character has a strong sexual appetite and Smulders has said she’s excited to play a fully formed female character.
Portland, too, is a character — it’s a city long overdue for more mainstream small-screen representation beyond, say, Portlandia — but the series is only partially filmed there and subs Los Angeles save for shots outside of a few notable icons like the neon “Portland, Oregon” sign and a few local treasures. There’s no telling how much shooting will take place in the Rose City going forward (if history is any indication, not much, which would be unfortunate because half the objective of a network drama is to not be bland; also, good luck making L.A. look believably rain-soaked for multiple episodes).
Creator and writer Jason Richman fleshes out the series with Camryn Manheim as Lt. Cosgrove of the Portland PD, Adrian Martinez as Tookie, one of Dex’s older friends and (naturally, this being Portland) a street vendor, plus Tantoo Cardinal as Sue Lynn Blackbird, the tough Native American casino operator who stepped in to prevent her son from marrying Dex (he then died in Afghanistan, where Dex served, thus adding to Dex’s darkly troubled mind).
If Stumptown is going to continue beating the odds as something more than an average network drama, it would do well to continue leaning into Smulders and letting her be sarcastic and kick-ass as much as possible, with Johnson’s more level-headed advice as her best friend grounding everything. But also, the series can’t let go of Portland — even the kind of cliched bad-guys banter at the beginning of the pilot is forgivable as coffee beans and “Portland’s best espresso” are debated (maybe there will be a direct reference to Stumptown Coffee in the second episodes?). But you can’t just swap out L.A. for Portland, given the bridges, the water (the rain!) and the distinctively different vibe of the people. That would be a mistake.
At least the pilot finds Stumptown pushing most of the right buttons out of the gate.
Cast: Cobie Smulders, Jake Johnson, Michael Ealy, Camryn Manheim, Adrian Martinez, Cole Sibus, Tantoo Cardinal
Created and written by: Jason Richman
Based on the graphic novels of Greg Rucka, Matthew Southworth, Justin Greenwood
Directed by: James Griffiths
Premieres Sept. 25 on ABC.
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