Alibi V.28 No.41 • Oct 10-16, 2019 

Idiot Box

Detecting Sarcasm

“Stumptown” on ABC

Stumptown

It’s no secret that the Hollywood film industry is currently dominated by comic book superheroes. But occasionally a comic book property sneaks in under the radar—mostly by eschewing costumed superheroics entirely. Unless you’d spent an awful lot of time inside comic shops, for example, you’d probably never realize that ABC’s new crime drama “Stumptown” is actually based on a comic book by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth.

The show, like the comic, is set in Portland where Dex Parios (Cobie Smulders) is just trying to make ends meet. She’s a sharp-tongued, self-destructive military vet struggling with PTSD and raising her younger brother (Cole Sibus), who has Down syndrome. Like any good female anti-hero, she curses, drinks too much and sleeps around a lot. One day, deeply indebted to a local Indian casino (she also gambles), Dex ends up doing a favor for the casino owner, Sue Lynn Blackbird (played by Tantoo Cardinal). Blackbird just happens to be the mother of Dex’s deceased fiancé (who died in Afghanistan alongside her)—meaning there’s not a lot of love lost between these two tough ladies. As it turns out, though, Dex has a certain talent for dealing with low-life criminals. Plus, she can take a punch with the best of ’em. Naturally, this gives her (and the show) the excuse to become an unlicensed private eye, doing work that the local police department (oh, she’s also sleeping with one of the detectives) can’t or won’t do.

The premise for “Stumptown” isn’t anything new. Hard-luck private investigators are something of a TV staple, and our hero Dex is roughly 50 percent James Rockford and 50 percent Thomas Magnum—with a dash of Joan Jett’s bad attitude thrown in for good measure. Those who grew up watching the jokey thrills of “Magnum, P.I.” will certainly feel at home here.

Dex drives around Portland in a beat-up old Mustang with an ’80s mix tape stuck in the deck (providing plenty of ironic musical counterpoint to the show’s rough-and-tumble action). It’s no Ferrari 308, but it’s an iconic ride, nonetheless. And like Thomas Magnum before her, Dex spends an awful lot of time talking about her military background. (The pilot drops the word “Afghanistan,” like, 20 times.) It’s nice that “Stumptown” makes mention of serious issues like PTSD—but it’s clear the show isn’t interested in “fixing” its colorfully broken lead character. After all, there’s a lot of storytelling milage to be had from indiscriminate sex, binge drinking and untimely sarcasm.

Smulders never really got the chance to flex her muscles on “How I Met Your Mother.” Her role as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill in The Avengers and its sequels gave her a chance to be more dramatic, but she rarely rose above “cameo” status in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So it’s nice to see Smulders headlining a show. She chooses (wisely) not to play up her character’s dysfunctions, instead making Dex a teetering tower of coping mechanisms. She’s assisted by a solid supporting cast with a few ringers in it. Likable Jake Johnson (“New Girl”) is on comic relief duty as Dex’s best friend, an ex-con who owns the bar she drowns her sorrows in. The always-welcome Donal Logue (The Tao of Steve, “Gotham”) drops by occasionally as the private investigator trying to teach Dex the ropes of the biz. Camryn Manheim (“The Practice”) and Michael Ealy (Think Like a Man) are in there as well.

“Stumptown” doesn’t exactly break new ground in the jokey TV P.I. biz. But it’s got a wisecracking lead and a colorful cast of characters. If it can escape just a little from its lightweight “caper of the week” plotting (don’t expect Sherlock Holmes level cases here) and mold its characters into something more than the sum of their clichés, then it’ll make for an entertaining weekly ride on the network crimesolver train.

“Stumptown” airs Wednesdays at 9pm on KOAT-7.