Not too much unlike the other new drama series that premiered on the network one night earlier (Emergence), ABC’s Stumptown demonstrates that appealing characters and performances can sometimes overcome a derivative premise and writing.
First off, for those viewers who aren’t familiar with the nickname, the show’s pilot episode helpfully opens with a full-screen shot of a billboard announcing that it takes place in Portland, Oregon. That’s very considerate.
Cobie Smulders stars as Dex Parios, a down-on-her-luck Army vet with a gambling problem, a lot of overdue bills to pay, a younger brother with Down’s Syndrome to support, and seemingly no legitimate source of income. Fortunately, she’s smart, a bit of a wiseass, and knows how to handle herself in a fight – all qualities that might prove useful when Sue Lynn Blackbird (Tantoo Cardinal), owner of the casino where she owes a lot of money, asks Dex to find her missing granddaughter. Dex is neither a cop nor a P.I., and kind of resents Sue Lynn for personal reasons, but needs the money and accepts the job.
It doesn’t take Dex long to find the granddaughter. The girl, Nina (Blu Hunt, recently featured in Netflix’s Another Life), had run off with her boyfriend, planning to elope against her grandma’s wishes. Before Dex can bring her back to Sue Lynn, she’s carjacked by a couple of thugs who beat her up and grab the girl. Despite being the victim in this situation, Dex runs afoul of a pair of cops (Michael Ealy and Camryn Manheim) who disapprove of an amateur getting involved in what should be police business. Nevertheless, she has chemistry with Hoffman (Ealy’s character) and they’ll hook up before the end of the episode.
As Dex tries to track down Nina again, she’s told that the girl was returned safely out of the blue and her services aren’t needed anymore. Sue Lynn’s story doesn’t quite line up, though, and she won’t let anyone talk to Nina. Of course, it turns out that Nina wasn’t returned at all. Sue Lynn is merely sidelining Dex and the police so she can pay the kidnappers’ ransom herself.
Dex eventually discovers that Nina’s own boyfriend was behind the kidnapping. She gets attacked again and winds up stuffed in the trunk of her own car, but fights her way out, overcomes the henchmen, and leads the police straight to the ransom dropoff point just in time to stop the boyfriend from murdering both Nina and Sue Lynn.
The case resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, Hoffman offers to help Dex find more work along similar lines, solving problems for people who don’t trust the police. I assume she’ll take him up on it, or we wouldn’t have much of a TV show.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B+
Stumptown is breezy entertainment that unapologetically revels in its own ridiculousness. Any potentially serious scenes or situations are played with a flippant attitude and a fun soundtrack. (A running gag has the broken radio in Dex’s junker of a car stuck playing a mix tape of 1980s bubblegum pop.) The show isn’t terribly original in any respect, and Jake Johnson has a significant supporting role as Dex’s best friend yet is given nothing at all to do except crack jokes and be supportive.
For all that, the show actually works. Smulders is great in the lead, the other characters are engaging, and the bantering dialogue is entertaining. This may not be innovative television, but it’s easily one of the more promising new network shows of the season.