I've always wondered when they were going to redo The Rockford Files with a bisexual female Army vet. And now I have my answer, because here’s Stumptown, an entertaining if not-quite-there detective show from ABC.
Adapted from the graphic novel series by Greg Rucka, Stumptown stars Cobie Smulders as hell-on-wheels vet Dex Parios, who doesn’t let a little thing like PTSD and functioning alcoholism get in the way of a gambling habit that currently has her in hock $11,000 to the local Indian casino.
Somehow Dex will crack a major crime in the show’s first hour and, almost despite herself, launch a new career as a private investigator. She’ll suffer crushing flashbacks to her five tours of duty in Afghanistan. Yet she’ll also manage to stay one step ahead of the local PD in developing leads on the case, much to the consternation of Lt. Cosgrove, played by Camryn Manheim, who early on tries to cut this sexy interloper down to size as only Camryn Manheim can: “When you hire an amateur, you’re going to get amateur mistakes.”
Mistakes Dex does make. A couple of errors in judgment will result in getting the tar beaten out of her. It was during that second roughing-up that I thought of Jim Rockford. Yes, I know, it was Magnum P.I. who served his country, whereas Rockford was just a shifty guy living in a trailer. But what I liked about him is what I like about Dex — getting knocked around, whether verbally or physically, humanizes our hero in a way that less likable character faults don’t.
Like Rockford, Dex is a loner with a string of one-night stands and exes as proof. (Rucka, her creator, has assured fans that TV Dex, like comic Dex, will shop both sides of the aisle.) Rockford had his dad to keep him grounded, while Dex cares for a brother with Down’s, played by Cole Sibus.
But while Rockford Files was great right out of the box, Stumptown the show is still working on its tone. It’s set in Portland, Oregon — the Nashville of comic books and Rucka’s home — with the inevitable window dressing of flannel shirts, Subaru wagons, and espresso shops. Predictably there’s a Portlandia joke in the first hour, when two thugs try to guess a coffee’s country of origin in the middle of a carjacking.
That joke didn’t work for me, nor did the mixtape in Dex’s car going off at random times, spreading gobs of ’70s aural mayonnaise on my ears (“Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Sweet Caroline”). I don’t think Stumptown needs hipster call-outs like these to lighten the mood. Showrunner Jason Richman’s writing is sharp, and the leads are not exactly inexperienced at bringing comedic touches to serious dialogue. Besides Smulders and Manheim, there’s Jake Johnson, who spent seven seasons chasing Zooey Deschanel on New Girl, as Dex’s bestie Grey.
Filling out the main cast is the versatile Michael Ealy as a cop with eyes for Dex, Tantoo Cardinal — from Dances With Wolves! — as the casino matriarch, and Adrian Martinez as a taco-stand owner who acts as Dex’s ears on the ground. Doubtless more characters will be brought in from the printed page (Rucka and the Stumptown novel’s two illustrators, Matthew Southworth and Justin Greenwood, are all producers on the TV series). Pretty soon, though, if Stumptown continues to deliver on the promise of its pilot, then like other book-to-TV adaptations, it will have to expand the creators' universe. And this isn’t cable (where Justified aired) or streaming, but a network that may order 22 or more episodes this season.
Fortunately, Stumptown is blessed with a proven TV and movie star playing a character who herself arrives on screen fully formed. It’s years away from becoming a classic in its own right, but it reminds me of one, and that’s a good start.
Stumptown premieres Wednesday, September 25th at 10:00 PM ET on ABC
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.