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The Horny Viewer's Guide to Stumptown

ABC's freshman dramedy is gritty, fun, and sexier than you'd expect.
  • Cobie Smulders and Michael Ealy in Stumptown (ABC)
    Cobie Smulders and Michael Ealy in Stumptown (ABC)

    When you've been watching TV as much and as long as I have, you can make some educated guesses about the fall premieres the big four TV networks are going to roll out. CBS will assemble a group of square-jawed men for vaguely fascist crime-fighting. Fox will find some stars of yesterday for a screamy multi-cam sitcom. NBC... well, they've probably maxed out Chicago [First Responder] shows, but that was their lane for a while, and who knows when they'll finally take a flyer on Chicago Social Services. The point is: networks have to try to appeal to the widest possible swath of viewers, which means the times they actually manage to surprise us are rare. Snaps up for ABC, which last fall surprised this viewer with Stumptown.

    As my colleague Aaron Barnhart wrote last fallStumptown is instantly recognizable as a PI procedural in the mold of Veronica Mars, or Magnum, P.I., or especially The Rockford Files: a smart, scrappy investigator solves clients' problems, generally via extra-legal methods and situationally ethical ingenuity; the vagaries of the gig economy sometimes force our hero to take jobs that don't line up with his or her values; there's a little low-stakes fisticuffs or minor physical peril along the way; and the protagonist develops a grudging mutual respect with a by-the-books local cop. What makes Stumptown refreshing is how it transcends the tropes of the genre to tell its specific story.

    Our investigator is Dex Parios (Cobie Smulders, formerly of How I Met Your Mother). She's an Afghanistan War veteran who has returned to her home town of Portland, Oregon (the titular Stumptown), land is iving with her brother, 20-year-old Ansel (Cole Sibus), who has Downs syndrome. Dex continues to experience symptoms of PTSD and flashbacks to her military service, which she's self-medicating by drinking and gambling at a local tribal casino that happens to be operated by Sue Lynn Blackbird (See co-star Tantoo Cardinal); both Dex and Sue Lynn are still grieving Sue Lynn's late son Benny — the love of Dex's life, who Sue Lynn prevented from marrying Dex after the two dated in college, and who was married to another woman when he died in Afghanistan. When she's not drinking at the casino, Dex is drinking at Bad Alibi, a bar owned by her friend (an ex-con and one-time hookup) Grey McConnell (New Girl alumnus Jake Johnson), where Ansel also works. So, by centering multiple Indigenous characters, the show can work in plotlines that revolve around tribal politics. By centering a character with an intellectual disability, the show can explore the tension between Ansel's desire to assert himself as an adult and his primary guardian Dex's worries about his independence. And the door is open for the show to dig further into what life is like for people who were formerly incarcerated, veterans with mental health issues, the complex economics of tribal gaming, and so on — all subject matters rarely seen on other TV shows, and practically never seen on a network show.

    To continue filling out Stumptown's cast: Dex has an almost entirely adversarial relationship with Portland PD Lt. Cosgrove (Camryn Manheim), though she is friendlier with Cosgrove's report, Det. Miles Hoffman (former Almost Human android Michael Ealy). To be clear: yes, by that I mean Dex and Hoffman — arguably the two hottest people we meet in the pilot — sleep together. This is what we expect and generally want of our fictional private dicks; we want them to take a break from a frustrating case to clear their head with a little inconsequential sex. Here's the innovation Stumptown has brought to the genre: Dex is bisexual. Great news for the horny viewer, who can therefore not just imagine Dex getting down with any other character (as we are, of course, free to do with all fictional characters, irrespective of their canonical sexuality), but can dare to hope to see it on screen. But it also opens up storytelling possibilities. Already this season, we've seen tensions flare between Dex and Hoffman when Dex is hired to protect rock star Fiona X (Ioanna Gika), Dex's former girlfriend. And Grey's request that Dex try to get along with his new girlfriend Liz (Monica Barbaro) goes a little too well when Dex wakes up from a drunken night out to find Liz in her bed.

    As is often the case with people who are attractive enough to be professional actors yet are trying to portray characters who are messy or self-destructive, one doesn't always buy Smulders as Dex. When she's anxious about paying her bills, it's hard not to wonder why she doesn't just get a job as a model or a prima ballerina, and for someone who gets most of her hydration from bourbon, her skin sure is flawless! But Smulders does bring convincing swagger to the role, she reads as someone who could acquit herself well in a fistfight — and, perhaps more importantly, someone who wouldn't win every time. Early in the pilot, in fact, Dex gets her ass kicked by two heavies, and for the rest of the episode has to field questions about what happened to her face. Superhuman fighting machines have their place, but what gives Dex's fights their dramatic weight — even when they're mostly comedic — is knowing she can be hurt.

    If you skipped Stumptown because you assumed an hour-long network show would feel like a relic from another generation, no one could possibly blame you. But there's a lot here that's compelling, current, and above all, unexpected; it deserves to be seen.

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    Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.

    TOPICS: Stumptown, ABC, Cobie Smulders, Jake Johnson, Michael Ealy