For anyone not familiar with Stumptown, the Oni Press comic series by created by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth, the new ABC television adaptation probably sounds like just another network crime procedural. A private investigator with a messy personal life and some quirky associates takes on offbeat cases? Yawn. We've seen that dozens of times. But readers of the comic know that protagonist Dex Parios is more than just another private eye, and Rucka's attention to detail and sense of place make Stumptown more than just another crime series.
The TV show smooths out some of the rougher edges (and, at least in the one episode available for review, doesn't address Dex's bisexuality, although the creators have promised it will be incorporated), but it's still a promising start for a familiar kind of drama, adding flavor and personality to the basic genre template. Cobie Smulders, whose Maria Hill has been mostly wasted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an uncomplicated, loyal lieutenant, gives perhaps her best, most nuanced performance as Dex, a military veteran with PTSD (including some traumatic flashbacks) and a snarky, cynical attitude.
Dex, who's a bit lost after returning to her hometown of Portland, Oregon, from active duty in Afghanistan, gets some direction in her aimless life thanks to Sue Lynn Blackbird (Tantoo Cardinal), owner of the local Native American casino (and mother of Dex's late ex-fiance). The secretive Sue Lynn hires Dex to find her missing granddaughter, for whom Dex had been a surrogate mother figure.
At first reluctant to accept work from a woman who hates her (Sue Lynn blames Dex for her son's death in Afghanistan), Dex quickly gets deeply invested in the case, even after a sympathetic local police detective (Michael Ealy) warns her off. Dex isn't a professional private detective yet, but by the end of the episode, she's found a new purpose and a new way to do some good in the world.
As in the comic, Dex hangs around with her disabled brother Ansel (Cole Sibus) and her longtime buddy Grey McConnell (Jake Johnson), a bartender who's busy with the grand opening of his own establishment. The three of them have an appealing, relaxed dynamic that never veers into the sappiness that caring for a disabled family member could inspire. Dex and Grey have a long history that, of course, includes some sexual tension, and the show's opening episode is admirably frank about Dex's sex life (especially for network TV). She has a penchant for one-night stands that is at least partially a way for her to cope with PTSD (along with compulsive gambling), but the show isn't judgmental or prudish about what Dex does in her down time.
She does some of that with Ealy's Det. Miles Hoffman, and the creators are clearly setting up a familiar TV-show love triangle among Dex, Grey and Miles, which already has hints of getting tiresome. But Dex has enough other potential love (or at least lust) interests that there's no need for this subplot to follow a predictable or well-worn path, and series creator Jason Richman (Detroit 1-8-7) seems to have enough respect for the source material that he's not going to turn Dex into a typical TV detective. She's a fascinating character because she both reflects and subverts the cliches of the classic private eye, and that's a tough balance to maintain.
Stumptown covers the entire case from the comic's first story arc in its first episode, so it's likely to burn through the source material (which only ran for 19 issues total) pretty quickly, and Richman and his writing staff may be stretched thin when coming up with as many as 22 cases for Dex to solve in a standard-issue network-TV season. But even with this first episode, they're working to create a detailed world for Dex to work in, from the supporting cast to Dex's military background to the unique setting, which places Dex at the intersection of hipsters and criminals. At one point, she goes to visit an underworld connection who's now running a trendy taco truck.
Director James Griffiths stages some impressive action in the first episode, including a frenetic car chase that opens the episode (before flashing back to days earlier). A lot of series with flashy pilots can't keep up those standards with later episodes that have smaller budgets, but Dex's ramshackle world probably doesn't need too many big action sequences anyway. In the comic, she's solved cases involving a missing guitar and a rare, coveted strain of coffee, and Rucka made those mysteries as engrossing and clever as any shoot-outs or high-speed pursuits. Smulders brings enough charisma and vulnerability to the role that it's easy to imagine following Dex to whatever case she's hired to solve next. For a TV detective, that's the most important feat to accomplish.
Starring Cobie Smulders, Jake Johnson, Michael Ealy, Cole Sibus, Tantoo Cardinal, Adrian Martinez and Camryn Manheim, Stumptown premieres Wednesday on ABC at 10 p.m. ET/PT.