TV

‘Stumptown’ Is Becoming The Rarest Of Birds: A Must-Watch Network Drama

Okay, check this out.

Stumptown is a detective series starring Cobie Smulders as a former Marine named Dex with PTSD and a gambling problem who drives a beat-up Mustang with a tape lodged in the tape deck that only plays tape-deck-era bangers like “Private Eyes” by Hall & Oates and “Last Dance” by Donna Summer. Sometimes the car hits an angled piece of construction debris during an in-car struggle with bad guys and launches into the air like the freaking General Lee. And when I say “sometimes,” what I mean is “in the cold open of the first episode.” This is what many television critics (just me, no one else) refer to as “coming in hot.”

Dex’s best friend is an ex-con named Grey who owns a bar called Bad Alibi and is in deep with some bad dudes and is played by Jake Johnson. Jake Johnson is the best. People who watched New Girl probably know this already. In fact, his character on New Girl, slob philosopher and bestselling author Nick Miller, also owned a bar, which means there’s a non-zero chance that his New Girl character hit a rough patch and fled from Los Angeles to Portland to start a new life. Improbable? Sure. But the show already gave me, a noted fan of heists and “one last job” proclamations, this moment…

ABC

… so I don’t see how any of us can assume the show isn’t just a very efficient Make Brian Happy delivery system. If there’s a “we’re not so different, you and I” or a “because you’re the best, that’s why” before the first season wraps up, we’ll know for certain.

Speaking of actors from other good shows who are playing similar characters on Stumptown, Donal Logue has popped up in the early-going here and there as a shady and cynical private investigator, almost like if his character from Terriers became bitter and hardened — possibly about the unjust cancellation of Terriers — and moved to Portland, where the show is set. Donal Logue is so good. He should be in more shows. Most shows, really. But he’s in Stumptown, so at least there’s that.

Are you with me yet? Have I sold you on Stumptown? I hope so. I’m not sure I can sell anything much better than “Cobie Smulders as a loose cannon private investigator whose best friend is an ex-con safecracker and bar owner played by Jake Johnson and whose mentor was a cranky Donal Logue and all three of them solve crimes in Portland, to the great annoyance of the local cops, one of whom is played by Michael Ealy and is also Dex’s sex buddy, which I probably should have mentioned earlier than this.” It’s a good show. Stumptown is a good show. This is the point I’m making.

In fact, it’s such a good show in its early stages that it’s almost weird that it’s on network television. That’s something I should have mentioned earlier, too. Stumptown airs on ABC even though it wouldn’t be entirely out of place on a basic cable channel like an AMC or FX, or even one of the zillion streaming services that exist or are about to exist. There’s a very cool vibe to it, a sort of underlying menace. These characters are all balancing on a knife’s edge, personally and professionally. Things could go sideways for any of them with very little notice. It’s all enough that if you were to pop in a few cusses, graphic-up the violence a bit, and maybe toss in an exposed tuchus here and there, you could even slide it over to a premium channel like Showtime.

It feels weird to say that. “It’s so good it could have a fancier home!” That’s not intended as a shot at ABC specifically as much as it is a comment on network television in 2019, and especially about dramas. Comedies are still trying to do some cool things between shows like The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and A.P. Bio, the last of which was canceled by NBC and then saved by NBC’s streaming service, which kind of makes my point about the network/streaming divide, actually.

Dramas have been in a rut, though. We’re coming through a period where it seemed like every new hour-long network show fell into one of three categories:

  • Crying families
  • Doctors who have had enough
  • Civil servants of Chicago

Add this to your usual collection of CSIs and NCISes and reboots and reimaginings of popular shows from the 1980s and it’s all very… like I said, it’s a rut. Stumptown isn’t a wholly original property either, to be fair. It’s based on a series of comics created by Greg Rucka, who cites television shows like The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. as influences. (You could do worse. The Rockford Files ruled.) And the show does do the whole crime-of-the-week thing that network television is known for, with a main case that wraps itself up in 42 minutes or so. That’s nice sometimes, though. Too many prestige-y shows have fallen into the “we’re making a 12-hour movie” trap lately. That can work if it’s done well, but it can be a real slog if not. Not everyone is Vince Gilligan or David Chase, you know? And Breaking Bad and The Sopranos understood the importance of individual episodes anyway, so it appears I have backed into making my point a second time. Look at me go.

The important thing here is that Stumptown is good, period, without the “for a network show” qualification. It’s got a strong cast and fun storylines about kidnapped relatives of casino owners and bad guys who escaped from jail and ex-girlfriend pop stars who roll through town with stalkers on their tail and seduction in their eyes. It’s smart and fast and formulaic in the right ways only so far. All of this makes it the rarest of birds in 2019: a must-watch network television drama.

The lesson here is that more shows should feature Jake Johnson cracking safes. I have always said this.

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