A disaffected veteran with a taste for whiskey, gambling, taking unnecessary risks and one-night stands is a familiar archetype, but chances are that the person you just imagined fitting that description was a grizzled man. In “Stumptown,” ABC’s new drama based on Greg Rucka’s graphic novel, that character instead comes to us in the form of a ferocious Cobie Smulders, and is better off for it.
Broke and in denial of her lingering PTSD, Dex (Smulders) is busy trying not to circle the drain while supporting her brother (Cole Sibius), who has Down Syndrome. Then she gets enlisted by her unfriendly neighborhood casino owner (Tantoo Cardinal) to track down her kidnapped granddaughter — who, as it so happens, is also the daughter of Dex’s ex-boyfriend, who died in her arms in Afghanistan. It’s a tangled web, and one Dex has zero patience for even as she has a hard time resisting it (much to the chagrin of her concerned best friend, played by a criminally underused Jake Johnson). It isn’t too long before she collides with local police who don’t approve of her off-book methods, but at least one of them (Michael Ealy) is impressed with her skills. Flirting, violence, an infinitesimal growth ensue. With only one episode to go on, it’s hard to say how “Stumptown” will handle its upcoming cases of the week, or if it will shade Dex out beyond her cliched basics. But there are a couple standout elements of the show that point towards a more promising season than not.
For one, “Stumptown” immediately looks and feels different than a typically sterile network drama. Dex’s corner of Portland, Oregon is grimy and lit with cheap fluorescent bulbs. Director James Griffiths, whose resume is otherwise packed with comedies, will even occasionally break up the flow of the action with handheld shots to keep things as disorienting as they feel for Dex as she careens from one disaster to the next. Giving the show its own restless and grim visual language that mirrors the graphic novel’s own is a quick and smart way to establish “Stumptown” as its own animal. A running gag involving Dex’s car randomly playing tracks from an old mixtape is occasionally transcendent — the frenetic cold open set to “Sweet Caroline” is a hell of a way to open a series — and sometimes gimmicky, but at the very least, it provides some badly needed levity for the otherwise dour Dex to grab onto.
“Stumptown” would be smart to give Dex more jokes to crack, or at least some sharper wit beyond expressing her own ennui, because of the actor portraying her. As seen on “How I Met Your Mother” and beyond, Smulders is an extremely sharp and capable performer who’s especially good at finding humor in characters who take themselves just a little too seriously. Watching her whale on petty crime jerks who never see it coming is genuinely satisfying. But if “Stumptown” wants viewers to invest in Dex for years to come, it won’t just lean on Smulders’ charisma, but draw inspiration from it to make Dex feel like more of a person and less of a logline.
“Stumptown” premieres Wednesday, September 25 at 10 pm on ABC.
One episode watched for review.