The history of television is littered with terrific crime dramas. So far, Stumptown, adapted from Greg Rucka’s graphic novel of the same name, does not number among them. That’s okay—not every show can or should be The Shield, The Sopranos, or The Wire. It should be said that it’s also nearly impossible to gauge Stumptown’s true potential with regard to its writing and direction, as only the pilot, charmingly titled “Forget It Dex, It’s Stumptown,” was provided for review, and the episode functions as an origin story, with no real indication of how the show will work outside of this first hour (though an educated guess is easily made). But Stumptown’s primary appeal isn’t as a crime drama. It’s as a Cobie Smulders vehicle—and in that respect, it’s everything it needs to be.
Giving a great actor a great part isn’t enough to make a great story, but it sure helps things along, and in Smulders and Dex Parios, such a match has been made. A sharp-witted, self-destructive war veteran with what seems to be untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder she attempts to stave off with casual sex and lots of alcohol, Dex begins the series by clocking the lies of a guy attempting to take her home in seconds, then leaving the casino bar to gamble her way toward paying the bills for the home she shares with her brother Ansel (Cole Sibus), who has Down syndrome. It doesn’t go well, and she finds herself in the office of the head of the casino, Sue Lynn Cardinal (the terrific Tantoo Cardinal), who wants Dex to help find Nina, her missing granddaughter—a surprising proposition for both, as Sue Lynn had absolutely no desire to involve Dex in her family when it looked like she was destined to become her daughter-in-law. Sue Lynn interfered, it didn’t come to pass, and then he died—and now his daughter is missing.
It’s an admirably efficient opening, offering illuminating flashes into Dex’s gifts and dysfunctions, tidbits of rich personal history, and plenty of the sharp, but not showy, dialogue that help to make this first episode so enjoyable. In exchange for canceling her debt to the casino, Dex agrees to the job, and begins clumsily (but entertainingly) working as something between an amateur private detective and casino muscle. Things go awry, and she finds herself in an interrogation room, staring down two cops (Michael Ealy and Camryn Manheim) who can’t seem to decide if she’s suspicious, an idiot, or both, before she’s bailed out by her best friend Grey (Jake Johnson, wildly likable) and things once again begin to go sideways.
Sideways seems to be Dex’s general direction, but Smulders, who’s very good at this whole acting thing, doesn’t play the distress and dysfunction. She plays the disguise, the coping mechanisms, the play-acting of a person who is normally very good about hiding how hurt, afraid, or filled with rage she might be. Like all great P.I.s in fiction, language does a lot of the work. Writer and showrunner Jason Richman gives Dex the tools to at least attempt to keep the world, or most of it, at arm’s length and her own emotions at bay. It never becomes so stylized that the episode steps into pastiche, however. Asked how she knows the cops have already questioned Nina’s boyfriend, she says “Well, it’s always the first place you look, and since I’ve been sitting here for two hours drinking Portland’s crappiest coffee...”; asked how her relationship with Nina’s father ended, she replies, “With him marrying someone else.” It’s punchy, lightly aggressive, and it seems like it probably works most of the time. But unlike many other characters of this ilk, Dex is much better at taking physical punches than emotional ones, and Smolders shows the well-practiced mask slipping, even dissolving, in real time.
That’s why Stumptown deserves your attention. It’s not the action scenes and car chases, which while well-choreographed and visceral, aren’t exactly groundbreaking. It’s not the mystery itself, which serves its purpose as an origin story and a guide to Dex’s emotional hangups—each step of the way pushes a new button, a new obstacle to keeping that mask in place—and as a big, destructive distraction from the bigger underlying problems. The punchy soundtrack, provided by the mixtape stuck in Dex’s car stereo, provides a lively contrast that suits the show’s tone perfectly; “Love Train” has perhaps never sounded more unexpectedly triumphant. And though director James Griffiths once or twice veers into “Hey, look, Portland!” territory (despite the fact that the series was not filed in Oregon), he wisely allows Smulders’s face and too-casual tone, the moments she clears her throat or takes a shallow breath, to do most of the heavy lifting. The throat-clearing in particular is masterful. Each time she does it, some inner storm creeps closer, the thunder that comes sooner and sooner after the lightning. “There’s something wrong here,” she insists to Grey. He responds immediately, a single word ringing out as though it’s been sitting behind his teeth for years: “You!”
It’s a delicate thing Smulders does here. The temptation to lean into either part of Dex, the outer quips and charisma, or the inner torment and remorse, could be irresistible to another performer, but Smulders seems to recognize both for what they are: A symbiotic relationship, one feeding the other, one growing stronger as the other weakens, a teeter-totter of dysfunction. The rest of the cast plays off her beautifully, but only Johnson—a late addition to the cast—comes close to reaching her level; admittedly, no one else has nearly as much . to feast on as Smulders, but Johnson manages to turn in a nuanced performance, ripe with the unsaid, all the same.
It’s likely that this origin story will lead to Dex getting a new case/distraction of the week; hopefully, those stories will stand on their own as much as they illuminate her inner life. Even it it doesn’t, even if life for Stumptown becomes a lot less interesting after this first trip, Cobie Smulders, and Dex Parios, are well worth visiting again.