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Just Reviews Stumptown Season One

I enjoyed the first episode of Stumptown, and I’m pleased that I continued to enjoy the subsequent seventeen episodes of this first season.  Stumptown is based on the fantastic comic book series written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by first Matthew Southworth and then Justin Greenwood.  It centers on Dex Parios (played by Cobie Smulders), a private investigator in Portland, Oregon.

Stumptown is a fun adventure series.  It’s episodic by nature, but the formula works fairly well, and I enjoyed the show’s tongue-in-cheek, just slightly off-kilter sensibility.  The individual cases have danger and drama each week, but the show maintains an enjoyably comedic tone.  It’s a series that regularly returned to the status quo at the end of each episode, but it was able to zig where the standard sort of network procedural would have zagged enough to keep my interest.  I loved, for example, the show’s many unusual music choices used to score its action sequences.  I loved the use of a freeze-frame (that would then cut to an illustrated-looking version of the freeze-frame) that takes us into the opening titles each week.  (It was used to great comedic effect, and it looked cool!)  And while the show was generally episodic, they enjoyed throwing in a good cliffhanger on a regular basis, to help ensure viewers would return for the next episode.

It’s been a while since I’ve watched an episodic network show like this.  Even though I enjoyed the pilot episode, I was a little worried that the series would fall into a boring regular pattern.  But I enjoyed the outlandish cases in which Dex found herself involved week after week.  There were some fun and memorable installments in this first season!  If the show had a failing, it was its over-reliance on soap-opera-ish melodrama.  I found myself a little bored by the love triangle between Dex, Grey (Jake Johnson) and Hoffman (Michael Ealy) and the predictable sitcom-ish misunderstandings and bad-timing complications that arose between them.  Similarly, while I like that Grey had a tougher edge than the Grey in the comic series, I didn’t love the outlandish way the show wound up continually pushing him back into criminal-adjacent situations.

The show’s greatest strength is its cast.  Cobie Smulders is terrific in the lead role as screwed-up, P.T.S.D.-suffering P.I. Dex Parios.  She’s endearing and engaging and completely believable as this tough, don’t-mess-with-her young woman.  She can effortlessly play the drama while also demonstrating very solid comedic timing (clearly honed by her decade on How I Met Your Mother).  I’ve really enjoyed the dimension that Jake Johnson has brought to Grey.  Like Ms. Smulders, Mr. Johnson is very skilled at playing both the dramatic beats and the comedic ones.  I love his chemistry with Ms. Smulders.  Dex and Grey’s friendship is an important central aspect of the show, and it works spectacularly well.  (I love how much interesting and complex Grey as on the show; it’s one place where the show has improved upon the great comic book series.)  Michael Ealy is soulful and tender as Dex’s detective beau Miles Hoffman; he brings a wonderful naturalism to his performance.  I’d like the show to allow us to get a little deeper into his character in season two.

The biggest surprise for me in the ensemble was Adrian Martinez, who is absolutely hilarious, and very lovable, as the food truck chef maestro Tookie.  I loved this character, and I loved how he slowly emerged as a lynchpin of the show as the season pressed on.  (In the early going, I didn’t even realize he was a regular!  That’s probably because I don’t believe this character existed in the original comic.)  Cole Sibus is terrific as Dex’s younger brother Ansel, who has Down syndrome.  I was pleased that the show didn’t just use Ansel as a prop, but that he got a lot of screen-time and the show gave him a number of story-lines of his own.  Camryn Manheim was solid as Lieutenant Cosgrove, Hoffman’s boss at the precinct.  I like Ms. Manheim, though the show sometimes struggled with how to use her.  (There were a LOT of scenes of her rolling her eyebrows at Dex’s involvement in a case.)  I loved her unexpected friendship with Tookie.  I’d like to see more of that.  Tantoo Cardinal also did great work as Sue Lynn Blackbird, the mom of Dex’s dead soul-mate, who is also the powerful owner of a local tribe-run casino.  I loved the time the show spent with this interesting woman, though, as with Cosgrove, I felt I could sometime see the strain to find regular things for her to do on the show, since — like Cosgrove — she’s not a character who would regularly interact with Dex under normal circumstances.

For a show like this to work, the weekly cases have to be interesting.  The Stumptown writers came up with a number of fun ideas for Dex’s cases; and they populated those stories with a fantastic array of guest stars.  There was Zosia Mamet (Girls) as a reformed con-woman and Jay Duplass (Cyrus, Jeff Who Lives at Home) as the man in love with her; Donal Logue (Sons of Anarchy) as P.I. Artie Banks, a mentor-turned-rival for Dex (I was hoping this character would return in the back half of the season.  I’d love to see more of him in season two); Janeane Garofolo as the woman overseeing Dex’s efforts to obtain her P.I. license; Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) as the peppy owner of a strip club/vegan restaurant; Kirk Acevedo (12 Monkeys, Band of Brothers, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as Dex’s superior officer when she served in the military in Afghanistan; Eliza Coupe (Scrubs, Happy Endings) as a campaign manager who hires Dex to uncover dirt on her opponent; Steven Williams (X from The X-Files; Birds of Prey) as Hoffman’s father; and many more!

The season ended on a cliffhanger regarding the true story behind Dex and Ansel’s parents’ disappearance.  I’m curious to see where that goes in season two (that element of the backstory has not been deeply explored in the comic series), though I’m less interested in these sorts of Big Dramatic Events than I am in simply spending more time with these characters that I enjoy.  Stumptown isn’t anything shockingly original or unique.  But it’s a well-made, pleasingly enjoyable week-to-week series that I look forward to seeing more of in season two (whenever that might arrive).

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