Stumptown is based on a comic book series of the same title, by Greg Rucka, Matthew Southwork and Justin Greenwood. It was adapted for television by writer-producer Jason Richman, who you may know as the creator of the television series Detroit 1-8-7, which had 18 episodes that aired in the 2010-11 season.
No? You don’t remember this series? Neither do I. As impossible as this might seem to you, knowing that I’m a comic book geek as well, I wasn’t even aware of the Greg Rucka comic. I began watching this series because I was familiar with a couple of the actors involved and thought it was worth a shot. I’m familiar with Greg Rucka, the author of the Atticus Kodiak mystery series (I’ve read a couple) and the comic-book novelization Batman: No Man’s Land, which I read not so very long ago. I didn’t realize that Rucka was involved with this series until I read his name in the credits.
In the TV show, Dex Parios (Cobie Smulders) is a strong female archetype in the Jessica Jones mold. She’s hard-drinking, has a weird and risky love life, a gambling problem, and a brother with Down syndrome, Ansel (Cole Sibus), to care for. Of course, it quickly becomes apparent that Ansel is caring for her more than she is him. Dex, who worked in military intelligence during the Gulf War, falls ass-backwards into a private investigator gig. Other main characters include Grey McConnell (Jake Johnson), a bar owner and Dex’s friend; casino owner Sue Lynn Blackbird (Tantoo Cardinal); Dex’s friend Tookie (Adrian Martinez), a taco food cart owner; and Lieutenant Cosgrove (Camryn Manheim) and Detective Miles Hoffman (Michael Ealy) of the Portland Police Bureau.
I like all of the actors. I mean, all of them. I like the fact that we have a strong female lead. I also like the Portland, Oregon, setting. It doesn’t feel quite the same as the setting in Grimm, and sometimes feels more like LA, to be honest, but it’s still a nice change of pace. The show is also beautifully shot and edited. The camera always seems to be in motion and the episodes always move quickly.
I did learn that the Stumptown nickname dates back to the 1800s, when loggers strip-mined the area so that it seemed there were more stumps than trees. I didn’t learn that from the series. I had to look it up.
As I’ve pointed out before, first seasons are awkward. Sometimes even in the best of series. A freshman season includes a lot of exposition in the form of character introduction and, in some cases, the revelation of character backstory. While this is all great information to possess, as a viewer, it also stalls the forward motion of the narrative. It seems that every character introduced in Stumptown has a deep, rich backstory. Dex, as our lead, has her Benny backstory, of course, which we revisit in some way in every episode, and her parents have also seemingly vanished without a trace. Grey has a criminal past and daddy-issues. Det. Hoffman also has daddy issues as well, his father a successful criminal attorney, plus he likes offbeat jazz. Tookie isn’t just a food truck operator and informant for Dex, he is also a former sous chef for a restaurant called Arturo’s, whose owner stole his signature mole sauce recipe. Oh, and Tookie’s wife is fooling around on him. Lt. Bobby Cosgrove has been married for twenty-five years or so, likes Joni Mitchell, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Tookie during the season. Like that. If you imagine an overview of the character relationships on this show as one of those crazy-guy bulletin boards with photographs, push pins and colored yard stretched all over the place, you’d see that each character is connected to x number of other characters, and to each other, and the image quickly becomes a confusing mess.
While it’s nice that the characters are being given some depth, it seems unnecessary to revisit sideplots for most of the characters in every episode. This is not really meant to be an ensemble show. Dex Parios is the main character. Every other character is supposed to be in her orbit. It doesn’t always feel that way.
The next thing I’m going to write is going to make me sound like a prude. Which I’m not. Honest.
I also have a few issues with Dex’s promiscuity in this season. I mean from a storytelling perspective. I’m not trying to slut-shame Dex Parios.
Dex’s risky sexual behavior, like her alcoholism, is a symptom of her PTSD. Maybe. We don’t really know what she was like before the war. That she is apparently bisexual doesn’t really bother me. Perhaps it’s even true to the comic book, which it may be as far as I know. What bothers me is that it seems almost gratuitous. Nearly every series I watch these days has an obligatory gay relationship. I have nothing against alternative lifestyles. Just story quotas.
The fact that Dex has had sex with two of the male leads on the show, who still remain friends with both Dex and each other, seems to stretch plausibility a bit as well.
I’m also not a fan of the broken tape deck gimmick. Supposedly there’s a mixtape stuck in the tape deck of Dex’s POS car that randomly plays songs when it hits a bump. I remember this gag from Cobie Smulders’ other television show How I Met Your Mother, but it seems the stuck tape in question played only The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 miles)” over and over. Even that would be preferable to a mythological mixtape that apparently has over 500 songs on it. In a series featuring magic or the fantastical in absolutely no other way, this is unacceptable.
I initially disliked the fact that Dex’s brother had to have Downs syndrome. My wife thought this made me a bad person. Respectfully, I have to disagree. It felt like a blatant attempt at emotional manipulation to me. Again, this may be 100% consistent with the source material; I can’t speak to that. Now that I’ve watched the season, I think that the inclusion of Ansel has helped to show a softer side of the otherwise jagged-edged Dex. She would not have been as sympathetic a character without him.
With this cast, the series should be more popular. As of the date I’m writing this review, it hasn’t been renewed for a second season. If it doesn’t return, that would be a shame because I feel that this season has planted seeds that could grow into satisfying plots. As it stands however, it often seems too busy, going off in tangents in search of a meaningful plot. Even the central, season-long mystery—which is the mysterious death of Benny Blackbird—isn’t as satisfying as it could be.
This is a show in which I love most of its components, but think the sum total is just okay. Not bad, surely. I believe this show should be allowed to go forward, to see what it might become. Then we can dismiss this first season as the awkward getting-to-know-you first act stuff.
Of course, since the Benny mystery was solved, the question is what’s next?
Firewater’s Hell-Has-a-Minibar Report Card: B-
I wanted it to be much better than I think it was, but I like the characters enough to stick with it. If it gets renewed. I think the series may one day be worth the investment.