Features and Columns · TV

Drop What You’re Doing and Watch ‘Stumptown’

Cobie Smulders is finally back in a great TV role.
Cobie Smulders Stumptown
By  · Published on November 6th, 2019

Nobody should take this the wrong way, but Cobie Smulders belongs on television. Her new series, Stumptown, has been criminally overlooked, but it’s a punchy showcase for the actor that follows her character’s foray into private investigating. She plays Dex, an unemployed vet in Portland who suffers from PTSD. And probably alcoholism. Stumptown also features a truly stellar set of supporting performers, including Jake Johnson, Michael Ealy, and Cole Sibus. But frankly, Smulders is the biggest draw.

Since her crucial role as Robin on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Smulders’ greatest success has come from her participation in the Marvel Cinematic Univers as Maria Hill, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Nick Fury confident. Though she brings authority and badassery to that role, it’s fantastic to see her back on television in such a meaty part. Her performance as Dex taps into what was great about her stint as Robin: she’s both familiar and captivating. Stumptown is less heightened than How I Met Your Mother, but Smulders deftly treads the line between high-status and down to earth. She’s incredibly empathetic, but you still get the sense she’s a bit cooler than you are.

Dex is climbing uphill through all of the early episodes, trying to get licensed as a PI while fighting her issues with PTSD, and caring for her brother Ansel (Sibus). She more or less falls into the job and begins to excel due to her military training. She doesn’t know why she’s good at it or why she likes it, which adds a unique wrinkle to a plot that may have been stale. Smulders also has great chemistry with all of the cast, particularly with Johnson.

He is another actor who seems to work best on television, famous for playing witty sad sacks. Yes, his Stumptown character is also a bartender, but a dark and stormy version of the goofy Nick, his character from New Girl. While Smulders’ inherent capability gives Dex her surprising success, Johnson’s Grey doesn’t seem to have a handle on his life and has an unexpected past that comes back to haunt him. This also works in great opposition to Steely’s role as Detective Miles Hoffman, who at least at first can truly walk the walk.

Stumptown has thus far avoided certain television traps that many shows easily fall into. It quashes the “will they/won’t they” trope in the first episode (they will), meaning the characters can have arcs that don’t inevitably lead to them becoming romantically involved. The show also engages with social issues in a way that doesn’t seem to bring the episode to a screeching halt (looking at you, Brooklyn 99). They bump up against #metoo and issues of powerful men taking advantage of the women around them, but it’s not shoehorned in or copy/pasted from Twitter. These plotlines are interlaced in a way that thematically serves the show and aids character development, particular in a two-episode arc over episodes three and four.

The first episode also brings the introduction of Sue Lynn Blackbird, played by Tantoo Cardinal. She’s a casino owner and is connected to Dex personally, and exploits this connection in various ways across the first few episodes. Blackbird’s storylines touch on themes of Native American land dispossession and gentrification, along with the complicated nature of her community’s relationship with the police. Cardinal is steely and unyielding, and it’s incredible to watch her interactions with Smulders, as she’s kind of the only person that can make Dex seem feeble.

The series never becomes too much of a cop show or too much of a crime show but uses aspects from both genres. Some of the material Detective Hoffman works with has a procedural quality to it, as well as the first couple cases Dex works on. But as you get a bit later in the series, the tone shifts to focus on Grey and some of his past demons, crafting a mystery that’s drawn out just enough to be engaging. All of this is lightened up when the show engages with its comic-book roots, switching at points to splash-page animations. This is used particularly well in the second episode to trace the roots of Dex and Grey’s friendship.

Stumptown’s first episode also has one of the best comedic bits I’ve seen on television in a while. It involves Dex’s shitbox car, which will start randomly playing an ’80s mixtape that’s been stuck in the tape deck since forever. We’re talking heavy hitters, including “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Heart of Glass,” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” The gag injects the show with moments of zany energy that plays great off Dex’s ready/fire/aim attitude.

Portland was nicknamed “Stumptown” in the mid-1800s when the city was expanding at such a rapid rate that the clearcutting required to create useable land left tree stumps all over town. The show may not directly tap into this history, but Dex and her cohort do have a haphazard sensibility that leaves traces of havoc in their wake. Stumptown, therefore, deserves your attention, and since it’s just been picked up for a full season, there’s no better time to let Smulders grace your television once more.

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Film studies student by day and usually by night. Would buy that for a dollar.