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Stumptown and TV’s Legacy of Hard-Boiled Detectives

Dex (Cobie Smulders) and Artie (Donal Logue) in Stumptown.
Dex (Cobie Smulders) and Artie (Donal Logue) in Stumptown. Photo: Jessica Brooks/ABC

The third episode of ABC’s private-eye drama Stumptown shows the lead character, Dex Parios, lost in a daydream. Waiting to meet the seasoned detective who will teach her until she’s licensed, Dex (Cobie Smulders), looks at a framed issue of Detective Quarterly. Her new mentor, Artie (Donal Logue), is on the cover. Suddenly funk music plays, and Dex imagines the two of them living out a 1970s detective show. The tires squeal on a Starsky & Hutch muscle car, disco plays, and the clothing is straight out of Columbo. The car chases and wide lapels promise some good-natured entertainment. But by the end of the episode, Dex will learn that folksy Artie is actually a corrupt cynic. He’s screwing over his own client, a single mother, selling evidence to the man who abused her. A furious Dex goes to the client’s house and promises vengeance: “They’re arrogant sons of bitches. And they don’t know that women like us have been fighting our entire lives for everything.” It’s a powerful scene, and it lands Stumptown squarely in the present day.

Television detective shows are like the nation itself, taking on new identities and morphing to meet cultural upheavals. It’s probably not a coincidence that the golden age of television detectives — the era in Dex’s reverie — arrived as America underwent a momentous crisis in moral and national authority. It is also no accident that Dex comes to the screen just as women — galvanized by the Me Too movement, speaking out about harassment, initiating impeachment, and running for president — face the relentless storm of toxicity that is Trump-era social-media culture. Women watching Stumptown, women who live in that storm, see their feelings and experiences on the screen.

Recent years have produced a number of female-led detective shows, from Netflix’s Jessica Jones to Hulu’s reboot of Veronica Mars and even the CW’s Nancy Drew. Stumptown is the most classically hard-boiled of all these. Like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, Dex is ethical, resilient, practical, and irreverent. Like Jessica Jones, she is a strong, guilt-wracked heroine with PTSD and self-destructive behaviors, but Dex is no superhero. She is pure human, a veteran, a caretaker for her brother, and a grieving woman who lost the man she loved on the battlefield. The grief that Veronica Mars experiences at the end of her reboot’s final episode is the starting point for Dex’s character, reminding us that contending with both trauma and social wrongs is a baseline modern condition.

Stumptown depicts injustice and its fallout with considerable nuance. It examines what might cause someone to commit a crime or to forgive one, to trade one misdeed for another, to fight for more or settle for less. Some characters are unambiguously immoral, but most are multidimensional. Sue Lynn Blackbird (Tantoo Cardinal) runs a tribal casino and makes deals with a shady businessman to advance tribal interests, then takes down that businessman when he crosses her. Tookie (Adrian Martinez), a food vendor, becomes a bumbling undercover operative and then an unlikely investigative hero. In the third episode, with its jaunty throwback to the 1970s and emotional gauntlet thrown down at the end, the show displays a savvy awareness that even Dex’s successes are often short-lived. (It’s also in that episode that we learn that Dex’s real name is Dexedrine, the drug brand synonymous with Vietnam-era amphetamine abuse.)

The awareness that injustice is systemic, constant, and overwhelming — and that most efforts to beat it don’t succeed — leads to a sort of sardonic self-mockery. The show’s tone is wry and wistful, the pursuit of justice balanced between pathos and ridicule. Its soundtrack works to that end too, as the unreliable tape deck in Dex’s beater car practically becomes a character in its own right. A mixtape kicks on at random but impeccable moments with the tunes of Donna Summer, Asia, and Hall & Oates. In a scene from the pilot, used as the series trailer, Dex crawls out of the trunk into her own moving car and brawls with her kidnapper, to the accompaniment of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Air Supply’s “All Out Of Love” serenades Dex and Artie on an evidence-gathering expedition gone alarmingly wrong. The show is both madcap and serious — not an easy balance to achieve. It gives us characters conscious that their chances for success are limited, but who are determined — even in a ludicrously malfunctioning car — to give it their all.

Greg Rucka, creator of the Stumptown comic and a producer on the series, is a self-described fan of the iconic detective drama The Rockford Files. The series includes definite throwbacks to that heyday of TV detectives, but Stumptown is also quite modern. Dex Parios is as tough and good-looking as Rockford, but she isn’t promised victory in the script of the contemporary world. No one is. In essence, Dex Parios does for modern women viewers what Jim Rockford did for audiences after the Nixon years: Provide a model of toughness, simplicity, and empathy. Stumptown captures the feelings of actual women watching the show, living in toxic cultural circumstances and standing on the front lines of national change. On television as in the real world, women are in the driver’s seat of the fight against injustice. But as Dex observes, they need to fight for every inch of ground they gain, on their own behalf and others’, against constant backlash. Stumptown gives that fight a fun, full-throated, and no-nonsense voice.

Stumptown and TV’s Legacy of Hard-Boiled Detectives