ABC’s Portland-Set, Los Angeles-Filmed Detective Series Finds the Right Blend

The crisp fight scenes pop, and star Cobie Smulders burns incandescent as Marine-turned-private eye Dex Parios.

Despite both taking place in September, the Rose City Comic Con doesn't typically fall on the same weekend as Portland's Epicurean spectacle Feast. The overlap this year allowed the supporting cast of the new, highly touted, locally set drama Stumptown to answer questions following a screening of the pilot at the Oregon Convention Center, and then wander the dizzying array of food and drink samples offered at Tom McCall Waterfront Park while promoting the show. For several, it was the first time they'd ever been to P-Town.

By now, you've probably heard that Stumptown, which began life as a graphic novel published by homegrown Oni Press (Scott Pilgrim, Atomic Blonde), isn't actually filmed where it's set. The first episode was shot in Vancouver, B.C. (aka Puddletown North), in March, though a team did drop by Portland for a few days to capture some critical exterior footage. After that quick swing through the Pacific Northwest, production is now based hundreds of miles away in Los Angeles. To be sure, the show did its best with its time here. Stumptown's Stumptown looks great.

"It's a stunning place to an outsider," admits executive producer Jason Richman. "Beautifully layered houses, many of them painted bright colors against the green vegetation, the way the sun hits the city—even the residential streets were eye candy."

More impressively, despite depending on a formula largely unchanged since the detective Sam Spade radio serials, Stumptown looks new. The crisp fight scenes pop, and star Cobie Smulders burns incandescent as small-screen Marine-turned-private eye Dex Parios. Like an amalgam of Homeland's Carrie Mathison and a perma-drunk alter ego of her past role as commander Maria Hill from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Smulders flits and deflects and grieves with an addictive charm that breathes new life into familiar plotlines (caring for a younger brother with Down syndrome) and foibles (self-medicating to deal with PTSD).

Pilots for genre vehicles with sizable casts are notoriously difficult to evaluate, and the script does get bogged down with some awkward info dumps and overworked stabs at social media relevance, but action-packed introductions to complicated lives rarely go smoothly. Still, the finely etched bit parts and barbed throwaway lines should reward once the show finds its rhythm. You get the sense Stumptown would like to be considered the sort of show in which the surrounding city is considered its own character, and oddly enough, a familiar sensibility shines through.

Dex gets her first case at a tribal casino after the owner's granddaughter goes missing—agreeing to the gig because she owes the house $11,000. That's how, in a bravura opening scene, she ends up battling two gourmet coffee-loving thugs from the backseat of her car as it sails through the air—giving Portland's skyline plenty of airtime—while "Sweet Caroline" blasts from the speakers. It could only have seemed more local if they had played longtime local singer-songwriter Elliott Smith's "Sweet Adeline." Overall, though, there is a clear affection for the town among the showrunners.

"Portland," Richman marvels, "is a unique place in the American tapestry. There is a spirit that lives in its people and even its architecture. As a city, it's incredibly independent-minded, ironic and subversive. The crews are amazing, and if people knew how good the food was, they'd flock there. I didn't expect that."

Local comic book author Greg Rucka originally developed his Stumptown series as an explicit homage to Magnum, P.I. and The Rockford Files. The influence of those programs can be felt in everything from the sardonic sangfroid of Smulders' damaged heroine to her shady, schlubby friend base to the disarming tonal shifts. The key difference, really, seems one of climate. Billionaire subsidies allowed Thomas Magnum free rent on Oahu while Jim Rockford somehow parked his janky trailer beachside in Malibu, but the rain-soaked splendor of residential Portland feels a rather more believable 21st century update to the private-eye lifestyle as does the reckless, scrappy Dex, who is perhaps the gumshoe heroine this city deserves.

SEE IT: Stumptown airs at 10 pm Wednesdays on ABC.