One of the biggest surprises of the 2019-2020 television season is ABC’s “Stumptown.” The Cobie Smulders-led P.I. drama is somehow — and also quite easily — one of the best new shows of the season; the only series that’s really even challenged it for that position is HBO’s unbeatable “Watchmen.”
The reason this is such a surprise is that “Stumptown” is also a network television procedural, which automatically makes its quality up for debate even more than it would if it were a cable show. For good reason, network television is seen as the land of homogeny, where the same types of stories are told again and again, a point which also lends itself to the procedural genre. (Never mind that seminal series like “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “E.R.,” and “NYPD Blue” were all also procedurals.)
But “Stumptown” is a genuine small screen miracle. It isn’t marred by either trying (and often failing) to be like “Lost” or telling the millionth cop or lawyer or doctor or firefighter story. Even rarer, it’s a network show that manages to end up succeeding and being a fresh spin on the millionth story told.
Just this week, ABC ordered a full season’s worth of episodes for the show for its ability to attract more than 9 million viewers an episode across all platforms for its outside-the-box storytelling. In 2019, it’s impossible for a series to just be a procedural without even a vague hint of a longer arc. “Stumptown” fits squarely in the middle of the gritty and light-hearted procedural — while naturally leaning toward serialization from the jump — as it tackles issues like Dex’s (Smulders) PTSD, gambling, and drinking while also leaving room for bits like Dex’s broken car cassette player and the meta dream (of a ‘70s era P.I. show-within-a-show) opening to its third episode.
In terms of quality, tone, and originality compared to its peers in this genre and on network television, “Stumptown” is a lot like NBC’s two-season series “Life,” which starred a pre-”Homeland” Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi. Also an outside-the-box approach to the cop series, “Life” was also critically lauded, in spite of its network procedural status. It also premiered in 2007, and yet discussions about whether or not procedurals can be good are still going on. (Shahi later starred on another procedural, “Person of Interest.”)
The thing is, none of these “good for a network procedural” caveats would even exist if “Stumptown” (and “Life” before it) were a cable series, which only highlights the implicit bias against network television (and network procedurals) in the first place.
Because besides the hard-boiled P.I. shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s that the series is also positively compared to, the other series “Stumptown” is most similar in tone and general world-building to are two classic FX series — both more procedural than anyone ever seems to want to admit when it comes to cable series — “Justified” and, even more notably, “Terriers.” The latter, especially, sticks out as a fair comparison, both because of the unlicensed P.I. aspect and “Terriers” star Donal Logue’s (also a part of “Life”) early presence on “Stumptown” as Dex’s reluctant mentor.
“Stumptown” is the latest example that procedurals — like any genre of television — can be fun, interesting, and exciting and that network television still has a few tricks up its sleeve. Only this time, people are paying attention and justifiably so.