If most of the great TV writers have gone to cable and streaming, how can dramatic programming on network TV hope to survive? While there’s nowhere near as much non-reality original programming as there was even a decade ago, the networks still have businesses to run, and so they have to navigate a tricky new world when it comes to fall premieres. The big names behind the camera may be mostly gone, but a promise of a regular paycheck, possibly over multiple seasons, can still be a draw to an agent and his or her clients, which leads talented, underrated film & TV actors to channels like ABC. Take their two new dramas for the 2019-2020, neither particularly well-written but both shows that I will likely tune into again simply because I like the people in front of my eyes. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
While the writers of “Emergence” may argue that it is their high concept that will be the hook for people, I think the creators of “Stumptown,” premiering on September 25th, would admit that it’s a vehicle designed to be fueled by the charisma of its cast. It comes from a tried-and-true model of classic television in which the character/performance at the center of a quirky mystery/comedy was the key to its success—a model that gave us characters like Jessica Fletcher, Jim Rockford, and the singular Columbo. Of course, I would never put Cobie Smulders’ Dex Parios in that legendary tier after one episode, but this is a show that relies heavily on her likability, and she carries it through the premiere.
Based on a graphic novel by Greg Rucka, “Stumptown” is set in Portland, Oregon, and stars Smulders as a tough-talking, tough-living private investigator named Dex Parios. The source material was reportedly inspired by writers like Robert B. Parker and Raymond Chandler, and just enough of that remains in the ABC version to give the show a bit more edge than we get from your typical mystery-of-the-week offerings. Parios is a vet with PTSD—an element that isn’t handled very well in the premiere, sadly—amplified by the death of her partner. In the premiere, she’s asked to help track down the kidnapped granddaughter of a casino owner (Tantoo Cardinal) with whom Dex shares an emotional past. We also meet Dex’s developmentally disabled brother Ansel (Cole Sibus), an old friend who runs a bar named Grey McConnell (Jake Johnson), and a couple of cops played by Camryn Manheim and Michael Ealy, who is clearly designed as a love interest.
The kidnapping plot in the premiere of “Stumptown” is secondary to introducing us to characters and asking viewers if they want to hang with them every week. Smulders has been underrated for some time, and she’s excellent here, finding just the right edge to the character but keeping her likable at the same time. It helps to have two equally charismatic actors to play off in Ealy and Johnson. Honestly, I barely remember how the kidnapping wrapped up, but I’ll check out another episode solely because of the cast.
I had a similar response to “Emergence,” premiering on September 24th, although I suspect more people will be drawn to this one for its premise than the star of FX’s “Fargo” and the excellent indie “Barracuda.” Allison Tolman plays a police chief named Jo Evans on Long Island who is one of the first responders to a strange accident on a beach. Lights in the sky, debris, smoke—did a plane crash? Or a UFO? And how can anyone explain the girl that Jo finds on the beach without a scratch on her and no memory of who she is? Jo and her family, including a daughter named Bree (Ashley Aufderheide) and a father named Ed (Clancy Brown), name the girl Piper (Alexa Skye Swinton), and they end up taking her home. Of course, that’s when Men in Black start sniffing around the Evans family, and it starts to seem like Piper may have some special powers.
Paul McGuigan (“Lucky Number Slevin”) directs the well-paced pilot of “Emergence,” but it suffers from that lingering mystery issue that plagues a lot of high concept shows like NBC’s “Manifest,” for example, in which viewers are left wondering how the mystery of Piper could possibly be dragged out over an entire season. One of the reasons people are increasingly drawn to limited series is the promise of resolution, and the fear that in 20 episodes we still won’t the truth about Piper is real as you watch the premiere of “Emergence.” However, Tolman finds emotional, subtle beats that lesser actresses would miss, and Clancy Brown is an always-welcome presence (as are Donald Faison as Jo’s ex and Owain Yeoman as a reporter). Let’s hope they don’t get bogged down in a spiraling mystery, as viewers will likely check out if they do. After all, when you don’t like the characters on a network TV show anymore, that's when you flip over to see what’s new on Netflix.