Stumptown pilot and the Economy of Storytelling

I’ve written before about the myriad of things which would go into Perfect TV Pilot Bingo, including shows like Glitch and The Night Of which set up mysteries, shows such as Doctor Who which have mini-pilots every few seasons, even TV shows which shoot a mid-season episode first to sell the show but still need to make their actual first-airing episode work as an introduction.

Let’s take a look at Stumptown‘s pilot and how it functions to deliver an incredible amount of information in a very short space, while serving a self-contained story and setting up the season’s arc.

The cold open establishes the iconic PORTLAND sign before panning to two tattooed heavies driving a car mostly held together with duct tape and curse-laden invocations. In a moment we’ll discover they don’t mind beating strangers unconscious and stuffing them in a trunk, but first the show is going to plant tongue-in-cheek: the criminals ruminate on coffee tasting notes before sing along to Sweet Caroline which distracts them as Dex escapes from the trunk and fights for control, launched the car off a bridge. This tells us Stumptown is happy to fight small and dirty but throw a little money at old-school stunts. Casting helps, too, the singing heavies reminiscent of 101 Dalmations and Home Alone hired muscle.

The credits card is stylised in a nod to the source material, then the next scene pulls a classic “three days earlier.” This device is a gimmick to wring the most bang-for-buck out of an action sequence, or easily set up a ‘how did they get here’ mystery (Breaking Bad‘s favourite use), but it works here both because a pilot is almost expected to pull this sort of stunt, and because it pulls a fakeout later (more when we get there).

Three days earlier, a detective sits in a bar drinking whiskey. So far, so typical. Dex being played by Cobie Smulders, she’s immediately hit on by a smarmy out-of-towner, and her response is a doozy of character and exposition. The first scene briefed us on Dex’s resourcefulness, good taste in distressed denim jackets, and ability to fight with a seatbelt and fire extinguisher, but this is the first real sense we get of Dex as a person. Within 90 seconds we learn she has a quick-patter repartee and strong deductive reasoning, is a military veteran who served in Afghanistan, speaks at least one other language, and doesn’t tolerate smarmy pricks.

The scene itself is a version of the Sherlock Holmes Introductory Scene. Every Sherlock Holmes adaptation gives Sherlock a reason to show his powers of deduction, and many contemporary detective shows follow suit. Take the two most recent TV adaptations: Sherlock introducing John and Watson in a medical lab which underlines John’s bonafides while establishing Sherlock’s macabre fascinations. Elementary leads Joan to Sherlock’s screen-filled living room (the better to inform us how this modern Sherlock consumes visual data) before quickly getting to a crime scene (the better to show off both his deduction powers, and Watson’s medical knowledge).

Point being, showing Dex’s powers of observation is important, but location can convey information, too. Dex gets hit on by McDouchy at Whispering Winds Casino, which isn’t just for production design’s sake. The casino bar allows the show to seamlessly transition to Dex gambling, which gives her one of the multiple character flaws all noir detectives must be in possession of, and also good reason to be called into a back room for a chat with casino owner Sue Lynn . . . who happens to have an existing and somewhat prickly relationship with Dex.

Sue Lynn gives us more specifics about the broad strokes we already got; Dex is in more debt than just losing at craps in the prior scene; not only was Dex in the military, but specifically military intelligence; Dex dated Sue Lynn’s son. All this comes in the midst of a conversation where Sue Lynn sets up the episode’s central mystery by asking Dex to find her granddaughter Nina.

Dex drives home, accompanied by a perfectly serviceable establishing shot with her beat-up car we’re familiar with, and greets her brother Ansel. Family in unusual iterations feels like it’s going to be a running theme with this show, but Ansel also serves to remind / guilt Dex about needing a job. Ansel provides our first sense of how the theme of family will run through this show, and also a fantastic selection of Portland Timbers gear.

After calling Sue Lynn to accept the job, Dex spends an appropriate amount of time in her appropriately-cluttered kitchen staring wistfully at a picture of herself and a handsome man we can infer is her ex and Sue Lynn’s son. How much Dex is driven by debt and how much by nostalgia / sense of duty / obligation / love we don’t know yet, but that’s setting up a season and character arc question: for this episode, all that matters is Dex takes the case.

And to reiterate, we cut to Grey setting up his bar and giving Dex (but mostly the audience) a ‘so let me get this straight’ reset. They also establish their rapport and Dex’s noir detective proclivity for alcohol.

Less than ten minutes and we’ve received an incredible amount of information, gotten a feel for the tone, and met some characters who, while it’d be a stretch to call them ‘colourful’ since they’ve only had a couple lines, are at least sketched out enough to make them entertaining.

Now Dex heads off to start cracking the case. Because the pilot has a lot of other work to do, this case is simple, mostly serving to show off Dex’s street smarts. The opening car bit showed Dex’s physical resourcefulness, this scene lets Dex play mental games, egging a witness to call Nina then driving around the block before snatching the witness’s unlocked phone. On the phone is a picture of a motel, where Dex goes and – with a little elbow grease and disregard for protocol and procedure – finds Nina and Nina’s dumb boyfriend.

Driving Nina back to the casino, Dex is rear-ended and beat up by two thugs who run off with Nina. From the moment the little guy hits Dex we assume they’ll take Nina and put her in the trunk along with Dex: the bad guys often take our hero’s car, plus we remember the opening sequence from a mere 13 minutes before, so it seems obvious . . . but then they don’t. This tells us not too assume too much, that there’s another twist to come.

Before that twist, Dex is going to meet a very Hot Detective, get questioned up at the station by said detective and Chief Camryn Manheim Lieutenant Cosgrove, get bailed out by Grey, realise something is Very Wrong with Sue Lynn’s statement, double back to talk to the dumb boyfriend, and find a food truck cook named Tookie to get some info on who might have it in for Nina and/or Sue Lynn.

Quick pit stop; Tookie and Dex’s casual rapport and exposition friendly banter about that one time Dex helped out as line cook establish Tookie is clearly an old friend, but he’s also got a lot of knowledge of Portland’s grimy ongoings. Though this is the only time we see him in the pilot, he has clear Recurring Character Vibe and establishes his usefulness by giving Dex a lead (and some legit tasty hot sauce).

At the nightclub Tookie pointed her towards, Dex runs into a bouncer whose name she misremembers; this establishes her penchant for casual sex, which sets up another scene with Hot Detective in just a few minutes. The bouncer isn’t just there to let Dex banter, he lets the story show us something about who she is.

A little misunderstanding about a hot car which riffs lightly on various noir / procedural tropes, a little grand theft auto via driving in a small space, and Dex goes back to Sue Lynn to return her cash advance. While the scene lets her get a bead on the fact Sue Lynn was lying, it also gives us a picture of her Ideals, which all stubborn noir detectives have varying degrees of, which often operate in shades of grey* but which they hold to tightly.

Leaving the casino, Dex experiences PTSD flashbacks to her military stint. While we don’t need to be reminded of her service again, this reminds us she’s got a heavy mental load, which underlines the emotion of a gut-punch which will get served by Hot Detective approximately 60 seconds later, just after a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am round of sex is PG-13ly insinuated.

The dialogue bridging* ‘post-coital flirting’ and ‘reminder that you blame yourself for your ex-boyfriend’s death by IED’ is . . . well, I knew Michael Ealy was attractive and talented, but I didn’t know he was a magician. He actually manages to make the scene work, with just a little assistance from a perfectly fitted black t-shirt.

The remainder of the story is mostly about wrapping up the Nina mystery. No surprise: Dumb Boyfriend is a bad guy. Slight surprise: the cops actually manage to do something helpful to our detective. No surprise: Dex is belligerent and pretends to Not Care while actually Caring Very Much.

Day saved, Dex goes to Grey’s bar where she toasts with her tiny chosen family, and just before the closing shot, Hot Detective shows up to give her a case which ‘may help keep her out of trouble’ and definitely will launch a season’s worth of sleuthing storylines.

You’ll notice every scene does something to establish tone, tell us about character(s) and their relationships to each other, fill in Dex’s backstory / personality, and forward the episode’s central mystery. A few scenes only do three of the four, but that’s still plenty.

If this post feels very “then this happened, then that” – it is. A pilot is often paint-by-numbers because it has a lot to accomplish. You don’t need to mess with proven formulas, just make sure the characters and story – and the cinematography, wardrobe, and actors you paint them with – are fascinating enough.

Stray Observations

*pun intended

– Dex and Ansel’s ‘hey sis’ and ‘hey sib’ is the most eye-rollingly-obvious bit of exposition, especially since ‘sis’ was enough. I’d even buy ‘Sib’ was a slip of the tongue / actor’s nickname, but they sure didn’t ADR it.

– In addition to giving Soccer City continual plugs, Ansel’s love of soccer is an easy device to have him wherever the story needs; in this case, kicking a ball just out of danger when Dex gets abducted. Clever.

– I’d kill to see them include some Thorns gear in Ansel’s mix. Plus, a Christine Sinclair jersey would continue their wink to Cobie Smulders’s Canadian origins (they riff on this further in Ep 2).

– Showing Nina and Dex escaping at the same time is a nice touch; neither is a damsel, both are resourceful, etc., and from a practical standpoint, it speeds the narrative along to get Nina to where she needs to go.

– The backseat of Dex’s car is covered not only in unpaid parking tickets, but empty energy drink cans and cassette tapes. Props to the set dressers who also had to set up a bar before-and-while it opened, multiple rooms of Dex’s house, a skeezy motel, a casino backroom, and more.

– My favourite running gag is the number PORTLAND’S BEST ESPRESSO claims:


2 Responses to “Stumptown pilot and the Economy of Storytelling”
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  1. […] recently broke down the Stumptown pilot to examine hyperfunctional formulaic writing. I argue a formula isn’t itself a bad thing; […]

  2. […] Stumptown premiered, I wrote about how its pilot uses what amounts to paint-by-numbers writing to great effect. I want to bookend the season by talking about how the finale still paints-by-numbers while […]

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