How did this happen? How did the creative team behind the new cop drama “Memphis Beat” (which premieres tonight at 10 on TNT) take so many elements that seemed promising and unique and turned it into such a blandly familiar series?
Among the things “Memphis Beat” has in its favor, on paper: It stars Jason Lee, one of TV’s more unconventional leading men, with or without the “My Name Is Earl” mustache. It takes place in Memphis, which is not only one of America’s great musical cities, but an atypical locale for a TV drama, about cops or otherwise. Its pilot was directed by Clark Johnson, who was behind the camera for the debuts of two of the all-time great, distinctive crime dramas in “The Shield” and “The Wire.” Its supporting cast features multiple Emmy winner Alfre Woodard. And, oh yeah, Lee plays a cop by day, Elvis impersonator by night.
Even if those ingredients didn’t combine for a cop classic ala “The Wire” or “The Shield” – heck, even if “Memphis Beat” wasn’t any good at all – they should have at least led to something unusual and memorable in some way. Instead, it’s an uninspired, assembly-line police show – one that had me forgetting about its existence even as I was still watching the pilot episode.
Lee plays Dwight Hendricks, general assignment detective in the Memphis PD and a devout believer in the power of Elvis. As he explains at one point in the pilot, he first heard an Elvis song the night his cop dad was killed in the line of duty, and “It was like he was saying everything I was feeling, just with the sound of his voice.” So Dwight works cases in the daytime, and at night he works out his personal demons (he’s recently divorced) by getting up on stage to sing like him. (It’s unclear whether Lee is doing the singing or not; the pilot’s first Elvis tune sounds like it could be, while the second sounds nothing like him.)
Like Dwight, “Memphis Beat” as a whole has Elvis on the brain. The first case involves an abused old woman who was once a powerful Memphis DJ who rose to fame playing Presley’s greatest hits, and practically every other scene features at least one Elvis impersonator in the background.
And that’s fine, to a point. Memphis loves it some Elvis, and of course a show with this premise would want to load up on as many references to The King as possible in the early going. The problem is that the Elvis stuff, as used here, feels less like local color than like a crutch – as if creators Liz W. Garcia and Joshua Harto wanted badly to illustrate what makes Memphis special, but the only thing they could think of was to fill the edge of the frame with guys in jumpsuits and thick sideburns.
Take the Elvis references away, and “Memphis Beat” could take place in any city, with any kind of cases. Dwight is yet another cop living on the edge and playing by his own rules, yet only kinda-sorta, because for some reason the Jason Lee who was so vivid as a movie actor (see his angry work in “Chasing Amy” or “Almost Famous”) has become distressingly boring and genial the longer he’s been on television. (“My Name Is Earl” certainly had its moments, but more often than not, Lee was asked to play the slightly-dim straight man to the more-outsized supporting characters.) I heard about his casting on “Memphis Beat” and hoped he would crackle with the same energy he brought to his movie roles, but he’s sleepwalking through the part.
Woodard is saddled with the requisite Disapproving Black Police Lieutenant role, which of course means that she has to accuse Dwight of being out-of-control, and of course to get into lame arguments about how they don’t do the job the same way. Of course, Dwight being out-of-control seems to mean that he spends all day doing unauthorized surveillance in a little girl’s treehouse, and in terms of their radically-different police philosophies, her way involves forms and routine check-ins; his seems to be defined by the naked lady lamp he keeps in the squadroom.
This show should not be this tedious. Unfortunately, it is.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org