I’ve long been a fan of Jason Lee, and not just because he’s the source of my favorite quote about my magazine (calling Paste “so deliciously sweet, I often put it on my waffles in the morning instead of syrup.”). He was a Kevin Smith regular before his breakthrough role in Almost Famous. He was completely original in the underrated My Name is Earl. He was even the bad guy in The Incredibles, the best Pixar film of all time. Tonight, he’s got a new drama on TNT called Memphis Beat.
It looked good on paper. Memphis has indeed “been largely forgotten in film and TV today,” as co-creator Joshua Harto says. It’s one of the most important Southern towns for music and one of the most unique. Harto is a Southerner, and though Lee is a California boy, he’s already proven himself capable of conveying the South. The cast, which includes the gifted Alfre Woodard and Celia Weston, who was brilliant in Junebug, is cause for no complaints. And the producers enlisted Keb’ Mo’ for much of the music.
The problem is, it’s a cop procedural, and the only thing separating it from 99 other dull cop procedurals on TV right now is its locale. There have been great cop shows recently—The Wire and The Shield jump to mind—but few of them could be neatly wrapped up in a one-hour bow. Instead of creating seasonal arcs that leave you wondering week-to-week where they’re headed, they serve as mildly entertaining ways to kill a Tuesday night. They’re immensely popular or they wouldn’t once again be dominating every new network line-up, but I just don’t get it.
But if a police procedural is you cup of coffee and a doughnut, Memphis Beat does little to distinguish itself the crowd. Lee is likable as always, but his character—the offbeat Det. Dwight Hendricks whose hunches are to be trusted, even if his approach is a little unorthodox—is as stock a bowl of chicken broth. Woodard’s Tanya Rice is the new lieutenant who likes things done in an orderly fashion, but that tension seems to barely last the course of the pilot, so charming is Hendricks, who spends his evenings singing in an Elvis Presley cover band.
Even Memphis seems a shadow of its neighbor to the South, New Orleans, the star of David Simon’s latest masterpiece Treme. Hendricks loves his city, but his appreciation pales in comparison to the zealous devotion of Treme’s inhabitants, and other than some lovely background from Mo’, its all Elvis, all the time.
Solid, but far from spectacular. If that’s your standard for a Tuesday night, you could do much worse. But Memphis deserves much better.