[05/10/10 - 01:03 PM]
The Futon's First Look: "Memphis Beat" (TNT)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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(Tuesdays at 10:00/9:00c starting June 22)

The network's description: "There's a new sound coming to TNT this summer. It's the bluesy, guitar-laced sound of MEMPHIS BEAT, TNT's soulful original series about a Memphis police detective starring Jason Lee (My Name Is Earl) and Alfre Woodard (Three Rivers) and co-starring DJ Qualls (Hustle & Flow). The drama series is produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov's Smokehouse Pictures and Warner Horizon Television and is slated to premiere Tuesday, June 22, at 10 p.m. (ET/PT). The show centers on Dwight Hendricks (Lee), a quirky Memphis police detective with an intimate connection to the city, a passion for blues music and a close relationship with his mother. He is "the keeper of Memphis," a Southern gentleman who is protective of his fellow citizens, reverential of the city's history and deeply rooted in its blues music scene. Despite his impeccable instincts as a detective, Dwight's loose, relaxed style of police work rubs his demanding new boss, Lt. Tanya Rice (Woodard), the wrong way. But Dwight may eventually win her over to a Memphis state of mind, especially when he takes the stage at his favorite hangout to perform a legendary song or two."

What did they leave out? The scenes involving Charlene Hendricks, Dwight's ex-wife, have been dropped from the original pilot as the actress (Robyn Lively) is being replaced by Sunny Mabrey. She'll presumably be introduced in a later episode.

The plot in a nutshell: Detective Dwight Hendricks (Jason Lee) loves his city. To him, every crime is a threat to its well-being as well as an attack on himself and his worldview. Such is the case when an elderly woman - Dottie Collins, a one-time DJ at the now defunct WHER - arrives at the police station in a near catatonic state. It seems Dottie's been held captive in her own home - handcuffed to her bed and left to rot in her own filth - as her nurse simply cashed her Medicare checks without buying the meds. Aiding Dwight in his quest for justice is his seasoned partner Charlie "Whitehead" White (Sam Hennings). Conversely standing in his way is the station's new lieutenant Tanya Rice (Alfre Woodard). She's not a fan of detectives who don't check in every couple hours, pass low-level cases onto the uniforms and keep offensive lamps on their desk (don't ask), no matter how good they are.

Dwight however isn't going to let that stop him. And thus begins the usual leap down the procedural rabbit hole where we discover all is not as it seems about the case. In between the action we get a few glimpses into Dwight's home life - he's a slightly bitter divorcee, overprotective of his mother (Celia Weston) and his father died in the line of duty when he was a child - as well as a few hellos from the rest of the station's personnel - Sutton (DJ Qualls), a well-meaning but hapless uniform cop; and Greenback (Leonard Earl Howze) and Lightfoot (Abraham Benrubi), who are... just kind of there. Ultimately, Dwight finds those responsible for Dottie's abuse but not without the cost of more sleepless, overworked nights. Thankfully, Dwight has a form of release - the Memphis stage.

What works: After four seasons as the mustachioed Earl Hickey, it's easy to forget what a fine dramatic actor Jason Lee is. "Memphis Beat" quickly rests the show on Lee's shoulders and he more than delivers as Dwight Hendricks. And while "Beat" is by no means revolutionary or particularly ambitious, Lee keeps things interesting in a surprisingly restrained fashion. The early loglines for the show - cop by day, Elvis impersonator by night - would have you believe this is some kind of honky tonk justice series when in truth it's much more subtle (and he's actually not an Elvis impersonator, just a blues singer).

The best analogy would be "CSI's" Gil Grissom and his roller coasters - Dwight's performances are that kind of release after spending the day in the dark world of policework. It's also an indicator of some interesting things underneath the surface of Dwight, whether it be his blind hero worship of his father or his Herculean efforts to preserve Memphis in the way his nine-year-old self saw it before his father died. As I said, at the very least Lee should keep things interesting.

What doesn't: Beyond Lee it's relatively slim pickings - if only because everyone else is given little to do. Woodard's Rice is the Lieutenant-In-Every-Cop Show albeit from a more pragmatic viewpoint while Howze, Benrubi and Hennings essentially disappear into the background as relatively non-descript officers. (Some critic shorthand: if you can't remember the name of a character without having to look it up, they probably aren't that interesting.) From a procedural standpoint, "Beat" doesn't reinvent the wheel - the aforementioned case doesn't really stand out while Dwight's dogged attachment to clearing it is pretty old hat. In other words it's very much in the TNT crime drama wheelhouse - serviceable policework combined with a few flashes of character development. All in all, I can't say I'd be running to the show every week, but...

The bottom line: ...from a summer standpoint it just might be worth your time.

  [may 2010]  


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