For too long Jason Lee was stuck playing the hapless wannabe do-gooder Earl Hickey on My Name is Earl. Although that show's final season was certainly funnier than the one which preceded it, it did feel as though almost all of Earl's tale had been told and that while it might continue to be funny, there was probably little growth left for the characters. Lee, who was funny on the show, was no longer stretching himself, no longer showing the audience he could do more than be a semi-bumbling quasi-fool.
It is for that reason if no other that Memphis Beat is worth sampling. TNT's new cop dramedy stars Lee as Dwight Hendricks, a Memphis police detective by day and Elvis impersonator by night (but not a jumpsuited one). That sentence may actually make the show sound somewhat more lighthearted than the pilot actually is – Hendricks is serious about his vocation, avocation, and love of Memphis, and the show treats his serious feelings, well, seriously. In fact, if it weren't for the incredible oddness of the idea (and a lamp that is shaped like a woman's upper body where the breasts provide the light), Memphis Beat could be one dark show.
Created by Liz W. Garcia (Cold Case) and Joshua Harto (The Dark Knight), the series is also executive produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov among others. It is a show with a good pedigree and a good cast but it is certainly not without a few drawbacks. For instance, acting opposite Lee is Alfre Woodard as the new boss in town, Lt. Tanya Rice. It is great to see Woodard on television yet again, but her character instantly butts heads with Hendricks as he, though serious about his job, is set in his unorthodox ways and she is a by-the-book lieutenant. Surely someone working on this show could have come up with something a little bit less well-worn than that particular trope. New lieutenant and old detective not seeing quite eye-to-eye but learning to respect each other despite their differences sounds like a first stab at concocting a dynamic between two characters, not a finished idea.
The series also stars Sam Hennings as Charlie White, Hendricks' partner, Celia Weston as Hendricks' mother, and Leonard Earl Howze as another of the detectives on the squad, as well as DJ Qualls as Davey Sutton, the goofy uniform cop who wants to follow in Hendricks' footsteps. Yes, that last character sounds like another stock one. There is also Abraham Benrubi as Sgt. JC Lightfoot, "an officer who uses Chicasaw tribal wisdom in his police work." Okay, that one is not exactly a stock character, but it does have that odd only-on-TV sound to it.
The first case that Hendricks encounters on the series is that of an abused elderly lady who turns out to be a famous Memphis DJ. As tied in as Hendricks is to Memphis, music, and mothers, the case hits him hard and while we are given the impression that he always tries his best he seems to go above and beyond for this one. Considering the fact that there was a lot of character introduction that had to happen in the first episode, the case is relatively constructed. There is, without a doubt, a flaw in the logic here and there in the case, but nothing overly unforgivable.
Although I hate saying as much, Memphis Beat is one of those shows you can't quite tell about from its pilot episode. The case Hendricks solves in the first episode is interesting and certainly well tied in to the city of Memphis, and the characters could prove interesting. However, there are definitely a lot of potential pitfalls in which the series could find itself. One would hope that the characters, which appear none too differentiated from your average TV characters, and the relationship between Hendricks and Rice, which appears none too differentiated from your average cop-lieutenant relationship, will get fleshed out in interesting ways and prove themselves in some way different and/or better than usual. But, that might not happen. The cases could remain interesting and Hendricks' methodology quirky enough to keep viewers coming back, but it could all end up veering into the generic.
In its first episode, Memphis Beat seems like a young singer, poised on the brink of greatness. With the right song, right attitude, and right setup, it could be something truly special. It could also make a few bad missteps and fizzle out completely, becoming a never was. Hopefully the show will find the right beat.
Memphis Beat premieres on TNT June 22 at 10pm.