(Publisher’s Note: Because an occasional contributor to this site, Angelina Burnett, is a staff writer on “Memphis Beat,” I won’t pretend I can be completely unbiased in reviewing the show. I’ll try, though. If you’re so inclined, take this review with a grain of salt.)
“Memphis Beat” is the latest in the TNT original programming formula: Take a very recognizable actor, usually someone on the career decline, and build a slickly generic show around them. Bonus points for (bad) Southern accents. The results, so far, have been mostly watchable, time-killing summer viewing, the best of which is probably “Leverage,” with “Dark Blue” close behind.
“Memphis Beat” is similar in execution — Jason Lee fills the recognizable actor role — but instead of that trademark over-serious, over-dramatic plodding TNT tone, there’s some breezy airiness to “Beat,” which pushes it closer to USA Network fare — for the better, I’d say. Lee stars as Dwight Hendricks, a genial Memphis detective, who fills the maverick-with-a-hunch side of the equation to every standard cop show ever invented, while Alfre Woodard is the new-in-town by-the-books lieutenant. She’s the motherly type, and he’s the precocious teenager with a badge (the “twist” advertised in the promos seems to be that Hendricks is also a bar singer with a fondness for Elvis; he is not, however, an Elvis impersonator). Abraham Benrubi (Kubiac!) and DJ Qualls (Christopher Mintz-Plasse in ten years) are the likable but typically Southern and dim uniformed officers (they’re given very little screen time in the pilot), while Sam Hennings plays the supportive partner.
There’s nothing particularly original or inventive about the premise; it’s summer cable programming, after all. And the opening episode, which presents the case of an elderly woman — formerly a famous Memphis DJ — who is the victim of some fairly brutal beatings, doesn’t offer much in the way of a compelling mystery to solve, either.
But the show’s got good rhythm, and by the end of the episode, some pretty decent chemistry between Lee and Woodard. As with any show of this nature, it’s mostly about the characters, and Lee is as likable as ever, which always makes it difficult to properly hold Alvin the Chipmunks against him, and if you’re either a Kevin Smith or Almost Famous fan, it’s goddamn impossible to hide one’s affection for him (it’s why I stuck with “My Name Is Earl” until the end). The pilot ep also makes good use of music, too, and given the Memphis setting, I’d expect more of that to go along with the steamy, down-home setting. And if the relationship between Mamma’s boy Hendricks and his mother (played by Celia Weston) is any indication, there’s even the possibility of some throat-lumpiness in future episodes.
The city of Memphis is ripe for a police procedural — it’s a violent town, though I’m not sure that the tone of the show will make use of the more seedy, gangland crimes in the city. Nevertheless, given the stuffy nature of the other TNT procedurals, and the steady decline of the USA Network offerings (“Burn Notice” is a sad shell of its former self), “Memphis Beat” represents the best, off-premium network original programming of the summer, at least until “Mad Men” comes along. It’s a generic show, but it’s likeably generic, and once it settles in tonally, it could effectively provide a lot of hours of time-killing light entertainment over the next three months.