Dwight Hendricks (Jason Lee) is a police detective who loves his music, his momma (Celia Weston), and his hometown, Memphis. He’s got a hardened partner, Charlie White (Sam Hennings), a skeptical boss, Lt. Tanya Rice (Alfre Woodard), and an inept but eager protégé, Davey Sutton (DJ Qualls). With all these plot points in place, Memphis Beat looks like yet another case-of-the-week cop show.
But Memphis Beat seems to want to be something more. Hendricks is not just a cop, but the protector of the city, believing in Memphis when nobody else does. Unfortunately, the show tries too hard to make Hendricks both quirky and righteous. Most characters set up for this combination come off as either insane or pedantic. Hendricks falls into the latter category, and by the end of the pilot episode, his speeches about the “importance” of Memphis have become tiresome.
Part of the problem is that in order to understand why Memphis matters so much (to Hendricks or anyone else), viewers need to get a sense of place from what’s on screen. The Wire is the obvious gold standard for this concept. But even if Memphis Beat has a similar inclination, its first episode goes for superficial cues instead of specific depths. A lobby full of Elvis impersonators is always amusing, but more likely to evoke Las Vegas than Memphis. An elderly, blind African-American on a porch is not the same as invoking the blues. And a discussion of barbeque is not going to steep the viewer in local culture.
These cursory signs, like Hendricks’ character, frequently set the quirky and the serious in competition, to the detriment of both. The show opens at the scene of a convenience store robbery. Hendricks banters enjoyably with Sutton about “messing up” the crime scene, then proceeds to find the thief by observing clues missed by everyone else. Here he comes off as an amiably offbeat rule-breaker, and Lee and Qualls share an easy sort of “chemistry.” But in order to sell Hendricks as the city’s hero, as opposed to being just a cop who works in Memphis, the episode awkwardly shifts tone and focus. The first mystery involves an abused old woman, who was a disk jockey during the birth of rock and roll. Get it? She literally embodies the soul of Memphis. Now she’s alone and silenced. And of course, Hendricks is the only one who can save her.
Hendricks’ heroism also gets in the way of his relationship with Rice. The stereotypical precinct chief who doesn’t understand her best cop’s methods, Rice is repeatedly duped by Hendricks, who pretends to go along with what she says, knowing that she’ll be on his side soon enough. But, not only does Rice seem in the right more often than Hendricks, but she also has a compelling backstory (about an estranged daughter). Given that she’s also played convincingly by Woodard, Rice is looking like the only interesting character in Memphis Beat. Hendricks needs a couple more dimensions to have a fighting chance in his scenes with her.
The first episode closes on Hendricks singing with his band. Lee is passable as an Elvis wannabe front-man, probably even better if he played the role with a knowing wink instead of an earnest scowl. The bar is set reasonably low for police procedurals and there is no reason to think that Memphis Beat can’t clear it eventually. However, to “save” Memphis, maybe what the show needs is to let loose and have a little bit of fun.