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Jam-Packed With Air: 'Memphis Beat'

TNT's Memphis Beat blends local color and cop drama, but can it bring these two elements together for something we haven't seen before?

Memphis Beat

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm
Cast: Jason Lee, Alfre Woodard, Sam Hennings, DJ Qualls
Subtitle: Season 1

According to its slogan, TNT knows drama, and in the summer it does viewers a tremendous favor by producing new, original one-hour dramas. TNT’s dramas tend to cover known ground: crime procedurals, medical dramas, and tales of redemption. As an added bonus, these shows star relatively famous people – Kyra Sedgwick, Holly Hunter, Jada Pinkett Smith, Timothy Hutton – as captivating, specially skilled protagonists. Production values are relatively high, the acting is OK, and the stories are average, if generally unremarkable.

The newest addition to this family of dramas is Memphis Beat, a crime procedural that co-stars Jason Lee and the city of Memphis.Results, as they say, are varied.

There is potential here. While it’s certainly odd for anyone raised on Kevin Smith movies or My Name is Earl fans to see Jason Lee play a cop, he really is trying to bring Detective Dwight Hendricks to life. The problem is, neither Lee nor the audience seem to know who Hendricks is. Nor does anyone really seem to know what this show is or what it wants to be. This problem, which runs throughout Memphis Beat and works its way down into its core, is the key factor holding the show back from being good. When viewers don’t know why they should care, they generally don’t.

In his review of Memphis Beat (“‘Memphis Beat’: Sense of Place”) for PopMatters, Michael Landweber discusses the ways in which the show attempts to make Memphis a non-speaking character in the style of The Wire’s Baltimore. Landweber notes that on Memphis Beat, attempts to do this generally fail. Rather than setting itself apart, the gestures made towards establishing Memphis as a setting make it hard to understand how this particular city differs from anywhere else in the American South. Exceptions, of course, are made for Elvis.

The problem Landweber cites about the setting extends to Memphis Beat as a whole. While it’s still very early in the series, the initial episodes are beginning to crack as the show tries, but ultimately fails, to give us anything new in terms of character and genre. This is unfortunate, because Memphis Beat is trying very, very hard.

This problem starts with characterization, partly because the marketing of the show promised us an interesting new protagonist and because the show is largely a character vehicle. When we encounter Dwight Hendricks, we’re supposed to understand that he’s different: he’s a good cop who gets “feelings” about cases that those around him have come to trust; he’s divorced but not bitter; he’s a mama’s boy without all the Oedipus; in the evenings he’s a celebrated Elvis impersonator; and he has an overdeveloped sense of justice that leads to an obsessive need to solve the cases he latches onto, chain of evidence and rules be damned.

On top of all this, he’s surrounded by a supporting cast of cops and detectives who have been given character devices that the audience is supposed to understand makes them quirky and Southern: the partner who keeps Hendricks on the straight and narrow and has an interest in community theater; the well-meaning Barney Fife-in-training; the soft-spoken, very large uniform cop with braids who can be sweet talked; the overweight African-American man; and the African-American female boss who appears to want to run her General Assignment unit like her family, which appears to be less perfect than she’s letting on.

Here’s the problem with all of this: while we think we know so much about Dwight Hendricks and the people around him, we actually know nothing about any of them. After two episodes, we actually have no idea where, exactly, Hendricks lives. We catch small details about his life and personality through conversations that start way too far in medias res for even the most attentive of viewers. Most importantly, it's still unclear what makes Hendricks good at his job or worthy of his status as the viewers’ hero.

The problem with understanding why Hendricks should be our hero hits at another central issue with the show: it's trying to be too much and nothing all at the same time. Memphis Beat is a cop show, which means it must immerse itself in an interesting case each week. It's also a show about its setting, meaning it must give us glimpses of action that make it clear that the things happening on the screen can only happen in Memphis. It’s also a character show with some humor, and there are efforts at every turn to incorporate personal local color, quirkiness, and interpersonal relationships. The result is a juggling act that works in individual scenes but cannot sustain the arc of an episode.

The reason why these things don’t work well together lies in way the show is currently plotted and paced. There is too much to cram into an episode, and so the quirk seems gimmicky and the crime of the week is uninteresting. The decision to spell out some details while forcing viewers to make inferences about others leads to an imbalance of information.For example: In the pilot, Dwight’s connection to the local radio DJ he is seeking justice for is spelled out in almost painful detail.

In contrast, Dwight’s relationship to his ex-wife, which seems like it might be important, has to be cobbled together through the clever use of one’s DVR. While the characters insist that it’s so, there’s nothing at stake here and the scenes read as a series of loosely connected vignettes. The threads of plot are lost easily and it’s possible to wonder why, or how, we should care about the characters, Memphis, or finding justice.

For reasons I can’t quite explain, I’d like to see this show work. Maybe it’s because if it fails, there’s a lot of wasted potential. Or maybe it’s because I can see what isn’t working and I know that it’s fixable.

The answer is simple: slow down, Hendricks. Tell us who you are by adding more subtlety and fewer Elvis-impersonating, old car-driving gimmicks. Tell us why you care about Memphis so much, but not through stated claims about what matters and why. Let us see you in Memphis, being an active part of the landscape. Show us who matters to you, what’s at stake personally and professionally. Maybe, just maybe, then I won’t mind so much that the person doing the vocals at the end of the episode doesn’t sound at all like Jason Lee.

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