Judging TNT’s new cop drama Memphis Beat is less a critical question than a philosophical one. In brief, the series, starring Jason Lee, is mostly a standard-issue summertime basic cable cop procedural, somewhat distinguished by less frantic pacing, a touch more attention to character beats, and a smidgen of local color. So the question is: do you give the show credit for slightly changing up the formula it works with, or do you mark it down for doing far less with the setting and cast than it could have?
You can probably guess from how I phrased that where I come down. I don’t believe in grading TV on a curve, because I don’t watch TV on a curve. So while I like how Lee’s laid-back style translates to a police drama, there’s not enough here to separate the show from the umpteen other slightly-quirky-guy-solves-crimes cable dramas.
The first sign of trouble: Elvis. I’m not saying this to slight the King, but when you set a show in Memphis and rely for most of your early cultural and musical references on the one artist that 99% of your audience will think of when thinking of your city—here, Elvis songs, Elvis covers, Elvis impersonators—it’s not a good sign of your show’s imagination. Unlike regional dramas Treme, or Justified, or Friday Night Lights, this is not a show that’s trying to get inside its city and make us see it with new eyes; it’s just committed to delivering What We Think About When We Think About Memphis.
Here, we’re introduced to Memphis detective Dwight (Lee) onstage in a bar, performing, of course, an Elvis cover. As we follow him to work, we find that he’s got the same encumbrances as most TV cops, especially a tough new boss (Alfre Woodard) who, of course, is making the old boys in the department uncomfortable by implementing a new set of rules. The first case he picks up ties into Memphis’ music heritage by involving an elderly woman who was an early figure in the local music scene, allowing for a further connection to the city’s culture. Of course, that means more Elvis references. (The title of the episode? “That’s Alright, Mama.”)
One possible problem is that the show was largely shot not in Memphis but outside New Orleans, giving the locations a more generic Southernness rather than the documentary-like feel of a show like Treme. And it’s a shame, because one thing Memphis Beat does have is a good cast, including, in a supporting cop role, DJ Qualls—whose appearance, however, only recalls the much more vital and distinctive Memphis of the movie “Hustle and Flow.”
It’s too bad. Memphis Beat had at its disposal the rich culture of a city that hasn’t been portrayed to death on TV. But this show needs to find its soul.