LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Television needs another cop show about as much as the Gulf of Mexico needs more oil, but in both cases, no one has been able to stanch the flow.
Even as the cop genre seems beyond saturation, along comes TNT’s “Memphis Beat,” a series with a fresh character in a fresh environment with a fresh look and sound that proves, against all odds, that good actors and agile execution trump format every time. The show premieres Tuesday.
Jason Lee, in a role as different from Earl Hickey as Gomer Pyle is from Andy Sipowicz, stars as Detective Dwight Hendricks of the Memphis Police Department. He’s a good ol’ boy in the best sense of the word, steeped in Memphis lore and at ease with the traditional ways of the region. One might compare him to Timothy Olyphant’s lawman, Kentucky native Raylan Givens in FX’s “Justified,” except that Dwight loves his hometown and would never try to break free of it.
He has a partner, Charlie “Whitehead” White (Sam Hennings), who, in the premiere, is mostly along for the ride. So, too, are the other detectives, whose personalities might be fleshed out in subsequent episodes. These include overeager officer Davey Sutton (DJ Qualls), financially struggling Detective Reginald Greenback (Leonard Earl Howze) and Sgt. JC Lightfoot (Abraham Benrubi), a self-described Choctaw based on a single great, great-parent.
Actually, the only character besides Dwight with meaty lines in the premiere is his by-the-book boss, Lt. Tanya Rice (Alfre Woodard), newly transferred to the inner-city precinct from the uptight ‘burbs. Their predictably antagonistic relationship turns into one with more nuance by opener’s end.
Liz W. Garcia and Joshua Harto created the series, but it was the casting of Lee in the lead that sets it apart. He quickly and gracefully inhabits the character and makes him instantly likable, rough edges and all. There is an earnestness about him — maybe it’s his desire to help people even more than to solve cases — that makes him a breed apart.
The premiere also benefits from the directorial savvy of former “Homicide” actor Clark Johnson, whose use of mood lighting and eye for detail is as apparent here as it was in “The Shield.”
In the opener, Dwight takes up the case and the cause of an Alzheimer’s patient, who, it turns out, once was a cultural icon in the city. The case has a few interesting twists, but its best feature is that it gives Dwight a chance to show his knowledge of and appreciation for the city’s musical heritage. It’s possible to overplay the Native Son angle — giving a rooftop lecture to a perp might be taking it too far — but it helps that “Memphis” carves out a unique niche in a crowded field. So, too, does the soundtrack, incorporating the music of Elvis, Booker T and the MGs as well as other Memphis legends. Here’s hoping the budget line for rights fees continues to be as generous for subsequent episodes.