In recent years Hollywood has been quick to praise a succession of dramas with protagonists on the wrong side of the law. On Showtime alone, Dexter is about a serial killer and Weeds celebrates a suburban pot dealer who branches out into smuggling. The title character in Nurse Jackie is a “functioning” junkie, and two other Showtime series are set in the porn business.
In an era of openly “transgressive” anti-heroes, doesn’t anyone in Hollywood realize that a majority of viewers still prefers traditional law enforcement stories where good cops put away bad criminals? Yes, thankfully. Michael Wright, head of programming at TNT, knows drama well enough to ensure that the audience has its empathy respected and its values affirmed. So it has been with the network’s top hit, The Closer, and so it will be with a new series, Memphis Beat, which premieres Tuesday evening.
Wright says that TNT develops “populist” dramas with an “everyman spirit.” Memphis Beat is just that, and Jason Lee (My Name is Earl) as Detective Dwight Hendricks is a heartland character who should have broad appeal. Hendricks is second generation law enforcement and relentless in the pursuit of justice. He lovingly watches out for his mother and cares deeply for the city he protects. He lets off steam by singing in a blues club, but can be a perfect Southern gentleman when the situation requires it. That includes explaining his loose methods to a tough new boss played by the always formidable four-time Emmy winner (and fifteen-time(!) nominee) Alfre Woodard.
The pilot story is elegantly simple and compelling, a case of elder abuse against a beloved but forsaken local radio legend. Along the way there is a homicide and a surprise twist, but Memphis Beat spares us the forensics, the ballistics, and the confusing complications which have come to overcome the stories in so many contemporary procedurals. Co-creators Liz W. Garcia and Joshua Harto stick to basics: witness interviews, exceptionally strong defense of the victim, and a hero willing to follow his instincts even at the expense of his own career.
The best police dramas not only exalt the crucial role of those who protect and defend, they also explore deeper human questions about the human condition. Recently this quest for deeper meaning has too often fixated on the psychopathology of serial offenders and the grisly horrors they inflict. Not so in Memphis Beat. The smart, economical final interrogation scene says more by saying just enough about the criminal’s motivation. The theme being weighed, motherhood, is explored through the prism of crime but also via other more positive refractions. It’s courageous of the writers to take on such a true-blue theme in the pilot, and I hope they will continue to explore future themes with equally powerful contrasts of both wrongful and righteous behavior.
Memphis Beat comes from the production shop run by actors George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Co-creator Joshua Harto is also an actor, and the pilot was directed by actor Clark Johnson (formerly of The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street.) TNT’s Wright is himself a former thespian. This high concentration of stage talent behind the scenes is likely to result in a character-driven drama, a welcome respite from the many series driven by their digital effects.
Backing up Lee and Woodard is a fine supporting cast, including DJ Qualls as Davey Sutton, a quirky, earnest, but clumsy fellow who adds welcome lighter moments. Strong support is also offered by Memphis itself. Memphis Beat is suffused with the city’s music. The slower Southern pacing of the dialogue and storytelling will differentiate this program from typical TV police dramas. Touches of authentic regional flavor will be crucial to the show’s chance for success. What the audience doesn’t want is yet another mournful tale of woe about a city overwhelmed by one of the nation’s highest crime rates.
Tone is a challenging creative problem for drama producers these days. Musical scores can polarize audiences as much as invite them. Network and studio executives have known this for a long time, and during the 1990s the best drama franchises kept the music down, and the audiences wide.
In the last decade, however, there was a sharp departure. Assertive young-skewing music (often rock, rarely country) now punctuates many a broadcast drama, telling viewers exactly what to feel and in some cases what to think at the end of the episode. Gross, shocking imagery also took hold, along with the usual steady slide into more permissive explorations of sex and profanity. The Sopranos was interpreted by some in Hollywood as signaling that the audience had switched sides and was in a mood for graphic violence and criminal psychopaths. “Woke Up This Morning … Got Yourself a Gun” set the tone.
A few shows have fought the tonal tide. TNT’s The Closer uses a gentle, jazzy score, and further demonstrates its broad populism by keeping a handful of boomer and older actors in the regular cast, something rarely seen on networks targeting the young, urban, and hip. Memphis Beat takes TNT’s populism a step further by heading straight for the center of the heartland, the Mississippi Delta.
Memphis Beat balances traditional values with the rebellious attitude of its independence-minded hero. The plot is a mystery, but it’s not a “cozy.” Older characters are included and treated with respect, but there’s a youthful energy to the show, underscored by the program’s signature electric Delta blues. Co-creator Joshua Harto grew up in the South, and identifies Memphis with musical strains including Elvis and Aretha, Johnny Cash and Isaac Hayes. That’s a solid canon to shape a show’s tone around.
One of the trickiest tonal achievements to maintain will be the pilot’s post-racial sense of community. Hendricks’ relationship with his boss seems to be complicated more about gender and age than race. He navigates relationships with all ages and classes of black witnesses smoothly. An interracial relationship between a victim and a key suspect is just business as usual. Race-neutrality may not be a realistic depiction of everyday police work in the city where Dr. King was killed, but television is also about wish fulfillment.
For decades television’s police dramas have struggled with the baggage of race. If you accurately represent the percentage of black crime, you create unfavorable stereotypes and visit a world which middle-class viewers resist watching. If you make all criminals white, you get credibility issues and familiar clichés: countless murderous executives, crazed war veterans, neo-Nazis behind every bomb plot, frustrated citizens embracing guns and religion. (See also: Law & Order.) By now, viewers understand the problem. I believe that most will give a police drama the benefit of the doubt as long as it steers a middle path and endorses morality without moralizing.
On the front page of its website, the Memphis Police Department offers a racial breakdown of its officers. Among females, black officers outnumber white by more than three to one. So it is not unrealistic that on Memphis Beat Detective Hendricks reports to Lt. Tanya Rice (Alfre Woodard.) Having an actress of Ms. Woodard’s talent and stature in the role guarantees that Lt. Rice will be complex and fascinating every minute she is on screen. When a character is as fully dimensioned as Ms. Woodard’s tend to be, race becomes secondary to a more widely identifiable humanity anyway. So in this key relationship, Memphis Beat will probably be able to transcend racial boundaries, so long as it continues to be written up to Ms. Woodard’s customary standard of performance.
It used to be that summer was television’s off-season, but that has changed. The fall premieres of the broadcast networks offer occasional treats (like last season’s Modern Family and The Good Wife and hopefully this season’s Blue Bloods starring Tom Selleck), but most won’t surpass their hype. Meanwhile, the niche cable networks are now prosperous enough to offer substantial alternatives to summer reruns and second-tier reality shows. (My personal favorite, by the way, is Mad Men, returning July 25 on AMC, and picking up where the series left off last year — with the heroes launching their own business venture!)
Memphis Beat premieres tonight 10PM on TNT. Also on TNT, season six of The Closer launches on Monday, July 12, the same night the network debuts Rizzoli and Isles, based on a series of mystery novels by Tess Gerritsen. Angie Harmon, fondly remembered as Law & Order’s toughest prosecutor, Abbie Carmichael, stars as Detective Jane Rizzoli. Sasha Alexander plays medical examiner Maura Isles, and Lorraine Bracco portrays Harmon’s mother.
That adds up to three summer originals where the cops are the good guys. And that speaks volumes about the difference between TNT and Showtime.