Memphis Beat Hits the Right Note

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.