Memphis Beat is missing something. The latest nighttime drama from TNT premieres tonight at 10 PM (ET). It’s yet another cop procedural show, this one set in Memphis, TN, a city whose soul stew is so thick, you need a canoe paddle to stir it. Memphis Beat has a great cast that includes the amiable Jason Lee (Mumford) and the always wonderful Alfre Woodard (Passion Fish). In addition, the executive producers are a couple of smart guys, George Clooney and Grant Heslov (Good Night, Good Luck) and one of the most in demand television directors (Clark Johnson, The Wire), is at the helm. The show has some potential, yet based on the pilot episode there is some work to do.
Lee stars as Memphis Police detective, Dwight Hendricks, a quirky, “I do my own thing to get the job done” detective who is quickly at odds with his new commander, Lt. Rice, played by Woodard. He likes the way things used to be run. She has crazy “new” ideas like turning in stat sheets, reporting to her about cases, and removing the stripper lamp in the squad room that some of the female detectives may find offensive.
To assert her authority, Rice assigns Hendricks and his partner, Charlie White (Sam Hennings), to look into the unidentified older woman sitting in the lobby; she was found wandering with a glassy look in her eyes. The poor old woman doesn’t speak, apparently suffering from dementia. Rice wants her best detectives on the case to figure out who she is and where she belongs. Hendricks is annoyed that he’s been given the menial task when he should be out tracking down killers and bad guys.
He quickly learns that the woman is a former 1950’s DJ, a Memphis legend that helped shape the city and break more artists than you can list. Hendricks, who also sings in a blues band when he isn’t cracking down on Memphis scum, suddenly takes an interest in the woman, especially after it’s revealed that her back is covered with scars and bruises. The remainder of the episode entails Hendricks leading the troops, often against Rice’s orders, to get to the bottom of the case. He also has time to check in with his mother, explain his motivation for being a cop and resolve his issues with Lt. Rice.
After a half hour of set up, the final thirty minutes is rushed. As the episode progressed, I realized that this hour of television felt truncated. Memphis Beat was missing something, Complete scenes seem to have been chopped up and shoved into montages that barely convey the emotions needed to resolve some of the subplots. It also feels like Lee is not completely engaged with his character. I never really felt that he was a committed cop or that he was the genius detective we’re supposed to believe he is. Perhaps this flaw will be corrected over the course of the season. As it stands now, Memphis Beat has some work to do if it wants to stick around with The Closer and Leverage, similarly toned shows that are huge hits for TNT.