E: Amber liquid sloshes in a highball glass. Dark hair slicks back over a forehead. Golden light flickers over speakers, a guitar, a stage. The blues wail. How many music cliches can we get in the first 15 seconds of a show? Quite a few, it seems. During the opening shots of Memphis Beat, the show worked overtime to give us a bluesy Memphis vibe. Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce Jason Lee, on stage for perhaps the first time since Almost Famous.
The scene shifts abruptly from gold to blue as the singer – Detective Dwight Hendricks – strides through a rain-slicked parking lot into a ramshackle minimart. There’s blue slushy slipped on a white floor, splashed next to the blood of the dead cashier. He’s not just a singer, folks; he can also take to task hayseed cop Sutton (DJ Qualls), who’s been tracking slushy all over the store and mistaking it for evidence. And he can locate the murderer, a tiny tattooed dude in a wifebeater hiding inside a cabinet, as if by magic.
To begin with, I wasn’t sure if I liked Dwight Hendricks or Memphis Beat – both of them seemed a little too convicted of their own cleverness – but you know, I think by the end they sold me.
The triumphant detective returns to the precinct to find that the new Captain has thrown away his “boob” lamp. I don’t even want to go into this light-up plastic torso, or the initial silliness of making this man overly sexist just to have him taken down a peg by his new boss, played as a smart, well-spoken, strict mom by Alfre Woodard. She’s all about communication and regulations. He’s all about instinct and the seat of his pants. I was afraid this was all going to get a little precious and quirky (and I did not find the boob lamp charming, let me tell you) so I was happy when they backed off. On paper, this all sounds a bit like a buddy cop show, but it’s not. Is it fresh? I don’t know. The Memphis setting is fresh – and happily, it doesn’t seem oversold. The random bursts of sexism, not fresh at all. The feel of this particular police office? Yeah, it’s pretty nice. A lot of it feels fresh, but that might have less to do with the overall originality of the concept, and more to do with the excellent work of Woodard and Lee. It’s nice to see the Mumford castmates together again.
I know this is a complete non sequitur, but has anyone else noticed the prevalence of black female law enforcement professionals on TV? Coroners, captains… it doesn’t have anything to do with anything except I started thinking about Cam on Bones, Lanie on Castle, Alexx Woods on CSI Miami, Van Buren on Law and Order, Madeleine Hightower on The Mentalist and highly-placed officers like Vivian Johnson on Without a Trace and Lydia Adams on Southland. I’m ain’t complaining; I’m just curious. Maybe there are simply a lot of cop/detective/forensics shows on TV, and the networks are paying just attention to diversity. Maybe it’s easier for the nets to put the women in charge (and behind a desk) rather than out in the field. I just thought it was interesting that Woodard’s role seems to be part of biggest avenue for black female power on TV that I could think of offhand. I wonder if this is real demographics or what? Whatever it is, Woodard is pretty fantastic here.
Dwight is a detective of the Veronica Mars variety, which is to say that he’s smarter than the audience (not to mention the rest of the cast) and sees connections we don’t. He drinks. He swaggers. He loves performing. He has an ex-wife (a “massive personal failure”) and a devoted Mama. He’s more about the gut than the little grey cells, though, which sets him for trouble with by-the-book Lt. Tanya Rice. Woodard’s character is a mom of five, and completely secure in her ability to be in charge. (Or so we believe to begin with, though her personal story looks to get more complicated.) She’s also not afraid to wear pink on the job. The lady has good instincts, too; she sics Hendricks on what seems to be a minor case, but turns out to conceal larger crimes and personal revelations. The inaugural mystery revolves around a seminal radio disc jockey, Dotty Collins, now an Alzheimer’s patient who’s being beaten, perhaps by her junkie home care nurse, the nurse’s junkie boyfriend, or perhaps even by her own son. Our hero feels great kinship with Dotty, who helped him and his mother through the sad time when his police officer dad was killed in the line of duty. Dotty is Memphis, Dwight tells us. She built the radio station that built the city.
We get some pretty delicious moments during the investigation. Rice and Hendricks fight entertainingly, and they both can make some pretty good speeches. Lee might not have the world’s greatest voice, but he uses what he has with conviction. We pass a random parade of Elvis impersonators, and we also get an old blind neighbor who hilariously helps the detectives place the accent of a suspect. That was a nice little bit of word play; I laughed my backside off. It also proved yet another moment in which Dwight listened effectively and made a difference by paying attention. By far my favorite moment, however, came in a scene where Hendricks interviews an 8-year-old neighbor whose tree house gives her a perfect view of Dotty’s house. When Hendricks senses her shyness, and uses her Ken doll to pose his questions to her Barbie, Sparkle (thus breaking open the case) – well, that was the moment I knew I wasn’t wasting my time.
The show is populated by a few other fun character actors – Qualls, yes, and some delightful guest stars, but also Abraham Benrubi (Jerry the beloved desk clerk from ER) , who now sports waist long braids as a uniform cop, and the brilliant Celia Weston as Hendrick’s mom. I could watch this show just for the chance to see her; she’s pure delight. Just hearing her repeat Dotty’s sign off (“till we meet again, Memphis, till we meet again”) wraps viewers up in warm memories. Memphis, too, is a character; it’s holy ground, we’re told. Hendricks and his partner eat wings on a stake-out, which seems hilariously impractical and yet a fun nod to the city. One suspect pleads his innocence by proclaiming “I swear by his name”: I know I should have been thinking of Jesus, but the first thought that came in to my head was “he’s swearing on Elvis?”
In the end, there’s only one question. Is Memphis Beat worth your time? Quite possible so. I won’t claim it isn’t helped by the season. I’ve been parched for some good scripted fare, and Memphis Beat, thanks in large part to the quality of its acting, might be just the tasty tonic I’ve been waiting for. I liked it more than the highly praised (but to my mind annoyingly quirky) Southern law drama Justified. That show wore that whole “we’re Southern, ain’t we craaazy” aesthetics on its sleeve, and that often makes me uncomfortable. This more understated show is a tribute to the gritty city for which it is named. There’s something there worth sinking your teeth into, not saccharine but rich and flavorful. And it’s earned a viewing for the second episode at the very least.