Thursday, June 24, 2010

New TV show 'Memphis Beat' puts Bluff City in spotlight

By John Beifuss
The Memphis Commercial Appeal
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Y'all are here because you care about Memphis, am I right?" detective Dwight Hendricks (Jason Lee) asks a group of police officers in the first episode of the new TNT crime series, "Memphis Beat."

Dwight -- whose home is decorated with Elvis memorabilia -- moonlights as a musician, performing "Heartbreak Hotel" at the start of the premiere episode and a later Presley tune, "If I Can Dream," at the end. He describes his hometown of Memphis as "sacred ground."

The makers and stars of "Memphis Beat" say they, too, consider the title city a sort of holy place, even if their program was shot almost entirely in New Orleans.

"We think of Memphis as one of the great American cities," said Joshua Harto, who created the series with his wife, writer Liz W. Garcia.

Memphians will be able to judge whether the makers of "Memphis Beat" are keepers of the flame or cultural carpetbaggers when the program -- described by TNT publicists as a "soulful blend" of "blues music, Southern charm and crime" -- debuts at 9 p.m. today on the cable network.

Tonight's episode -- about a scheme involving an elderly woman who was a legendary disc jockey on WHER (the program borrows the call letters from the "all-girl" radio station launched by Sam Phillips in 1955) -- is titled "That's All Right, Mama." All 10 first-season episodes are named for Elvis recordings. (If the series runs long enough, will we get to "Do the Clam" and "Yoga Is as Yoga Does"?)

"Memphis Beat" arrives less than two weeks after the Broadway production "Memphis" collected four Tony Awards, including best musical. Another Memphis music-inspired show, "Million Dollar Quartet," won a Tony for best featured actor.

Why is Memphis in the air these days, even in places too far away to smell the barbecue or fried chicken? (A box of Gus' chicken is seen on the dashboard of a police car in the premiere episode.)

"I had this idea of Memphis in my head, that it was sort of a city with two sides -- it has a vibrant, quirky fun side and a more complicated and, for lack of a better word, gritty side," said Harto, 31, who was born in Huntington, W. Va., and was introduced to Memphis music by a country musician grandfather.

"We wanted to make this show a balance of comedy and drama, so it seemed like Memphis was the perfect location," Harto said. "Once we decided on that, Memphis became the platform. Everything was born out of that."

"We want it to be a show that will make people laugh and make people cry," said Garcia, a writer on the CBS police procedural, "Cold Case." "So we've done it in a city that has had tragic events happen there, a city with a bit of haunted history, but also a city that has contributed so, so much in the way of vital American art."

Also an actor (he was the blackmailing Coleman Reese in "The Dark Knight"), Harto describes "Memphis Beat" as a "throwback" to the days when crime shows were "about character as opposed to the science of it all." He said "Memphis Beat" strives for a sort of "Rockford Files" vibe.

Produced by Warner Horizon Television and George Clooney's Smoke House Pictures, "Memphis Beat" casts Lee -- a year after the end of his NBC-TV series, "My Name Is Earl" -- as Dwight Hendricks, a police detective who listens to his instincts and does "not always do things by the book," an officer comments in the first episode.

Supporting characters include Dwight's new boss, a no-nonsense but maternal lieutenant (Alfre Woodard); Dwight's actual mother (Celia Weston), widowed since Dwight's police officer father was killed in the line of duty; and a Barney Fife-like patrolman (DJ Qualls, an actor with genuine Memphis experience thanks to his role in Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow").

"I love music and the South and the blues, and I remember being turned onto musicians like Robert Johnson and Otis Redding and Elvis early on, and just appreciating the South in general," said Lee, 40, who said he first visited Memphis during his pre-acting days, when he was a professional skateboarder and often "road-tripping."

"I was a little bit nervous (about playing Dwight), to be truthful about it, because I know people in the South are different, and I wanted to do it justice," Lee said. "There's a sincerity to this guy, and a sense of respect for his upbringing, and where he comes from. It's not about collecting a paycheck; he has a genuine desire to protect and serve." (TNT publicity describes Dwight as "the keeper of Memphis"; although Dwight is a singer who specializes in Elvis covers, he is not an Elvis impersonator, as frequently is reported.)

So far, about six of the 10 hourlong first-season episodes have been shot, on location and on sets in New Orleans. Some cast and crew members have been to Memphis a couple of times, however, to capture footage of characters cruising down Beale Street, contemplating the Mississippi River, rolling past the Pyramid, and so on. Lee said he and Sam Hennings, who plays Dwight's "old-school detective" partner, were in Memphis earlier this month with "the old 1964 GTO" that is Dwight's signature car, to film some establishing shots.

The soundtrack, meanwhile, is heavy with Memphis music. The premiere episode features more than a half-dozen relevant recordings, including "Time Is Tight" by Booker T. & the MGs, "Walking the Dog" by Rufus Thomas, "Born Under a Bad Sign" by Albert King and "Son of a Preacher Man" by Dusty Springfield, from her album Dusty in Memphis.

"Wherever we can be, we try to be faithful to Memphis geography, landmarks, restaurants and certainly the music," said Garcia, 33, who scripted the first two episodes of the series with Harto.

"The music really inspires the tone of the show, listening to all that great Sun and Stax music. ... We've done a lot of getting to know Elvis Presley the man, and Elvis as a young Southern gentleman who was also a pioneer and a rebel. That really inspired the character of Dwight. Singing is really cathartic for him. Some cops maybe drink too much or behave badly, but what Dwight does is, he sings, to have the inspiration and strength to go back to work every day." (Incidentally, Lee doesn't do his own singing in the series. "I went into the studio and laid down a couple of takes on a couple of songs, but it wasn't really there," he admits.)

Garcia and Harto both said they had hoped to shoot "Memphis Beat" in the town where it takes place, and they worked hard with the Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission to try to make it work. Ultimately, however, Louisiana's tax incentives for filmmakers were too generous to turn down, especially for such a modestly budgeted series. Also, Garcia and Harto said they doubted the local crew base was large and experienced enough to enable them to set up shop in Memphis without having to pay to relocate a lot of crew members -- and equipment -- for the months-long duration of the shoot. ("Memphis Beat" began filming in New Orleans in April, and is scheduled to complete the 10 episodes in July.)

"Frankly, it's frustrating as creators when you're trying to make something as authentic as possible, and when the city is such an important character in the show, not to be able to spend the majority of our time there," Harto said.

"We would love to be back in Memphis soon," Lee said. "Absolutely love it."

Watching 'Memphis'

"Memphis Beat" premieres at 9 tonight and repeats at 11 p.m. on cable channel TNT.

Watch parties for the premiere will be held at South of Beale, 361 S. Main, and Calhoun's Sports Bar & Grill, 115 E. G.E. Patterson.

Television Review 'Memphis Beat'

Take Your Time, Crime Will Wait

The New York Times
June 22, 2010

Darren Michaels/TNT
Jason Lee in a scene from “Memphis Beat,” a new crime drama that is set in the title city. Mr. Lee plays a police detective who also moonlights as a singer.

Slow Food, a movement that began in Italy in the 1980s as a protest against agribusiness and fast food, promotes organic farming and regional cooking. That cult of less-is-more parochialism spread to other fields, including tourism (Slow Travel) and investment (Slow Money).

Now there is Slow Television.

“Memphis Beat,” a crime drama that begins on Tuesday on TNT, is a classic procedural — unorthodox cop meets by-the-book lieutenant — framed by the smoky, neon-lit romance of the blues and Southern decay. Jason Lee (“My Name Is Earl”) plays Dwight Hendricks, a police detective who moonlights as an Elvis tribute singer, which is not to be confused with an Elvis impersonator. Dwight’s rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” in an after-hours bar is a respectful homage to the King, not a rip-off.

This series is to Memphis what the HBO series “Treme” is to New Orleans and “Justified” on FX is to Harlan County in Kentucky — timeless indigenous music is set against the exoticism of temporal subcultures. Atmosphere is the real hero of all these shows and music is the sidekick, be it R&B, jazz, or as is the case in “Justified,” bluegrass tinged with rap.

And that helps explain why George Clooney and his longtime collaborator Grant Heslov, who are better known for movies like “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” are executive producers of “Memphis Beat.” Their previous television series — “K Street” and “Unscripted” — were on HBO and mostly experimental. This TNT series tries to rise a little above the genre without veering too far from the cable network’s core cops-and-robbers curriculum.

It’s not a bad way to go. “Treme,” created by the same team that made “The Wire,” is broodier than “Memphis Beat” and far more ambitious, but it is also a lot less focused and digestible. The same is true of “Justified,” which is based on an Elmore Leonard story, but without the sizzle. These two series are too slow even for Slow Television. “Memphis Beat” is easier to follow, and certainly more lively.

Mr. Lee, in sideburns and cropped hair, gives Dwight some of the roguish charm of the character he played on “My Name Is Earl,” but in a more downbeat and restless register. Dwight reveres Memphis music and the Memphis way of life, but at times he is as weary and broken-down as the city he lives in.

He is protective of his mama, calls all women “sweetheart,” brakes for the Elvis impersonators that swarm into town for Elvis week, and has a Southern way with criminals. “I know the boss is busy but I’m going to need an audience with him,” he soothingly tells the bodyguard of a local Mr. Big. “You think you can make that happen for me?”

Dwight isn’t as deferential to his new boss, Lt. Tanya Rice (Alfre Woodard, “Three Rivers”), and when he disregards an order, he explains “how we do things down here.” She grows increasingly impatient with his breezy contempt for authority and his sloppy paperwork. “You know, you are not a single-cell organism,” she scolds. “We all live together on this coral reef.”

Dwight’s devotion to the blues is established in the premiere, in which a homicide case revolves around an abandoned, senile woman who turns out to have once been a legendary local D. J., famous for playing “Delta Hits From Three to Six.” Dwight is heartsick at what has become of her, and passionate in tracking down those who neglected and abused her. As she stares blankly into space, Dwight tries to tell her what the radio show did for him. For one thing, it introduced him to Elvis Presley. It also provided solace after the death of his father when he was still a child.

“You know how they talk about a ‘light in the darkness’?” he tells her. “I hung on every word you said, about Memphis, about it being sacred ground.”

And the filmmakers take a similarly reverent look at Memphis, shot at odd angles, in amber light. At times and in some frames — particularly icy-blue pulp from a slushie machine that spills to the ground during a robbery and into a puddle of blood — it looks like a foreigners’ romantic reinterpretation of the South, akin to Wim Wenders’s rendition of the far West in “Paris, Texas.”

The whodunit is not as sophisticated, but it comes at the end of all the prerequisite twists and feints. There are many new crime series on network television and cable coming up this summer and next fall; this one solves homicide cases to the sound of Otis Redding, B. B. King, and, of course, that other king.


TNT, Tuesday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.

Created and written by Joshua Harto and Liz W. Garcia; pilot directed by Clark Johnson; George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Ms. Garcia, Mr. Harto, Scott Kaufer, John Fortenberry and Mr. Johnson (pilot only), executive producers; Abby Wolf-Weiss and Sean Whitesell, co-executive producers; Cathy Frank, co-producer (pilot only); Keb’ Mo’, composer. Produced by Smokehouse Pictures and Warner Horizon Television.

WITH: Jason Lee (Dwight Hendricks), D J Qualls (Davey Sutton), Celia Weston (Paula Ann Hendricks), Sam Hennings (Charlie White), Leonard Earl Howze (Reginald Greenback), Abraham Benrubi (Sgt. J C Lightfoot) and Alfre Woodard (Lt. Tanya Rice).

Memphis Beat Hits the Right Note

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.

June 22, 2010 - by Jim Kearney

In this publicity image released by TNT, Jason Lee stars as Dwight Hendricks, a Memphis police detective, left, and Alfre Woodard stars as Celia Weston in "Memphis Beat," which premieres Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 10 p.m. EDT on TNT. (Associated Press / June 18, 2010)

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 clich├ęs: 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.

Jim Kearney, a television critic for Pajamas Media, teaches Mass Media and Television Programming at Loyola Marymount University. A former TV critic for KPCC-FM and The Hollywood Reporter, he has also worked as a TV executive and consultant. He is on the web at

No comments: