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Memphis Beat - "Pilot"

Here's something for your grandkids: Jason Lee used to be cool. Seriously. He was a skate-boarder, for chrissake, and when he started showing up in Kevin Smith movies, he was so laid back about it, y'know? Like, "Oh hey, let's be sarcastic for a while and somebody'll pay me money. Sounds cool." Lee had presence, and he was easy to relate to, and he had this great way of delivering pissy rants that somehow made him more sympathetic. Anyway, I always dug him, from Mallrats to Chasing Amy to Dogma, even when I stopped being a big Kevin Smith fan. Lee struck me as the guy I actually wanted to show up when I heard Ryan Reynolds name: same level of snark, but minus the douchey self-importance and hundred dollar highlights. (Actually, Reynolds is getting better. Insert Dane Cook into that comparison, if it pleases you.)

Then Lee started getting work in non-Smith related films, and while some of those roles were able to capitalize on his persona (Syndrome in The Incredibles, Jeff Bebe in Almost Famous), there were distressing compromises--I'm sure Dreamcatcher looked good on paper, but sweet zombie Jeebus was it awful, and the less said about Stealing Harvard (with Tom Green!) and A Guy Thing, the better. Lee's first big television role was as redneck-Buddhist Earl Hickey in My Name Is Earl, and while the show wasn't always terrific, Lee was great in it. The role was a little softer than his usual persona, but it him, and it proved he could play a character who wasn't just a slight variation on himself in an on-going series. Lee could carry a show. 

So here comes Memphis Beat, and, well, it's a TNT cop drama so I'm not going to lie to you and say my expectations were high. The cast gave me hopes, because it seems like I haven't seen Alfre Woodard in much of anything lately, and DJ Qualls is pleasant enough. And Lee, of course. After Underdog and those Alvin and the Chipmunks movies, the guy deserves an artistic break. Why not a quirky, low-key procedural with lots of local flavor, wry wit, and the occasional Elvis reference? It doesn't have to be genius to be pleasant. And just because the idea of a police detective moonlighting as a singer in a honky tonk bar has that "look, we've gotta have some kind of hook, don't we?" vibe that some network shows get (like "it's just like every other cop show, but they're all rookies!" or "it's just like every other medical drama, only they're doctors!") doesn't mean it can't make for passable escapist television. I don't really watch that much background noise TV these days, but I recognize the place for it, and it's a weird comfort that, say, NCIS is still going strong. At least I'll always know what my parents are watching. (Things were stressful when JAG went off the air.)

Truth be told, Beat could wind up as a breezy distraction down the road, but the pilot episode (which airs tonight on TNT) doesn't really bode well, and even with my expectations significantly lowered, I wasn't much impressed. The mystery here is passable, although there's nothing to distinguish it from the dozens of Law & Order knock-offs that populate the airwaves, and the actors are never exactly embarrassing, but--well, the opening scene has Lee, as Detective Dwight Hendricks, arriving at a convenience store after a hold-up that turned into a murder. The cop on the scene, Qualls (who doesn't get much to do, but seems to be sort of a Barney-Fife-in-training), is convinced that the suspect has already fled the scene, but Dwight, after poking around, decides otherwise. He eventually finds the bad guy hiding next to a hot-dog grill, there's a thoroughly un-tense stand-off, and then the bad guy, a wiry little dude covered in tattoos, surrenders. When he raises his hands, his pants fall down, Dwight tells Qualls to frisk him, aaaaaand scene.

Opening sequences don't have to be brilliant. Not everything can be Tony Soprano meeting his psychiatrist, or McNulty learning Snot Boogie's sad fate. But they should be clever and interesting enough to encourage you to keep watching, and this scene isn't. It's not funny, either: Qualls' ineptitude is bizarre, Lee's efforts at bad-assery are strained, and the falling pants gag, which should provide the perfect end note to a wacky criminal misadventure, is almost suicidally depressing. Worst of all, there's no flavor in any of this. There's nothing distinctive or heartfelt. It's the visual equivalent of oatmeal.

Memphis Beat has two main problems it's going to need to overcome if it wants to be watchable: it needs a reason to exist, and it needs to figure out how to use Jason Lee. The pilot strains to get as much local color in as it can, tying the main plot around the abuse of an elderly woman with a personal connection to Dwight, but it's all the sort of generic references you'd expect: Elvis, heat, fried food, and, shockingly, a local police force that gets by more on heart and gut instinct than paperwork, regulation following, and due process. In pursuit of the truth, Dwight breaks half a dozen laws, rendering nearly every piece of evidence he discovers unusable in court. That could make for some decent drama, especially with Woodard as the newly installed Lieutenant who's determined to be as by the book as possible, but apart from the two characters having some spot-the-cliche debates, Dwight's rash behavior goes unmentioned. There's no premise here, and that makes getting through even these decently paced forty minutes tougher than it should be. 

Even that's surmountable, though. A hook can develop over time, especially with something as familiar and easy to slip into as a cop show. If Beat had the characters, it could let its voice develop, but it doesn't. Woodard, always a terrific actress, comes off the best; her scenes with Dwight, predictable or not, have the beginning of chemistry, and she seems to be having a laugh about the whole situation, which is fun to watch. Everybody else is professional, but underused. Do you think Dwight has a partner who tries to keep him in check, but trusts he knows what's best? You'd be right. Do you think Dwight has a fiesty Southern mother he visits regularly, and that there will be jokes about her sex life? Guess. (Although this does take a decent turn at the end, of half a point for that.)

Really, though, it's Dwight himself that's the issue. I said before, I like Lee, and he used to be a lot of fun to watch. He seems miscast here. Not so horrendously that you'd notice right off, but about halfway through the episode, I realized I still didn't have any idea who Dwight was. He's a suit-filler, a Television Detective who lives for his job and always gets obsessively involved in his cases, even when his boss repeatedly orders him to stand down. I'm not sure anyone could make this brilliant, but Lee is painfully wasted in too many scenes, twitching and flop-sweating his way through interrogations and antics like he wants to do well, but isn't sure how. (He has to give a maudlin, miserable speech at one point about how important it is to track down the serial abuser of an eighty-something year-old woman. Because apparently, police officers don't normally give a shit about that sort of thing.) 

There are a couple moments that demonstrate how this could work. In one, Dwight explains to someone why they had such an important effect on his life, and in another, he has to figure out alternative methods to question an eight-year old girl. Neither are brilliant, but for those brief minutes, you see the actor actually getting comfortable, opening up, and just letting himself breathe a little. If Beat lightens the tone, makes Memphis more than just a photocopy of New Orleans, and works to Lee's strengths, it could fix itself. I doubt it will rock anyone's world, but it could theoretically not suck at a future date.

Until I hear otherwise, though, I won't be coming back. The episode ends with Dwight showing off his vocal stylings to an appreciative crowd, but when he opens his mouth to sing, it sounds like somebody else's voice--on pitch and in rhythm, but bland and soulless. That's pretty much this in a nutshell.

Stray Observations:

  • All right, one other point in the show's favor: I did like the way they short-cutted the last chase scene.