A few months back, Entertainment Weekly ran an article on the long history of Hollywood’s various attempts to sequelize the 1985 Chevy Chase crime comedy Fletch. For years, apparently, Kevin Smith tried to reboot the series with acting pal Jason Lee (Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Clerks II). It’s a bummer that particular pairing never happened, because it sounds awesome. Lee is an underrated talent. His work on NBC’s white trash sitcom “My Name Is Earl,” for example, was impeccable. But the guy only seems to hit the big time when he signs onto junk like Alvin and the Chipmunks. So until Alvin and the Chipmunks 3 gets the green light, Lee has found himself a home on TNT.
Lee headlines the new police procedural “Memphis Beat.” It’s another colorful but formulaic crime solver series custom tailored to fit alongside TNT’s other weekly offerings (“Saving Grace,” “The Closer,” “Leverage,” “Dark Blue”). Lee plays Dwight Hendricks, a Memphis police detective whose laid-back attitude belies some brilliant cop instincts. As with basically all cop shows, our hero’s roguish, easygoing style rubs his uptight new boss (Alfre Woodard) the wrong way.
With the show’s workplace dynamic in place, we need some family backstory. We get that in the form of Celia Weston (TV Land addicts will remember her as Jolene on “Alice”). She plays Dwight’s mama, with whom he shares a close/overprotective relationship. Finally, a little character quirk is in order; so in addition to being a police detective, our protagonist is a (not-so-convincingly dubbed) singer in an Elvis cover band (a fact that barely even comes up in the pilot).
The initial mystery that “Memphis Beat” offers up (elder abuse with a side order of fraud) isn’t anything too spectacular, but it does point up the show’s preoccupation: Memphis history and culture. While investigating an elderly female disc jockey who helped introduce rock and roll to Memphis, Dwight gets to talk a lot about how much he loves the city and its musical legacy. The bluesy soundtrack, the frequent shots of barbecue joints and the endless Elvis references give “Memphis Beat” a certain style. But they also reduce the city to a caricature on a tourist brochure. The flavor is great, but a little more meat on the bone would serve this series well.
The cast is solid enough. In addition to Lee and Woodard, we get welcome character actors D.J. Qualls (Road Trip) and Abraham Benrubi (“ER”) as a couple of uniformed cops. But the overall writing is spotty. It doesn’t (in the pilot, anyway) nail down a consistent, credible voice. For example: Given Lee’s comedic résumé, “Memphis Beat” plays awfully straight. While an Elvis-impersonating cop in Memphis sounds wacky, it ain’t. Lee keeps a straight face, but he looks somewhat pained doing it.
“Memphis Beat” has a slick look, offers an inviting setting and boasts a colorful cast of characters. ... Now, if it would just loosen up and have fun with the premise, it might be an enjoyable show.